Kits Make Tinkerers’ Home-Automation Dreams Come True – Wall Street Journal

Automating the home used to be a highly technical challenge. But a new generation of tech companies has taken the hard-core engineering out of it, offering electronic building blocks that allow people with even slight nerd tendencies to automate vital household tasks.

Like hamster monitoring.

Mr. Blum’s smart umbrella holder
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Alex Swan of Seattle in August bought electronic kits made by several companies and assembled them into a system that gathers data on his pet hamster Jessica’s treadmill use. It publishes the data real-time on a website for the hamster with charts and graphs.

“The first night I tried, I found out my hamster ran about 5 miles in one night,” says the 31-year-old Web developer, who says he hadn’t dabbled in hardware much before. “I was shocked.”

Mr. Swan is the beneficiary of a crop of tech firms with names like LittleBits, Particle and Arduino that sell electronic components—sensors, motors, computerized circuit boards, Wi-Fi transceivers—that anyone inclined to tinker can mix and match, assembling them Lego-like at home to create contraptions.

A child-resistant cookie cupboard was Julie Foulon’s early masterpiece.

In July, she used components from a kit to design what she calls a “cookie cupboard alert.” It yells “No!” when the cupboard is opened and then sends an alert to her iPhone.

Ms. Foulon, 34, says the alarm caught two of her children, aged 6 and 8, trying to access treats after hours. “Over time, it’s become more of a game,” says Ms. Foulon, who lives in Brussels, Belgium. Her latest invention: a baby-bottle dispenser that logs the time on a Google spreadsheet when she removes a bottle, to help her remember the last time she fed the baby.

Jeremy Blum's home-automation system, which he calls Jarvis, can control lights, curtains and music and can answer questions about anything using a phone, voice commands or this command center.
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Ms. Foulon, who runs a nonprofit for technology entrepreneurs, used components from LittleBits, a New York startup that sells kits for $34.95 to $4,999 that include buttons, light sensors and other components for connecting home gadgets to the Internet or building small machines.

Amateur inventors have used LittleBits components to create everything from an automated cat-food dispenser to a Wi-Fi-connected coffee maker, according to the company’s website, and a doorbell rewired to send text messages. An enthusiast in Pune, India, devised a system from LittleBits components to churn butter.

For true engineers, who once might have had to solder together custom contraptions from scratch, these new electronic building blocks offer a chance to reach new heights in automating their lives.

Google Inc. engineer Jeremy Blum says he was about to head to the bus recently when his smartphone buzzed. It was an alert telling him he had forgotten his umbrella at a time the forecast portended rain.

The alert was from a jury-rigged automation system he built that also opens his curtains with voice commands, controls his lights, plays music and answers questions about the world in his San Francisco home. He calls the system Jarvis, for Jeremy’s Astute Residential Virtual Intelligent System.

“It started out as curiosity,” says Mr. Blum, 25, “but now I spend my nights and weekends on it.”

Mr. Blum’s inventions involve elements from a range of electronics kits—including LittleBits—and his own custom-built equipment. He named Jarvis, built over the past two years, after the super-intelligent system used by comic-book hero Iron Man.

At 7 a.m. on a typical weekday, Jarvis slowly turns on the lights and says “Good morning, Jeremy!” before opening the blinds and playing a random song it believes he will like based on his listening history.

“I think of it as guerrilla upgrading,” he says. “It reminds me of a time before I was born, in the ’50s and ’60s, when people could fix their own cars and electronics.”

Mr. Blum can adjust the vibe of his bedroom to his mood. One option, romance mode, dims the lights and plays suitably smooth tunes. His girlfriend, he says, finds it more humorous than effective.

Mr. Blum is what LittleBits Chief Executive Ayah Bdeir, 32, calls a “super-user,” someone who is already a skilled engineer.

Less-super users are among the most-promising new targets. “We started out as a company that helps engineers do their weekend projects,” says Zach Supalla, CEO of Particle, a San Francisco company that sells kits to build Internet-connected hardware. “At some point, it started to spread.”

One of the better-received inventions built with a Particle kit is “The Foobar,” an automated cocktail dispenser made out of an old Mr. Coffee machine. The device, designed by an economics graduate student who was briefly a Particle intern, takes instructions from a phone app and pumps just the right amount into a glass. Stirring is manual.

Thanks to a microcontroller called Raspberry Pi and components from other kits, David Astolfo can be assured his garage door is secure. The 39-year-old manager at Toronto’s transportation authority used the Pi with an app that lets one easily create programs on a phone that connect to gadgets, designing a system to monitor whether the garage door is open and adjust lights outside his home from his phone.

The system lets his wife and children open the garage using a fingerprint scanner. “All my life I was interested in electronics,” he says. “But in the past two or three years, it has become possible for people like me to start putting things together” because of the new kits.

Mr. Astolfo’s wife, Rebecca, 42, says she “kept telling him I want him to do something that helps me clean,” and that he assembled a floor-sweeping device he called “Pulito” with components from automation kits. It didn’t last long. “A lot of his inventions will work for a few weeks,” she says, “and then he is onto the next thing.”

“We can open the garage door from anywhere in the world,” she says. “I’m not sure why we’d need to do that.”

Write to Bradley Hope at bradley.hope@wsj.com

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