Hardware is the new front for startups, as rapid prototyping technology has become more accessible to individuals. Microcontrollers are becoming accessible to web programmers. CAD something, upload it online, and, within days, you’ll have a three-dimensional prototype at your door. The internet also makes it easier to outsource manufacturing (although that world is certainly a mystery to someone who's primarily worked in digital products). Kickstarter and Indiegogo have become places for the more promising projects to be funded by other individuals, enabling entrepreneurs to get capital without having to go to a VC. It is now relatively simple to create internet-enabled devices with either WiFi or a cellular network, and we’ve entered the era of the smartphone-as-universal-controller; small wonder entrepreneurs and larger manufacturers alike are taking notice of the potential of so-called “smart” devices.
Lighting is one of the first things we've seen become internet-enabled. My apartment has mostly Phillips Hue LED bulbs, which are also sold at Apple stores as accessories for your tablet or smartphone. From my iPhone, I can control my lights-- not only turn them on/off, but adjust colors and dim them as needed. Coupled with IFTTT, the lights turn blue when it's going to rain and I like them on a bit after sunset (there are ton of other recipes that you can put together or use for your own home). The only problem is that it does confuse housesitters, so we had to put together a guide to our apartment, which hopefully isn't as pretentious as it sounds. Other alternatives in this space include LIFX, which made waves a few years ago when it was able to raise $1.3 million through Kickstarter. iLumi is similarly backed by Kickstarter, though at a smaller magnitude, and is managed via Bluetooth. Insteon's been dimming lightbulbs from iOS and Android devices for a while now. I'm sure you can find an alternative for your own particular problems around lighting.
Sonte's tackling window control -- not through automated blinds, which we've seen in various hacks and more expensive installations, but through a film over your windows. which you can control through your phone. They were Kickstarted in June, and hopefully will be shipping soon (to my place, please!). You can also put them over mirrors as well, and create projection surfaces wherever. Why bother with a TV set if you can get a pretty awesome projector?
Of course, Japan's obsession with toilets has given way to creating various autonomous toilets with lots of buttons and switches. The next step, obviously, is a Bluetooth-enabled toilet called Satis that you can control with your Android device. However, it seems just a tad over my price range for a toilet and has been reported to be hackable. Prime for April Fool's, I suppose.
Nest's thermostat is one of the most beautiful thermostats that I've ever seen, and would love to outfit my home with them, but I currently live in a place with 4 thermostats. At $250 a piece, that's a pretty penny to upgrade. I love that it learns from how you use it to figure out a schedule, instead of requiring you to fiddle with programming. Nest also recently launched a smoke and carbon dioxide alarm which looks pretty sweet, especially considering the fritzy alarm system that I'm stuck with.
Moving onto the kitchen where that smoke alarm would be of most use, I’ve recently been eyeing this cutting board from Sharp that can help you portion out ingredients for your cooking. It doesn't seem like it's ready for mass-market yet, but it would be a shiny addition to my kitchen. I'm a bit more ambivalent about a Milkmaid in my fridge, to let me know when the milk's gone bad-- I'm not sure how useful it'd be. Seems like a fun crowdsourced product though, by Quirky and GE. There are also bands that would go around jugs and other containers to judge how much things are used via accelerometer and other sensors, allowing me to easily restock or use my phone to see how much I have left.
I absolutely love my Sonos in the kitchen, living room... pretty much anywhere. There are other competitors in this space, including Bose, which just recently announced their SoundTouch system. I've tried daisy-chaining my Jamboxes, and took a look at Squeezebox (before it was discontinued), but Sonos does everything I want well: playlists combining Spotify, Hype Machine, my Apple library, and tons of other sources, playing to one or multiple speakers simultaneously, waking me up with music or a scheduled daily dance party, and playing my record player or AppleTV throughout the apartment. Mind, it's a pricey investment on some decent speakers, but you can also enable your own set of speakers through a Connect, and the system's relatively flexible for your own setup.
There's also a pretty fierce battle along the control-everything lines. Usually this means a connector between your device and the plug, such as Belkin's WeMo switches that you can control from their apps. WeMo also created light switches, motion detectors, baby monitors, and will continue creating modules that monitor your energy use as well as provide convenience. I'm also excited for Smart Power Strip to be Kickstarted soon. One of the bigger creators of entire home automation systems is Crestron, which now has apps to control more specialized devices. Fibaro is also in this space along with a bunch of others, but it can also use GPS to trigger certain things like your heating system.
A bit more low-tech, but fairly cool, is Outbox. When I was traveling a bit more, I used this awesome service to get my mail and scan it for me. I know, it sounds crazy. But it was nice to not worry about missing mail when I was away, and it was easy to request pieces of mail that I wanted or advertisements that weren't scanned. I desperately want USPS to partner with them, so mail wouldn't even have to be sent to my apartment and maybe they wouldn't run such a deficit.
To secure all of this tech, we've had cameras for quite a while. For a mobile-enabled generation, Piper looks like a beautiful app coupled with a camera and environmental sensors to let you know if things have changed or if it's detected audial or motion changes. Of course, the efficacy of this is subject to the actual security behind the tech.
Giving access to certain people is still important, and I preordered a Lockitron ages ago. At my current place though, it doesn't fit any of the locks. So I had to cancel my order. It was pretty sad, considering it would be awesome to give access to friends or family when I'm out of town or just out at lunch. (You can also revoke access.) I also love the idea of their bundle with Doorbot: Doorbot shows you who is at your door, so you can open the Lockitron if the visitor doesn't have a smartphone or what not.
It's quite clear that phones are the access points to control things around you, at least in the United States. Of course, this dynamic could change in other markets, where phone usage differs. It feels like a long time coming, and I'm so excited to see what else comes in this ripe market for really interesting products to make my life easier. The confluence of home automation and the sharing economy will make things almost as easy as they’d be with a full household staff taking care of you, and certainly more accessible. And it’s not just ease for the sake of ease: these applications will help carve out more time to focus on creating and on leisure.