This Startup is Trying to Create—and Control—the Internet of Your Home

Illustration by Martin Gee for TIME SmartThings at a glance

Inside SmartThings' plan to revolutionize how we live, one connection at a time

Alex Hawkinson’s house knows how to make his day.

As the 41-year-old father of two gets out of bed, the lights flicker on and the air temperature starts to warm. He walks down the stairs, and a Siri-like voice greets him from his Sonos sound system: “Today’s forecast is …” By the time he reaches for his mug of coffee–it began brewing automatically–that woman’s voice has morphed into an NPR broadcast, and Hawkinson is checking his phone, which will receive a text if his 4-year-old son runs out the front door before breakfast. Should Hawkinson open the liquor cabinet, intentionally or not, his house will object. “Isn’t it a wee bit early?”

If Hawkinson has his way, every family in the U.S. will be living like this within the next decade or so. And it will be largely thanks to his company, SmartThings, which has built a first-of-its-kind platform that allows the objects in your home–doors, locks, lightbulbs, even sprinkler systems–to talk to one another and prioritize your needs. Its only requirements: a smartphone, a $200 starter kit (including sensors and a hub they sync with) and a wild imagination.

“We’re at the outset of this wave where … your home can give you security, peace of mind and more,” Hawkinson says. “Eventually, everything that should be connected will be connected.”

If this narrative sounds familiar, that’s because it is: companies have been promising the dawn of the smart home–a futuristic dwelling full of gadgets working seamlessly to satisfy your every whim–since the ’50s. Yet early efforts failed to deliver because of clunky tech and consumer wariness.

SmartThings, which launched in 2012, has arrived amid a legitimate sea change in home automation. In the past few years, the rise of cloud computing has made it easier than ever to build gadgets that connect to the so-called Internet of Things, meaning they can be monitored and controlled from afar, usually with their own smartphone app. There’s also been an uptick in the production of sensors and devices that enable you to smartify objects that are dumb. (Think plugging a desk lamp into an adapter controlled by your phone, or rigging a door with a motion detector that pings you about intruders.) By 2018, the research firm IHS Technology predicts, people will have installed 45 million smart-home services. “We’re really starting to see major volume here,” says Lisa Arrowsmith, an IHS associate director. “It’s an exciting time.”

But the race to make those gadgets and sensors work together has only just begun. Much as Google and Yahoo created search engines as a way to bring order to the Internet in the ’90s, startups and established players alike–including Apple, AT&T and Google–are now enabling you to command the Internet of your home. Whoever creates the most compelling platform will not only revolutionize how we live but also command a huge share of what’s expected to be a $12 billion annual business within five years.

SmartThings, though smaller and less resource-rich than the tech titans, is well positioned to lead the pack. Unlike bigger companies, it doesn’t have an established business model to protect, so it can reimagine the connected home from scratch. And unlike other smart-home startups like Revolv, it already has thousands of civilian developers working to make novel apps for the products it connects–enabling you to make your speakers bark, for example, if your cat jumps on the kitchen table.

But to go mainstream, SmartThings and its rivals will have to convince a lot of people that’s it’s safe–and worthwhile–to trust their home life to technology. For all its hype, the full-service smart home is still very niche; less than 1% of U.S. households own that kind of system. And as with the Internet, the idea of extreme connectivity comes with real concerns about security and privacy. As Hawkinson puts it, “How do you avoid the creepy factor?”

Like many great ideas, SmartThings arose from disaster. In February 2011, Hawkinson and his family arrived in Leadville, Colo., for what they thought would be a relaxing weekend at their vacation home–only to find the interior caked in ice. The pipes had frozen and burst, and the repair bill came to $100,000. “How is it possible that someone hasn’t created something I could plug in,” Hawkinson wondered at the time, “that would alert me when something went wrong?”

The veteran entrepreneur gathered some friends and used a holiday slush fund to start developing what would eventually become the SmartThings hub: a wi-fi-enabled device about the size of a smoke detector that syncs with almost any connected gadget or sensor, allowing users to program their homes from a single app. When paired with a moisture detector, for example, SmartThings could be set to automatically text Hawkinson if his pipes burst again–or, perhaps, to cue the theme from Titanic on his sound system.

Within 18 months, the fledgling company had raised more than $1.2 million on Kickstarter (Ashton Kutcher was an early investor), and manufacturers like Quirky, now a General Electric partner, started sending their devices over for testing so SmartThings could ensure compatibility. By mid-2013, SmartThings had shipped more than 10,000 hubs.

Hawkinson was immediately struck by the creativity of his consumers. A couple in Minnesota put presence sensors on their kids’ backpacks so they could locate them. A man in Canada trained his speakers to play an angelic chorus as he approaches his majestically lit scotch collection. Witnessing such applications firsthand, says Hawkinson, “makes you start to see the world … as programmable.”

To get would-be buyers as excited as he is–an imperative in a space mired in skepticism–Hawkinson encourages users to upload their programs to SmartThings’ open platform so that others can browse and download the most popular ones, much as they do with smartphone apps. (Results are tailored to the gadgets and sensors they actually own.) To date, some 5,000 people have shared their gadget tricks–well above figures from any other smart-home platform–and thousands more have tapped them for personal use.

Still, no matter how much SmartThings crows about connectivity, “there is always going to be a segment that doesn’t see the value,” says Arrowsmith. The gadget selection is limited, the setups can be complicated, and legitimate fears of cybercriminals commandeering your smart locks and cameras have made people wary of making their homes potentially hackable.

Hawkinson understands those concerns, but he’s also trying to render them moot. To ensure security, he hires white-hat hackers to continuously probe SmartThings’ technology and pinpoint vulnerabilities that must be fixed. To make smartification more seamless, he plans to turn the open platform into a full-service connected-home depot offering DIY video tutorials, links to installation services and more. He also struck a deal with Cross Country Home Services, one of the U.S.’s largest home-warranty providers, to include SmartThings hubs as part of a full-home protection plan. And he’s working with Philips and wearable-tech pioneer Jawbone, among others, to enlarge SmartThings’ arsenal of devices.

The main challenge, however, is raising awareness–about SmartThings and about the perks of connecting your home in general. From that standpoint, the competition from Apple, which is starting to enter the connected-home space, is a good thing. “It’s like Inception,” Hawkinson says. “The more people hear about this stuff, the more they realize, Wow, this previously dumb and totally disconnected thing should be connected.”

Then again, connectivity can’t automate everything. Back at home, Hawkinson describes a SmartThings mode he made for his wife called Aaaawwwwwww Yeaaaah. Once he taps his phone, the lights dim red and the bass of Barry White resounds from the speakers. Alas, he says, that particular trick “has never worked out for me.” But don’t blame SmartThings. “Technically,” he clarifies, “it works every time.”

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.
TIME Innovation

A Look Inside the Home That Made “Life Easier” for a Marine Veteran Who Lost All His Limbs

From moving cabinets to remotely activated light switches, the home is designed to support a life of independence

Retired Marine Sergeant John Peck lost all of his limbs when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in 2010.

After he was once pronounced dead, spent three months in coma, and went through years in recovery, he came to live in a home built by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. Peck worked with the foundation to design a home tailored to his individual needs. With high-tech features such as moving cabinets, tablet-controlled lighting and an automated shower, his house is an example of how smart homes can enable those who are disabled to be more self-sufficient.

“The house can’t really solve your problems, it can help make your life easier,” Peck said.

In the video above, Peck gives TIME a tour of his home – and shares his passion for cooking.

The former marine, who dreamed of becoming a chef ever since he was 12-years-old, is now re-learning how to cook, thanks to a prosthetic arm, an accessible cooktop and a relentless determination.

“The first time I cooked a meal in this house, it took a while. I made leek and potato soup,” Peck said. “It was definitely interesting to be able to make stuff and not need help.”


Nest CEO Tony Fadell on The Future of the Smart Home

Tony Fadell Portrait Nest Labs CEO
Ian Allen for TIME

The gadget whisperer is giving household objects a mind of their own

Tony Fadell is not a fan of the one button. If you grew up watching The Jetsons, you know the one. It’s the button that automatically dims the lights, draws the blinds and spins the record player. “The problem with the one button is that the one button shouldn’t do the same thing for everyone,” says Fadell, the 45-year-old CEO of Nest Labs. “The truth is, homes change over time–and technology has to adapt, not try to do everything at once.”

If Fadell’s philosophy matters, it’s in no small part because four-year-old Nest has helped kick-start the current boom in connected gadgets. The company’s first product, also called Nest, was a $250 thermostat that learns the habits of its users in order to save energy–automatically lowering the temperature when nobody’s home, for example. Its second, the Nest Protect (current price: $100), was a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm that gives voice alerts and can differentiate between burning toast and actual emergencies.

By now it’s clear that Nest plans to work its way through the average American home, looking for staples to make smarter–much as its CEO reimagined the music player and the mobile phone during his 2000s gig as a senior vice president at Apple. (Fadell is known in Silicon Valley as the Godfather of the iPod.) And it will do so alongside a powerful partner: Google, which in January acquired the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., for $3.2 billion.

But Fadell’s view of smart gadgetry differs greatly from that of most of his competitors. When he set out to reinvent the thermostat, the prevailing thinking was that it would turn into a miniature computer. Manufacturers “were adding photos. They were adding a calendar. They were adding the weather,” he says. In other words, they were loading thermostats with bells and whistles, but they weren’t actually making them work better. “It made no sense to me,” he says. “How about we look at the basic function of this device and not overly complicate?” The same could be asked of the connected-home market, now brimming with hundreds of products–wi-fi-enabled toothbrushes, touchscreen toilets, toasters that can tweet–all claiming to be “smart” simply because they can do the same things your tablet can.

Fadell argues that truly smart gadgets should have built-in intelligence like the Nest thermostat. They should be able to automatically adapt to your wants and needs, so you don’t have to think about them if you don’t want to. “We have enough technology trying to take our attention away, trying to give us an excuse not to talk to each other,” he says. Instead, he says, he’s designing products for the conscious home–“the home that is aware of what your family is doing and tries to help you,” as he puts it. In that habitat, there will be no one button. Because the smartest technologies may not even require your input.

Fadell was born near detroit and grew up in a large family of Lebanese and Polish-Russian descent. He attended 12 schools in 15 years as the family shuffled around the country, a result of his father’s sales job with Levi Strauss. On visits home, his grandfather–a superintendent of schools and a handyman–encouraged a love of tinkering, and Fadell became fascinated with electronics. Because he moved so much, he says, “computers became my way of communicating.”

Fadell was a natural entrepreneur too. In his spare time at the University of Michigan, where he studied computer engineering, he started two companies. One made educational software; the other manufactured microprocessors to speed up Apple II computers. He sold the latter to Apple before graduating and moving to Silicon Valley.

Bald and broad-shouldered, Fadell has a tendency to get worked up when he’s on a roll, darting his blue-green eyes in your direction to make sure you’re still with him. “There was always a joke that when Tony gets excited, you have to watch his chair,” says Yves Béhar, the award-winning industrial designer and chief creative officer at Jawbone, who first met Fadell in the late 1990s. “In meetings he would get up and bounce around–literally like a bouncing ball. A couple of times he broke the chairs in my office.”

In 1991, Fadell’s tech enthusiasm led him to a job at General Magic, one of those Silicon Valley footnotes that made products that were ahead of their time. It was also a hotbed of young talent. As a 20-something, Fadell worked alongside Pierre Omidyar, who later founded eBay, and Andy Rubin, the creator of Google’s Android mobile operating system. “We basically created the technology for the iPhone 20 years too early,” he recalls.

But there and during a later stint at Philips trying to create early handheld computers, Fadell found that mere excitement about underlying technology was not enough to make a hit product. By the time Steve Jobs persuaded him to take a full-time role at Apple working on what would become the iPod, he was convinced that marketing and a keen sense of what not to put in were just as important as engineering. The success of the iPod and, later, the iPhone validated his thinking.

Fadell left his full-time job at Apple in 2008, taking a year and a half to travel with his wife Danielle Lambert, a former Apple vice president, and their children. He also threw himself into designing a second home, near Lake Tahoe. As he imagined the hallways and rooms of his yet-to-be-built house, he came to see dozens of items that could benefit from better brains. That’s when he hit on the idea of a smarter thermostat.

“Tony said, ‘There is no iPod of thermostats,’ and I was on board immediately,” recalls Matt Rogers, Fadell’s former intern at Apple, whom he approached over lunch in October 2009. (Rogers, now Nest’s co-founder and vice president of engineering, was also the first software developer for the iPhone.) Fourteen months later, they had a working prototype. The company’s gadgets were soon widely heralded–including in TIME, which named the Nest Protect one of the 25 best inventions of 2013.

Nest and Nest protect are just phase 1 of the company’s plan to reimagine the household. Rogers, like Fadell, is convinced that much of the smart-home gear that’s currently in vogue among designers–kits that plug into and control a variety of appliances, for example–is overly complex and inelegant. “Nobody wants to buy [that kind of] smart home. It’s for geeks,” says Rogers. “People want to buy great products. It should be all these little touchpoints that make your life simpler.”

Rogers is particularly excited about Nest’s new open platform, which will enable devices to talk to one another without a lot of babysitting by users. For instance, beginning this summer, some Mercedes-Benz vehicles will be able to communicate with Nest thermostats to automatically adjust a home’s temperature according to how long it will take you to get back from work that day. Similarly, Jawbone’s wearable fitness trackers–which know when you are about to wake up in the morning–will be able to raise the temperature just as you get out of bed. As for more hardware, Fadell won’t reveal specifics, though on June 23 the company announced it would acquire home-security-camera maker Dropcam for $555 million. Says Fadell: “We look for unloved products, the things that haven’t changed since I was a kid.”

There will be obstacles. Competition, for one, is growing. Honeywell, the giant manufacturer of thermostats, introduced a Nest competitor in June that it dubbed Lyric. And earlier this year, Nest issued a software fix for 440,000 smoke detectors when it determined that a defect could cause an alarm to be delayed. A later bulletin from the Consumer Product Safety Commission generated unflattering recall headlines.

Then there’s Google. Although Nest is being operated independently of its search and data parent, that hasn’t stopped some from speculating about targeted ads appearing on connected Nest devices. Rogers and Fadell reject the idea, saying the data their company collects won’t be shared without customers’ explicit permission. For Nest, too much is at stake. Its future depends on getting users to trust technology to learn about them in the most private settings. If anyone knows how to do that, it’s the man who helped create the iPod and the iPhone, two of the most lionized gadgets ever. “At Apple, we changed society,” Fadell says, somewhat contemplatively. Now he’s trying again.

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.

Meet the Regular People Living in America’s Smartest Homes

The smart home is human

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.
  • Lynda Elayna Spratley’s Recycled Home

    LYNDA ELAYNA SPRATLEY SCADpad-Atlanta Home Parking Garage Savannah College of Art and Design
    Ian Allen for TIME


    At the start of her final semester, Spratley, a 29-year-old design student, spent 90 minutes every day driving between her apartment in the suburbs and her college classes in midtown Atlanta. “It was tiring,” she says, “and it made it really tough to meet people.” So she moved into a parking garage behind her school’s main building. Literally. Spratley, who graduated in May, was one of the first residents of SCADpad, a three-dorm compound built and styled by students, faculty and alumni of Savannah College of Art and Design to prove that underused public spaces–many U.S. parking structures operate well below capacity–can be repurposed into homes. Although the 135-sq.-ft. (12.5 sq m) space felt cramped at times during her weeklong stay (“I was like, Where’s the closet?!”), Spratley found plenty to love: the iPad-controlled lights could mimic a sunset, a nearby 3-D printer made free home accessories like coasters, and the compound fostered its own minicommunity. “I had friends over to watch The Fifth Element on the ceiling of the parking deck,” she says. “It was like living in a piece of the future.”

    –Olivia B. Waxman

  • The Archies’ Disaster-Proof Home

    Ian Allen for TIME Displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Leslie Archie now lives with her daughter and grandchildren in this hurricane-proof, solar-powered home assembled by the Make It Right Foundation.


    “I lived in that home for 45 years. It was all I knew,” says Leslie Archie, 54, of her onetime residence in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. When it was flooded during Hurricane Katrina, she and her daughter Lakiwa were forced to house-hop–from a FEMA trailer parked in her brother’s driveway to a less than ideal rental in nearby Gentilly, all as her clan grew to include Lakiwa’s three boisterous children. Now, with help from the Make It Right Foundation, which has assembled more than 100 homes for low-income U.S. families displaced by natural disasters, they’ve finally settled into what Archie calls “truly a blessing.” It’s built to last: the reinforced walls can withstand winds of up to 130 m.p.h. (209 km/h); there are hurricane shutters that can be screwed on to protect the doors and windows; and the whole base is bolted to 8-ft. (2.4 m) concrete-and-steel stilts, which protect the house from flooding. “I’m not worried about my house anymore,” says Archie, noting that when Hurricane Isaac hit in 2012, the only “damage” her family faced was a few days without power. But Archie’s favorite feature may be the array of 18 solar panels lining her roof. Before Katrina, it cost at least $300 per month to keep her home powered and cool during the sweltering Louisiana summers; now she pays just $40. “That alone is a major plus!”

    –Maya Rhodan

  • Macy Miller’s Tiny Home

    MACY MILLER Tiny-Home Boise Idaho
    Ian Allen for TIME


    After marrying her college sweetheart in 2007, Miller, then 22, happily took what her friends called the “normal next step”: putting down a payment on a 2,500-sq.-ft., four-bedroom house with her new husband. But when they divorced a year later, she says, “my financial torture began.” First, she failed to resolve a messy deed situation with her ex; then the economy collapsed, and the bank seized her home. At that point, Miller, an architect, had an idea: “What if I take the $11,000 I’d have to spend on a year’s rent and build a minihouse from scratch?” She wasn’t alone: more than 70 architectural firms now specialize in helping Americans ditch their large, pricey abodes to raise low-cost, low-energy tiny homes, and Miller found starter plans aplenty online. She bought a flatbed trailer ($500), rented a 0.125-acre lot ($200 a month) and within 18 months had built and moved into her dream home, all 200 sq. ft. of it. Now Miller’s monthly expenses are $400 instead of $1,200, and she’s dating her new landlord; the two had a daughter in March. Her next project is designing a 650-sq.-ft. abode for the whole family, including her Great Dane. “I’ve realized I don’t need a big house,” she says. “I never did.”

    –Stacy Perman

  • John Peck’s Responsive Home

    Ian Allen for TIME


    When retired Marine Sergeant John Peck awoke from a medically induced coma in July 2010, two months after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan and losing all four of his limbs, his skin “was so hypersensitive that I would scream if someone touched me,” he says. But once his physical pain subsided, Peck, then 24, faced a much more daunting obstacle: adjusting to everyday life in a new body. The challenges at his Walter Reed housing complex were immediately clear. He couldn’t enter rooms with nonautomatic doors, because he didn’t have hands to grab them. He’d wanted to be a chef since he was 12, and now he couldn’t reach the food cabinets–let alone prepare meals. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says. Today, however, Peck lives in a house built by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation that was designed to serve his individual needs. Now 28, he has a bathroom with a bidet, so he can use it solo, and can adjust lighting, sound and even the height of his kitchen cabinets by tapping a tablet. To be sure, there are plenty of issues his home won’t solve. “I can’t put shampoo into my hair or put shorts on by myself,” he says. And unloading the dishwasher is nearly impossible, even when he’s wearing prosthetics. But Peck draws hope from a potential double-arm transplant–and his November wedding to fiancée Stacy Elwood. For now, he says, “my house makes the little things easier.”

    -Olivia Waxman

  • Hilda Brunwasser’s Mindful Home

    HILDA BRUNWASSER Portrait San Francisco Parkinson’s disease Smart Home
    Ian Allen for TIME


    A 79-year-old woman living alone with Parkinson’s disease, Brunwasser understands why her son Matthew worries about her well-being. “But I couldn’t afford a home aide,” she says of the service that can cost thousands per week. So they compromised on Lively, a $40 system of sensors–attached to her pillbox, key chain and more–that alert her loved ones to irregularities in her schedule. (The cellular transmitting service costs $25 per month.) Recently, she forgot to take a couple of doses of medicine, so a neighbor stopped by “to get me back on track.” And while sensors can be less reliable than people, Brunwasser appreciates that her son no longer nags her about her safety. Now “we can talk about everyday life … or discuss my plans to adopt a dog.”

    –Alexandra Sifferlin

  • Luis Giuria’s Active Home

    LUIS GIURIA Portrait Active Home The Bronx NYC
    Ian Allen for TIME


    Like many other people living in America’s poorest neighborhoods, Giuria, a South Bronx native, grew up at risk for obesity. He ate junk food (it was cheap) and avoided playgrounds (the equipment was undermaintained and dangerous) and gyms (he was never taught the importance of exercise). By the time he was 27, he weighed almost 400 lb. (180 kg). “It was awful,” he says. “I sprained my ankles, I couldn’t buy clothes, and I didn’t sleep well.” His brother eventually took him to a nearby fitness center, where he learned to use the elliptical. (“It was so weird–I did it backward for a while.”) But to really get healthy, Giuria knew he needed a lifestyle makeover. That’s when he learned about Arbor House, a $37.7 million, 120,000-sq.-ft. (11,150 sq m) low-income housing project going up a few blocks from his then residence. The new site emphasized active design, an increasingly popular style of architecture that’s meant to encourage physical activity. (Think visible stairwells and bright, inviting indoor-outdoor gyms.) He immediately applied for residency and moved in last June. Now 30, Giuria has continued to lose weight–he’s almost down to 200 lb. (90 kg)–by running and playing alongside his wife and three kids (including Xzavier, right). “This will make it second nature to them to be healthy,” he says. “It won’t be foreign to them like it was for me.”

    –Alexandra Sifferlin


Is This America’s Smartest City?

A community in Austin tracks every watt of energy it uses—so the rest of us can live more efficiently

Dan McAtee and Laura Spoor’s utility bill last year came to $631. That’s not bad considering the average annual electric bill in Austin, the Texas capital, is more than $1,000, largely because air-conditioning may be the only thing locals love more than barbecue. But it’s even more impressive once you realize the bill actually came to negative $631. The solar panels on their roof mean McAtee and Spoor produce more electricity than they consume. “We got the biggest system we could get,” says McAtee, pointing to the array of panels laid atop their one-story home like domino tiles. “Now we’ve got what you might call overgeneration.”

But while the solar panels stand out–such arrays are rare in Texas–what really sets McAtee and Spoor’s home apart can’t be seen at all. Smart circuits are tracking their electricity use on a minute-by-minute and appliance-by-appliance basis, providing a running record of how power flows through their home. On his computer, McAtee opens a website that shows in near real time the rise and fall of their electricity use over the months. When Spoor opens the refrigerator to get a pitcher of lemonade, the readings spike for a moment, reflecting the extra watts consumed as the appliance compensates for the rush of warmer air. “You can literally see when a lightbulb is turned on,” says McAtee, 73, who spent years as an engineer at IBM before his retirement.

These insights come courtesy of Pecan Street Inc., a research group running the most extensive energy-tracking study in U.S. history (backed in part by the Department of Energy). Its ground zero is Mueller, a planned green community in Austin where hundreds of households have signed up to have their electricity use monitored on a granular level. Researchers track when and why Mueller’s residents consume power and how fast-growing new technologies–like solar panels, connected appliances and electric cars–are affecting the grid. (Thanks in part to an incentive program, Mueller has more electric vehicles per capita than any other U.S. neighborhood.)

That kind of data is unprecedented in the electricity industry, whose essentials have remained largely unchanged since 1882, when Thomas Edison opened America’s first commercial power plant. The Pecan Street team is already using it to upend long-held theories about electricity use and test provocative new distribution methods, which could make our power cleaner and cheaper. With U.S. demand for electricity projected to rise at least 30% over the next 30 years, the methods it pioneers may be our best shot at avoiding a future full of brownouts, blackouts and sky-high energy bills. “Mueller is the community of the near future,” says Suzanne Russo, chief operating officer at Pecan Street. “But everything we’re learning is going to be applicable to every community in America.”

To get why Pecan Street and Mueller are so special, it’s important to understand how data-poor the electricity business has been for most of its existence. Until just a few years ago, power utilities had two basic functions: to make sure they could meet the highest level of demand at any given moment–in Texas, that’s usually an afternoon in the late summer, when people start blasting their AC as soon as they arrive home from work–and to estimate how much electricity people use every month, a.k.a. the kilowatt-hours that show up on a utility bill. Beyond that, they had little incentive to maximize efficiency. They made money according to how much power they sold, not how much they saved. That made for a grid that was inherently less stable; during blackouts, utilities often didn’t know which consumers had lost power until they called to complain.

That began to change about five years ago as progressive utilities–aided by billions of dollars in stimulus funding from the new Obama Administration–started to install smart meters, two-way devices that can track electricity use at least once an hour. Today there are more than 40 million in use, part of a larger national effort to make the U.S. electrical grid better able to prevent events like the Northeast blackout of 2003, in which more than 50 million people temporarily lost power.

The Pecan Street devices are even smarter than smart meters, recording data from different appliances essentially in real time. At any given moment, the Pecan Street engineers–who work in partnership with the University of Texas and local utility Austin Energy–know exactly how much electricity their subjects are using and how that use changes in response to the time of day, weather patterns, even fluctuations in power price. (They don’t know who is using the power, though; all household data is anonymous.) “It’s by far the most aggressive [data-collection] project that I know of,” said Ernest Moniz, U.S. Energy Secretary, during a visit to Pecan Street in February.

Already, the numbers have challenged some conventional wisdom about solar power, which is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. For years, experts assumed that panels should face south in order to catch the most total sunlight and produce the most power. But Pecan Street found that it’s better for the grid if they face west. That way, they’re catching the most sunlight and generating the most electricity at the very moment in late afternoon when power usage is highest and utilities often bring polluting, expensive “peaker” plants online to prevent brownouts. Since those costs get passed on to consumers, more solar panels–used more effectively–should mean lower bills for everyone.

Pecan Street has dismissed longstanding objections to electric cars as well. As more drivers buy them, utilities have expressed concern that they will all start charging at the same time (after work, in tandem with AC use), creating a massive strain on the grid. But that hasn’t been the case in Mueller, where most people have opted for overnight, off-peak charging–especially if their utility makes it cheaper to do so. Pecan Street engineers are even testing a system that would enable electric cars to store excess solar power during the day and use it at night to power your home for free. “It really shows the value of having a smart home,” says Jim Robertson, another participant in the Mueller project.

Of course, the rest of America may never realize Mueller’s vision for the future. Solar power won’t work as well in cold, cloudy states like Alaska, for example. And not every consumer will be as open to micro-monitoring or surge pricing as the ones who live in Mueller, even if it will ultimately save them money. “Pecan Street is an innovative project,” says Jerry Jackson, director of the Smart Grid Research Consortium. “But right now I don’t think there’s a broad scope of consumers who are that interested in this technology.”

Yet in a world that’s becoming ever more dependent on a clean, steady supply of electricity–consider life without your iPhone or laptop–everyone has a stake in building a more efficient grid. And the status quo won’t change unless there are metrics to prove that it should.

In that vein, Pecan Street is expanding its study to other cities, including San Diego and Boulder, Colo. In May, the White House introduced an initiative to make energy data much more widely available–two months after Pecan Street made its own database freely available online. “It’s our chance to build the utility of the future,” says Kara Mertz, who is managing the Boulder Pecan Street project.

All of which means we may soon be living in a world where everyone likes their energy bills as much as Mueller’s McAtee. “Saving the environment is good,” he says. “But financially viable–that’s good too.”

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.

This Floating City May Be The Future of Coastal Living

Floating House
Luuk Kramer Fifty-five homes float in the IJburg district in east Amsterdam. The structures, designed by the Dutch firm Marlies Rohmer Architects, sit on hollow concrete "tubs" that are submerged half a story.

Viewed from above, this residential complex in East Amsterdam looks a lot like any other waterfront community. There are rows of gleaming, multilevel houses and kids’ toys lying about. There are lawn chairs on balconies and vehicles parked near entrances. And on special occasions, residents host parties for their friends and neighbors.

But there’s one key difference: everything here is floating.

Since late 2009, developers have tugged prefabricated homes through a series of canal locks and into a corner of IJ Lake in Amsterdam’s IJburg neighborhood, where they have formed one of the most ambitious housing projects ever created. Waterbuurt, as it’s called, is a collection of 75 buildings designed to prove that regular people–there are roughly 1,000 residents of various ages and income levels–can live comfortably on the water. “People think, Oh, it’s much easier to build on land,” says Marlies Rohmer, one of the lead architects. “But we have knowledge now to build in different circumstances.”

The experiment is less esoteric than it sounds. Experts predict that climate change will cause sea levels to rise 3 ft. (0.9 m) or more by 2100, putting hundreds of low-lying cities–including Bangkok, London and Miami–at risk of massive and permanent flooding. Faced with that reality, urban planners say, local officials have a choice: force residents off valuable coastal land, like Miami Beach, or accommodate the rising waters using dikes, sea gates and floating (or amphibious) structures.

“The urban population is growing exponentially, and the seas are changing,” says Michael Sorkin, an architect and director of the urban-design graduate program at City College of New York. “We need to think of living in all kinds of new conditions.”

The Netherlands is uniquely qualified to offer solutions that float. Because more than two-thirds of the population lives below sea level, the country has spent billions keeping water at bay and is widely regarded as the world’s leading source for flood-proof architecture. In the past 20 years, local builders have erected a parking garage that doubles as a water basin during surges, a set of domed exhibition pavilions in the middle of Rotterdam’s old harbor and a pair of pivoting sea gates, called the Maeslantkering, that together are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall. “We are used to building on water,” says Rohmer, who has lived on a houseboat in Rotterdam. “It’s our nature.” If Waterbuurt succeeds–and early signs indicate it will–the rest of the world may well follow in its wake.

As you might expect, the idea for Amsterdam’s floating city was born during a land shortage. More specifically, local contractors were running out of affordable land to develop in the early ’90s–the existing neighborhoods were too dense, and everything else was underwater–just as the city’s population was starting to boom. So officials greenlighted the construction of a new urban district, meant to house some 45,000 people, that would sit atop artificial islands (much as parts of Chicago and Boston, among other cities, sit on filled-in land).

Then the officials did something wholly unconventional: they zoned the water itself near one of the islands for an experimental housing development. There city officials hoped to take Amsterdam’s storied tradition of houseboat living–about 2,300 converted barges float along the capital’s canals–and reimagine it as a contemporary community. By 2001, the chosen developer had laid out rough designs for what would become the world’s largest planned floating city. It would be called Waterbuurt, or “water quarter.” But crucial questions remained: Who would design the homes, and how would they actually work?

That’s when Rohmer, then a budding architect and technical engineer advising on the IJburg project, was tapped to join the team. The developers “had a lot of courage to give the commission to an inexperienced architect,” she says. “But I was very enthusiastic about doing something so new and different. I didn’t think it was at all impossible.”

The challenges, however, immediately became clear. Although officials had signed off on water-based construction, they hadn’t modified city emergency codes. That meant that despite being surrounded by water, any house Rohmer built had to be able to connect to the fire brigade’s land-based waterpump system and include a traditional fire escape.

Moreover, there was the issue of transportation. The homes were set to be built at a shipyard about 40 miles (65 km) north of IJ Lake, then tugged though canal locks that were fairly narrow–meaning home widths couldn’t exceed 21 ft. (6.5 m). It was all tricky, says Rohmer, “but we found ways to make it work.”

Compared with those snags, Rohmer’s main task–making the houses buoyant–was the simplest. Much like boats, a home will float safely as long as its base is sealed, hollow and large enough to displace a set amount of water. With that in mind, Rohmer designed the Waterbuurt buildings atop airtight concrete tubs designed to submerge no more than half a story. (The only way one might sink is if an object pierced a tub, but the walls are too strong for such a thing to happen by chance, Rohmer says.) To ensure that the homes don’t drift away or into one another, they’re anchored to the lake bed by steel mooring poles.

Residents, who began moving in shortly after the first structures were completed in 2009, were impressed. It helped, of course, that some of them were boaters who were excited they could finally float home on a whim. But others were regular city dwellers who were willing to pay a 10% premium to settle in a burgeoning neighborhood with its own natural swimming area (in summer) and skating rink (in winter). “When I visited, I really felt this holiday feeling,” says Leo Noordergraaf, who lives in Waterbuurt with his family. “I said, ‘Let’s do this.'”

Today the floating community is as densely populated as downtown Amsterdam, and other cities have expressed interest in similar projects.

It remains unclear if these developments will work outside the Netherlands. As Harvard architecture professor Felipe Correa explains, humans are “inherently more comfortable” living on land because it seems more permanent. That’s why water building is usually more a reactive solution–such as when New York City drew up a $20 billion plan to build flood walls and more after Hurricane Sandy–than a proactive one.

But Rohmer hopes the success of Waterbuurt, alongside less structured floating communities in places like Seattle and Sausalito, Calif., will start to change the tide. Already she has been selected to build another housing development on the Thames in London, and she has fielded inquiries from Singapore and South Korea (though projects there have yet to materialize). Meanwhile, in Helsinki, another firm is on track to make 40 homes float in the Finnish capital’s former industrial port. “It’s not the solution to every urban water problem,” says Rohmer. But for cities facing rapid climate change, it may eventually be the one that sticks.

–Noah Rayman

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.

Which Company will Control Your Home?

Much as Google and Yahoo rode search to billion-dollar empires, the firms that bring order to the “Internet” of your home are poised to revolutionize how we live—and make a fortune in the process. Here’s a look at where the major players stand



Apple’s HomeKit tech–which will debut this fall in iOS 8–will wrangle other companies’ smart gadgets: say “bedtime” to Siri on your iPhone, for example, and it might dim your Philips Hue lightbulb. But the company isn’t saying whether it’s creating its own smart-home app.


The 122-year-old conglomerate partnered with startup Quirky to crowdsource ideas for connected gadgets, like a tray that pings your phone when you’re out of eggs. Now Quirky plans to turn the software it created for such products into an ambitious operating system for the digital home.


It’s followed up its $3.2 billion purchase of Nest–the smart-gadget company founded by Tony Fadell, a.k.a. the “Godfather of the iPod” (see page 54)–by acquiring Dropcam, maker of a slick web-enabled security camera. But the ad giant’s biggest hurdle might be persuading consumers to trust it with the sensitive personal data such devices collect.


The company could evolve its Xbox One console into a smart-home base station with a software update. So far, though, its biggest move has been partnering with Insteon, which provides home-automation services and apps for Windows and Windows Phone.

The $400 Xbox One may soon help automate your house



AT&T’s principal competitor currently discontinued its do-it-yourself security-and-automation service in February. But it’s got millions of customers to tap, and it probably won’t stay out of the category forever.


AT&T Digital Home–a service that lets you monitor your security, energy use and more from an app on your phone–is available in most U.S. markets. But the à la carte prices ($5 to $40 a month) add up fast.


The cable behemoth already bundles security services with TV channels for one fee; now it is rolling out Xfinity Home, a suite of home-automation services that can be controlled with a tablet remote.



For $100, SmartThings offers a wi-fi-enabled hub that allows you to connect products from a range of companies–including Quirky, Jawbone and Honeywell–and control them with a single app. (It also sells sensors that can be placed on dumb devices to make them smart.) The system is well priced, but SmartThings will need to be intrepid to thrive as Apple and Google invade its turf.

The $100 SmartThings hub works with gadgets from GE, Belkin and more


Its one-hub-to-control-them-all gimmick is similar to SmartThings’, and it has a retail partnership with Home Depot. But because Revolv hasn’t finished developing its open platform, the system is less customizable than SmartThings’. Its hub is also more expensive ($300 vs. SmartThings’ $100), and the company is still working on an Android app.

The $300 Revolv hub can sense when you’re home



ADT and Vivint are giving away ambitious home-automation systems with touchscreen control panels as an incentive to sign up for long-term contracts. But those fee-based models may not hold up.


LG, Samsung, Whirlpool and others are adding connectivity to their appliances–letting you perform feats like preheating the oven from your phone. But it’s unclear if they can dominate other aspects of smart-home control.


Lowe’s, the DIY retailer, offers Iris, a system that lets you control security cameras, light switches, locks and other devices. Office superstore Staples’ Connect is similar. But they’ll have to compete with the well-known tech brands.

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.

10 Gadgets Trying to Save the World

Forget Bluetooth-enabled toothbrushes and sensor-laden egg trays. The smartest smart gadgets may be the ones that are trying to save the world--or at least lower your energy bills. Here, we rank 10 of the most compelling contributions

This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.

5 Easy Ways to Hacker-Proof Your Home

Refrigerators hijacked to send malicious emails. TVs tapped to spy on their watchers. Baby monitors remotely rigged to stream a stranger’s voice.

These aren’t outtakes from a cheesy sci-fi horror flick. They’re real situations that have happened in homes around the world–made hackable, so to speak, by flawed smart devices. Although there are many advantages to buying gadgets that connect to the Internet, “many of them are not built with security in mind,” says Cesar Cerrudo, an executive at security firm IOActive. And that makes their owners vulnerable: a bit of outdated software in your connected security camera, and a hacker could use it to case your home; a weak password on your connected thermostat, and a hacker could use it as a back door into your wi-fi network–and anything on it.

To be sure, actual horror stories are few and far between. Of the millions of Americans who own at least one connected device, only a small fraction have publicly come forward as victims of malicious home-gadget attacks. And when they do, manufacturers like Samsung–whose smart products were targeted in the past–have been quick to correct security flaws, since consumer trust is paramount for good business.

But it never hurts to be prepared. Here are five expert tips on how to safeguard your smartest devices.


This appears in the July 07, 2014 issue of TIME.
  • Do Your Research

    It may sound too simple, but your home’s first–and often best–line of defense is Google. Before you purchase a connected gadget, search its name plus words like security or vulnerability to “give yourself an idea of what you’re up against,” says Daniel Crowley of info-security firm Trustwave. More important, Cerrudo says, you should investigate how effectively the gadgetmaker responded to any breaches. If the issue was neutralized quickly, you’re probably fine. If a company took weeks to fix its mistake, buy something else.

  • Update Your Software

    In one of the most publicized connected-home hacks, security researchers broke into early models of Samsung’s smart TV, which allowed them to control its camera and access files and apps. Samsung quickly issued a software update to fix the vulnerability, but–as with smartphone apps–it’s often up to users to make sure that a patch is downloaded. The longer you wait, the larger the “window of opportunity” for hacking becomes, says Cerrudo.

  • Strengthen Your Password

    Many people want their connected devices to work right out of the box, so they don’t bother to change the default user names and passwords (or they type a simple one to get going). That makes you extraordinarily vulnerable to hacking, says Crowley, noting that weak passwords were responsible for 31% of the security compromises Trustwave investigated in 2013.

  • Hire a Professional

    If all else fails, soliciting help from an expert to install and configure your devices–and the networks they tap into–can be “the best option,” says Cerrudo. Best Buy’s Geek Squad, for example, can set up your wireless network for about $90 to $130, ensuring that you have the most up-to-date firmware, among other details. As Geek Squad specialist Derek Meister puts it, “We look over all the little settings.”

  • Guard Your Wi-Fi

    Even if your smart devices are secure on their own, hackers can still break into your control network through a lost smartphone (if you’ve used it to control your gadgets) or unsecured home wi-fi (which many gadgets use to sync with the cloud), enabling all kinds of mischief. To add another layer of difficulty for would-be hackers, Crowley suggests setting up a separate, secure wi-fi network exclusively for your connected devices.

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