Insurers may subsidize your smart home, but which device?

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The wealth of data and convenience a connected home can offer is impressive. Saving energy or adding security are primary reasons consumers are buying connected products today, but businesses are interested as well. One of the earliest industries to investigate the promise of connected consumer homes is the insurance industry, which is looking at the benefits of getting consumers to put water sensors around leak-prone areas or even just add additional security products or better smoke detectors in a home to help improve safety.

In this week’s podcast I spoke with Dan Reed, managing director at American Family Ventures, the venture capital arm of American Family Insurance. AmFam as it’s known, has 10 million policies and insures homes, cars and small businesses. Reed has invested in several internet of things companies and is looking to make more investment sin early-stage companies, so we talked about what he’s looking for as well as what role the interest of things will play in the future of the insurance industry. Before Reed and I chat, Kevin I answer a few questions from the mailbag and discuss Gizmodo’s terrible experience with the Wink hub, and why it’s such a blow for the industry.

Hosts: Stacey Higginbotham and Kevin Tofel
Guests: Dan Reed, managing director, American Family Ventures

  • The smart is still really dumb and that hurts everyone.
  • Kevin and I answer your mailbag questions on presence, Insteon and more.
  • Insurance companies are testing connected devices in the home. Will they subsidize them?
  • What data should an insurer see from your home or your car?

 

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PREVIOUS IoT PODCASTS:

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Smart coffee makers, cheap light bulbs and better voice control

Hanging with my husband: His thoughts on our smart home

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Mother may I? Building hardware that can change with the flip of an app.

Here’s how GE plans to make your older appliances smart

GE Appliance is sending out 20,000 Wi-Fi modules to let customers connect older refrigerators to the Wink smart home system, according to a Wink executive who will work with the appliance maker.

In an interview last month Brett Worthington, VP and general manager at Wink, let slip that the shipment would occur as part of a Wink software and hardware update that adds a ton of sensor capabilities. GE Appliance customers with refrigerators purchased after 2009 can plug the modules into the RJ45 ports on their appliances in order to connect them to the Wink system.

The RJ45 port is a networking port more familiar to routers or switches, but it can be found on newer appliances. Wink owners might be familiar with it, because they currently attach the Rheem connected water heater module to their water heaters the same way.

The GE Connect box won’t cover every model of fridge that GE has made since 2009 — only select models with the port. And so far, this is only a pilot program for those few households, with the goal of getting those 20,000 users to connect their fridges, register them and then tell GE what they think.

Wink will help build applications for connected refrigerators, and Worthington says the company has come up with a few ideas, such as virtual sticky notes that could remind people of their grocery lists or meetings on their phones — or even a note to a spouse or child about what is okay or not okay to eat from the fridge that day. Other ideas include notifications if the door is ajar or whether or not the ice maker is full. Worthington didn’t say much beyond that.

But the pilot is worth noting, not just because GE is such a huge player, but also because Whirlpool is teaming up to work with Wink and may also be looking for ideas for retrofits.

As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of smarter homes and smart appliances, but I’m a relatively frugal person who isn’t going to toss out my current dishwasher, refrigerator, oven or washer and dryer just so I can purchase one with Wi-Fi. And GE, which recently launched a line of new smart appliances, is well aware of that issue, which is why taking advantage of an existing port and attaching a module makes sense. It’s a strategy that Xiaomi seems to be following in China, too.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait to hear more from GE Appliance on this issue. I only wish I had a GE fridge with its own networking port. Sadly, it’s a Samsung, and I couldn’t see anything resembling an ethernet jack.

Wink’s rocky launch hasn’t stopped it from gaining market share

Wink, the relatively new company that spun out from Quirky to sell connected home devices and software, is looking to be a serious contender in the home automation sector with the launch of new devices next month and a successful holiday season. In an interview this week with Brett Worthington, VP and general manager at Wink, he said that Wink added more than 3,000 hubs a day on Black Friday and Christmas Day and a new user every 12 seconds (there are more users than hubs because some devices don’t require a hub to work). Those customers added 3.5 devices per account.

He also listed an array of new devices we can expect support for included Z-wave and ZigBee sensors as well as new garage door openers from Quirky and Linear. We’ll see those in the beginning of February in Home Deport stores and supported in the app as part of an app update.

So let’s talk about the bump in user numbers over the holiday. Currently I’m seeing that on the Android side about 50,000 people have downloaded the app according to the tally in the Play store. In most home automation setups involving hubs, iOS users are about 60 or 70 percent of the user base, but I don’t know what Wink’s breakdown is specifically, and Worthington wouldn’t give me the user numbers. However, thanks to the partnership with Home Depot, the Wink hub and devices are in stores nationwide, and aggressive pricing over the holidays may have pushed people to give Wink a try.

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The promotions Home Depot ran over the holidays — buy two connected devices and get a hub for $0.99 — were similar to the deal it ran when the hub launched last June, but maybe folks were just in the gift-giving mood or ready to give home automation a whirl. This is impressive, especially given the horrible reviews that Wink received after its launch last July.

An eye on security

The hub was also hacked last summer at Defcon, and there are several posts that show you how to root the Wink hub so you can control your own device to avoid sending your data to the cloud. Yet these issues have not stopped the Wink from finding an audience, so I wanted to find out from Kauffman what we can expect from Wink. The answer is: quite a bit.

First up is security. The company announced at CES that it hired Brian Knopf, who handled security at Belkin, to help it ensure that problems like the Defcon issue (which was immediately dealt with) don’t happen again. One of the problems with the device security came from trying to get the hub out so quickly in the first place, Worthington admitted. The hub, which was manufactured by Flextronics, originally contained software for the embedded side that Flextronics engineers wrote.

“We built that hub with Flextronics very quickly,” said Worthington. “There were a couple firmware bugs and Wink fixed it. We’ve also rewritten some of things we found that [Flextronics] did that weren’t necessarily breaches but that we wanted to make better.”

The Wink hub and GE Link lights.

The Wink hub and GE Link lights.

Some of those included changing some of the radio software so the radio used for the Kidde smoke detectors could also talk to other devices that used that frequency. Wink has kept users up to date on the security software by forcing users to update their hubs if they want to add new devices. In general it’s just good tech hygiene to update your connected device firmware when requested, given all of the security weaknesses being discovered in them.

Giving users more sensor options

The second thing Wink is improving is the roster of devices. On February 2, it will launch several new connected products with an emphasis on new sensors — something currently lacking in the current line up of supported devices. They include a glass break sensor, open/close sensors called Tripper that will sell for $40 for a 2-pack, and a motion sensor. The nice thing about the sensors is that by adding these it also opens up the Wink to other Z-wave and ZigBee sensors in that device class, so those of you with ZigBee devices that support the Home Automation 1.2 version of the spec can use those with the Wink hub and those with Z-wave open/close and motion sensors should also be able to use those as well.

tripper

Wink will also launch a ZigBee connected outlet that will be installed in the wall, and should then let people use other ZigBee connected outlets. That will be nice because right now we’re kind of limited to the Z-wave outlets that sit under the light switch section or the GE Quirky Pivot Power option. Finally we’ll see two new garage door opener options, the GE Quirky Ascend option and support for a new connected option from Linear, which is now called the GoControl Garage Door Controller.

Some of the new products coming on February 2 are available on the Wink store but aren’t supported yet in the app. But as of that date they should be supported in the app and soon after will be in Home Deport stores nationwide. and later this year we’ll also see some other improvements from Wink including a new version of the hub hardware that should get users better control over their Philips Hue lighting with intelligence built into the hub as well as a partnership with Whirlpool that was announced at CES.

It may have launched quickly and with some really bad reviews, but a big marketing effort and some serious investment in the product could mean that Wink becomes a real threat in the home automation space despite those early flaws.

GE’s new smart appliances are cool, but where are my retrofits?

GE is introducing some smart appliances designed to save time and energy at CES in Las Vegas this week, but all I can wonder as I gaze into my more productive and energy-efficient future is “Where are my retrofits?” The appliance giant has added several new products to its line of connected home goods including a connected water heater, which lacks wow but could save on wages thanks to being able to lower your water heater’s temperature when you’re not around.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering how long we’ll have to wait before we can see the benefits of such efficiencies across a wide scale. I just bought new appliances in 2012 for a new home, so I’m not replacing any of them for a decade or so. That’s why I’m keen to see retrofits that might help make my ovens, washers and dryers a bit smarter.

Currently GE offers a line of connected wall ovens that lets you start pre-heating an oven when you’re on your drive home, for example. It’s now adding several other connected appliances such as a french door-style bottom-freezer refrigerator available in April 2015; a connected dishwasher available in late 2015; a washer and dryer available in May 2015; and the GeoSpring water heater available in February 2015.

Each appliance will work with its own app as well as with the GE Quirky Wink hub and associated devices. GE touted features like knowing when your dishwasher gets blocked by an errant plate or pot or begins to leak. You also get notices about your clothes in your washer and dryer so you don’t let wrinkles set in or leave your clothes in the washer so long that they develop mildew (guilty). Today reminders are the focus, but GE will quickly move to optimizations designed around how you live your life and even efforts to help you save energy by working with other appliances is my guess.

For example, during an energy-savings event set by your utility, your thermostat might notify your dryer to hold off for a bit or even negotiate between your dryer, A/C and your dishwasher over whose job gets precedence during a peak demand time. Such scenarios are the future in the smart home, and we should start preparing ways to implement them that lets the consumer have a say in how their data is used and how such negotiations play out.

On the water heater side, there are devices like this one from Aquanta or this one from Rheem, but there is little to retrofit a fridge or a washer or dryer to make it smarter. I covered a Kickstarter that tried to make ovens a bit smarter, but it failed.

At CES some Italian engineers are showing off a system of pads that you place food on inside the fridge, called Smart Qsine. The pads may be reasonably priced at between $15 and $50 for each smart pad you want to use (you need one pad per item you want to track, so you can’t track everything). They should be available in April 2015. I also like the idea of a strategically placed camera inside a fridge, although the darkness is a challenge, as is the cold (which drains batteries) and the door (which blocks wireless signals.)

Side note on the fridge stuff, GE Appliances has a partnership Local Motors called FirstBuild which is a place where makers can get together to build community-designed appliances and things that can plug into them. The first product, called the ChillHub is being shown at CES and is on sale for $2,999 now, and seems kind of awesome if you like geeking out and puns. Check it out here, but I’ll just point out that one of the add-ons is a scale like the SmartQsine folks have called the Milky Weigh, which is designed for weighing your milk jug and reporting back to your smart phone when you need to pick up more.

So, while I expect a lot more smart appliances at the show and not a lot of immediate availability or pricing. I am hoping to see some creative retrofits, because that’s what I think will get people to adopt the internet of things in more depth. Meanwhile, I look forward to 2023 when I can maybe replace my aging appliances with connected ones. By then, perhaps we’ll have this standards stuff all worked out.

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