How a ‘Tweeting’ cottage became part of the green-living agenda

24 Sep 2009

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“Man is a shrewd inventor, and is ever taking the hint of a new machine from his own structure, adapting some secret of his own anatomy in iron, wood, and leather, to some required function in the work of the world.”

This astute observation from the 19th-century US poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson is coming more into its own as we get comfortable with a truly connected digital age.

It is embodied in a unique, eco-friendly invention of IBM master inventor Andy Stanford-Clark, who specialises in the areas of pervasive messaging and smarter planet technologies: a house that, like us, both senses and converses (via Twitter), and it can also be remotely controlled through its inventor’s mobile phone.

This pretty 16th-century cottage, located on the Isle of Wight, looks beautifully maintained and quite low tech from the outside, but inside is a completely different story.

Sensors are placed in the cottage’s various rooms, hooked up to windows, the electricity meter, the water tank and even a mousetrap. This serves several purposes, one being to intelligently monitor temperature and humidity as well as power and water usage.

With these sensors fed into a server located inside Stanford-Clark’s cottage, he can build up a data picture over time, helping him become more aware and therefore energy efficient.

“I’ve been monitoring the power for five years now; I built a fairly unique, one-of-a-kind monitor to record the changes in energy usage of the whole house and from this I was able to draw a graph on the internet to show the spikes and troughs and individual blow-by-blow accounts of appliances turned on and off throughout the day.”

At the time, Stanford-Clark didn’t have much to compare his smart home data with until about two years ago when energy prices started to rise and businesses and consumers latched onto the green agenda.

He had already taken his smart home project several steps further: “I’ve broken down the house into different rooms, different appliances and it even tells me when certain lights are on.

‘You could monitor everything, of course, but I only do this for the heavy hitters: the TV, fridge and freezer and tumble dryer. You’re not going to be monitoring your burglar alarm for power usage!”

The interesting thing, says Stanford-Clark, is that depending on where they are in their lifecycle, a fridge or freezer can eat into your energy consumption, so his sensors will tell him when it’s time to replace them.

“This would be a degradation over time, something you might not spot at a glance, but if you’re tracking energy usage with a database, event processing software, which intelligently mines that data, will take a look at the long-term trends.”

Monitoring is only one aspect of this cottage. It is, after all, known as the house that tweets. While the cottage cannot close its own windows, it is connected to the microblogging site Twitter and can message or ‘tweet’ Stanford-Clark to let him know when a window has been left open and is losing heat.

“In some cases, I can remotely control elements of my cottage: if the window is open and the heated towel rail has been left on, as soon as I see a Twitter message from the cottage I can switch this off,” he explains.

Similiar to any other Twitter user, Stanford-Clark’s cottage sends regular messages that are viewable by the inventor and its other followers, but if it is an urgent message, ie a leak is detected, a private direct message (DM) will be sent only to him.

It may seem quite novel to have your cottage send you tweets, but having already set his home to send data to both his mobile and website,

Stanford-Clark explains why Twitter was the perfect platform.

“I thought it would be pretty cool to not only have people twittering but to have objects – what I call ‘tweetjects’ – twittering too.

“It wasn’t so much for the benefit of other people to see, but more that it was a convenient channel for me, so I could have an ambient background buzz from my house mixed in with all my friends on Twitter.

“I’m not consciously aware and I don’t have to log in somewhere special to get data, but I’m still getting a picture of how my house is doing energy-wise.”

Stanford-Clark also gets DM’s from his cottage when the phone rings or a mouse is caught in the trap. This is one of several examples from a man who had filed 42 patents, hence earning the title of ‘IBM master inventor’.

He is one of many who are pioneering what is called ‘the internet of things’ or a truly connected environment where not just people talk to you, but objects also converse.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Andy Stanford-Clark has a house that Tweets.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com