Automate your home for under a grand

Nest's thermostat is a whole lot smarter, and sexier, than its clunky gray predecessor.

Nest’s thermostat is a whole lot smarter, and sexier, than its clunky gray predecessor.

The idea of “smart” technology seems a bit silly. If stupid is the opposite of smart, then what is stupid technology? Why would anyone seek to create technology that isn’t smart?

The pervasiveness of “smart” technology comes from devices like the one I’m typing this on — a phone. But it’s far more than just a phone; in fact, the phone is simply one of the many, many things I can do with this multitouch bundle of sensors, brushed aluminum and high resolution screen.

For innovation around devices with a seemingly singular function, look no further than the gradual evolution of the technology inside our homes.

Belkin's WeMo Switch provides simple automation for any electronics plugged in to it.

Belkin’s WeMo Switch provides simple automation for any electronics plugged in to it.

It started with a fridge that became a water cooler, then an ice machine too. Now, we have no-fuss, instant coffeemakers that require no filter and no beans, just a little plastic pod. Our TVs are “smart” now, mostly because they can connect to the Internet and do more than just show television.

With Nest, the pace of innovation in the home has been taken to a whole new level. What Nest has done to the thermostat, that clunky gray rectangle on the hallway wall, is akin to what Apple did with the portable music player and then the cell phone. Before the iPhone, there were touch screens and Internet connectivity on a cell phone, but nothing that resonated. Nothing that truly caught on. Nothing that sparked a revolution in mobile technology.

Temperature control doesn’t seem very appealing at first pass. But with the looming threat of global warming and “being green” equivalent to “being cool,” the brains behind the iPod decided to tackle just that. No screwing around with a bunch of hard-to-press buttons and a tiny digital screen. Instead, turn the bright blue Nest thermostat like you were adjusting the volume on an iPod or the temperature in your car.

For not much more than the cost of a smartphone, Nest can track energy consumption in a home and start saving you money by learning behaviors and turning on only when needed. You can preheat your place before arrival and never worry about turning off the air.

There’s even an app, Nest Leaf, that acts as a remote control for your thermostat from anywhere in the world. The gas and electric bill should no longer be a shock with up to the minute tracking and month to month energy usage comparisons.

With such a smart device, the next generation of intelligent, learning in-home gadgets will likely be ushered in over the next 10 years.

It’s not hard to imagine the lights turning off automatically when we leave, with an app to program the living room lamp to stay on at night during vacation.

In fact, for 50 bucks, you can do just that. Belkin’s WeMo line includes an outlet and motion detector, which can even be used together to power electronics off and on remotely. Anything plugged into a WeMo switch can even be scheduled to activate, so you can always leave the lights on when you go away.

The Lockitron enables wireless control over you existing door locks.

The Lockitron enables wireless control over you existing door locks.

Worried you forgot to lock the door? Try Lockitron. With options as low as $295, you can set your door to lock automatically behind you and unlock as soon as you’re near. If the kids forgot their keys or you need to let the neighbor in to feed the cats, this simple to set up hardware and software combination will do the trick. That is, if you haven’t already automated your pet feeding too.

Cars have already integrated a lot of this technology, from auto locking, remote control ignition, and even a built-in personal assistant, a la Siri or something similar. It’s not hard to imagine a day when the home is smart enough to make our lives simpler, more enjoyable and more effective.

But new cars are manufactured every year and that’s hardly the case with front doors or kitchen appliances. The trick is finding an affordable way to upgrade an existing system. Between Nest, WeMo, and Locktron, you can automate your house now for less than a grand.

A social sharing app that won’t sell you out

A new iPhone app, Digisocial, lets your share your voice with your photos.

A new iPhone app, Digisocial, lets your share your voice with your photos.

Just-launched iPhone app Digisocial adds a new wrinkle to social photo sharing: audio.

Take Instagram’s photo sharing and social network, add Soundcloud’s audio streaming capabilities and you’ve got Digisocial, which made its international debut in the Apple App Store January 16.

It’s not quite video, but it’s more than photo. In fact, they even coined a term for what exactly it is you’ll be sharing when you download the app: voicephotos. With apps like Snapchat gaining popularity in the social photo sharing community and Facebook adding phone calls through its Messenger application, the heat is on.

So how does it work?

Digisocial allows you to snap or upload an image on your smartphone, then record some sound to pair with it. You could sign or laugh, cry or scream. So far, there seem to be a lot of cute kittens paired with both fake and real meowing.

Tap share, and you can blast your voicephoto into the socialverse via the usual Twitter and Facebook integration. And, to alleviate privacy concerns from the get-go, you can choose to share to the public, friends or only yourself.

“We wanted to provide an alternative, that from a technical and functional perspective was just as advanced, but they [users] don’t have to worry about being treated like a product,” said Marco Mereu, VP of Communications for Digisocial.

Do I own my content?

Mereu summarized the app’s concept succinctly: “It’s a digital, ad-free audio image sharing app,” he told me over the phone midway through a busy launch day.

Mereu explained that Digisocial wants to carve its own path in the social sharing world by never sharing user information, providing it to third parties or selling user content. “Your content belongs to you,” he confirmed. See for yourself: digisocial.com has links to the privacy policy and terms and conditions.

The focus on privacy comes at a time when users and the media are just getting over Instagram’s terms and conditions kerfuffle.

What about down the line? They’re going to have to make money somehow

The East Coast startup is self-funded, so monetization is not an immediate priority, according to Mereu.

Instead, they’re concentrating on the user experience. That means an emphasis on fun, simple and engaging ways to share and connect.

Down the road, Mereu said, they’re thinking about layering enhanced functionalities like more storage, ways to share, features, or games.

Whatever happens, Digisocial says it will remain free and honor your privacy at all costs.

Who will use it?

So far, there are more cats and scantily clad women than anything.

However, the audio does add a very personal addition to what people are already sharing online. Plus, you can post audio comments.

It’s easy to see creative uses for the app, many of which have yet to be dreamed up.

For starters, I could see models, who have already established significant followings on Instagram, using the audio as another way to interact with fans.

Photographers and photojournalists could tell the story behind their images.

News organizations like NPR could use Digisocial as another platform for sharing the news. The push to record audio feature could be used to capture natural sound, breaking news, or even a full-fledged radio report. There is no limit to the length of audio that can be recorded, but there is no ability to upload an existing audio track — at least, not yet.

Check out my first post here and give the app a whirl yourself.