Headquarters: Austin, Texas
Founders: John Kestner and David Carr
Funding: US $556 541
The idea of a smart home has been around for decades. But until now, you had to be very wealthy—or very nerdy—to have one. A number of companies are aiming to change that, and one of them is Supermechanical, an Austin, Texas–based spin-off from MIT’s Media Lab.
The company’s first product is Twine. For US $125, you get a durable rubbery square, 68.5 millimeters on a side, that can text, tweet, or e-mail alerts when specific changes occur in your home. Each Twine block incorporates Wi-Fi, internal temperature and orientation sensors, and a headset-jack-style connector for adding an optional moisture sensor or magnetic switch. (Nerds can still play along, adding their own analog or digital sensors with a breakout board that provides terminals for signals and power.) A block will run for months on two AAA batteries before sending an e-mail to tell you that it’s time to change the batteries.
The alerts you get, and the rules for when you get them, are configured via a companion website hosted by Supermechanical. Simple instructions on how to connect your Twine block to the site, via a Wi-Fi network, are molded into the rubber case. The rules are created by making selections from a set of conditions and actions. For example, a rule might read, “WHEN magnetic switch is open, THEN text ‘Pool gate is open!’ ”
John Kestner and David Carr founded Supermechanical in 2011. Kestner, an industrial designer by trade, approached Carr about commercializing some of their Media Lab projects. After their first product idea—a table that incorporated its own encoded design files etched in aluminum for easy modifications or repairs—failed to generate consumer interest, they went back to the drawing board. “We realized that so many things we wanted to do relied on connectedness,” Carr says. “We wanted what became Twine to reach my mom. It needed to not be intimidating. We also wanted it to be rugged. We chose a headset jack as the connector because it’s simple, familiar.”
After developing prototypes, the pair launched a Kickstarter campaign in late November 2011. Their goal was US $35 000, which they thought would see them through the three months they estimated it would take to get Twine into production. The campaign garnered almost $560 000 in 40 days. The surplus funds turned out to be the minimum amount they needed, Carr says. It took almost nine months to find reliable manufacturing partners and smooth out the supply chain. Supermechanical started shipping Twines in mid-October. Carr estimates its customers are about 50/50 “nerds to ordinary people.”
Supermechanical’s competition comes from companies such as ADT, AT&T, Comcast, Lowe’s, Verizon, and others, which are taking advantage of the proliferation of wireless home networks and smartphones to offer home automation and monitoring services. Market intelligence company ABI Research estimates that in the next five years, 90 million homes worldwide will use such systems. Installation can be complicated, though, and customers are often charged ongoing subscription fees. Supermechanical’s founders believe that Twine will appeal to homeowners who want a simple-to-install way to monitor a basement that’s prone to occasional flooding without any additional expenses, for example.
Hung LeHong, a Gartner research analyst, says that for Twine to be successful on a consumer level, the price will have to drop below $50 and Supermechanical will need to market it more narrowly. “They have some interesting use cases,” he says, “but I think it would be better if they had something more outright, a specific application for it.”
For now, in the near term the company is focusing on adding even more functionality to the basic Twine blocks, such as the ability to respond to vibrations, and on making more external sensors available. It also plans to release the specs for sensors so that other companies can make compatible products. “We foresee a Twine ecosystem,” Carr says.
About the Author
Erika Jonietz covers science and technology as a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. She's been writing about the Internet of Things off and on since 2001—and she hopes this time the technology is "on."