July 28, 2014

Life By Numbers and Notifications

From morning until night, I'm led by numbers and notifications. These numbers prompt me what to do next, what actions to take, and often, can be used to inform whether my decision was the right one. And throughout the day, all my devices, working in concert, alert me to what they believe is the information I need to know right now. As we've seen a graduation of our primary content consumption from longform text to microtext, we're moving again to the notification being the central medium by which our get our updates.

Like most of you, my day starts with an alarm clock - mine being on my Nexus 7. When the time hits a certain number, the familiar tone blares. I pick up the device and am confronted with two things: Notifications, which catch me up on the emails I received, responses on Twitter, and any texts or instant messages that came overnight. The next scan goes to the numbers. How are the stocks I watch doing? Up, down or unchanged? How many emails do I need to respond to, and do the social networks (Google+, Twitter and Facebook) need responses?

With the essential bits out of the way, I move on to the next numbers - which usually means opening up my laptop and using Feedly. Feedly, like Google Reader before it, catches all my RSS feeds and lets me know how many items are new, I hit J and K to get caught up, share the very best to Pocket (which then flows to LG Stream on Twitter), and bring that number down to zero.

Only with my email box empty, social networks made whole, and Feedly brought down to even can I move on to the next steps. No pun intended, that means getting ready for the day and making sure I have my Fitbit on - and have weighed in on the Fitbit Aria scale to track progress. If I'm completely wired, I might be sporting an Android Wear watch (I have the Samsung Gear Live), my Nexus 5, and the Fitbit. All three devices are counting my steps, and the Nexus 5 (thanks to the Moves App) actually tracks exactly where I've been and how long I stayed there - my every movement being tabulated.

Moves Tracks My Every Step in Parallel with Fitbit

The drive to work gets counted. Automatic scores me on a scale of 1 to 100 on whether I've driven too fast or wasted gas on the way. My GPS tells me how many more miles it is to reach my destination, and how many minutes it expects I'll sit in traffic and peek at my colleagues who are looking at their notifications on their devices while driving.

While I'm at the office, my Nest thermostat works in the numbers to keep the home temperature feeling just right. My Sunrun solar panels are taking in heat from the sun and converting it into Kilowatt hours of energy. If the numbers produced are higher than the numbers consumed, and they almost always are, then we saved money that day. The Rachio sprinkler system checks to see if expected rainfall is above a specific numeric value, and if it is, they simply won't run.

If I've updated my content channels, at home or at work, the numbers tell me what's happening - through Google Analytics, Twitter and Google+ Insights. Who's watching and engaging and sharing the content? I can be alerted if one of my posts has reached the top of Hacker News, or is shared by Marc Andreesen on Twitter. The numbers always tell the story.

The Hacker News bump begins.

While most of those numbers are a holdover from the PC and even mobile-centric world, the new age of devices is driven almost entirely by notifications. Google Glass, in addition to being a first-person perspective camera, is a notification machine, getting you the updates you need directly, and giving you the option to engage. Android Wear goes beyond the clock and brings the notification (and engagement) to the wrist.

Android Wear is here. You can get yours on Google Play.

Application developers are getting smarter about how they can make their app less passive and more active. If it can justify notifying you to an update - be it ESPN's SportsCenter alerting me to trades or Google Now telling me it's time to drive home, then the app stays on my radar. Abuse the privilege, and the app (often games) will get uninstalled.

The day's efforts becomes a balance of managing the numbers and the notifications. Answer the emails. Read the updates in Feedly. Respond to Twitter and Google+. Answer the instant messages.

There are three checkpoints to tell you how you're doing. The first comes at 1 p.m. Pacific (4 p.m. Eastern) when you find out how your stocks did on the market. Did you make money or lose it? Mint.com and the Check app can give you updates on your daily progress. The second comes at the end of the workday when you get home. Did you whittle down your work to inbox zero or have more to do when you left than when you started? And the third comes at the end of the calendar day. Did you walk enough to get your step goal? Did you drive well enough to keep your score at 100? Did your favorite team win? What was the score?

Then you get ready for the next day by setting the alarm and seeing, in clear numbers, how many more hours you have left before starting the numbers and notification race again. There's an app for that. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some notifications and updates to clear.

Disclosures (per usual): I work at Google, which owns Nest, and is behind Android Wear, Google Glass and the Nexus 5 and 7. Our friends at Facebook now own Moves, and we occasionally partner or compete with Twitter and others on various bits.

July 15, 2014

Rachio's Smart Sprinkler Controller Brings Intelligence to the Yard

Most sprinkler systems are pretty dumb, or offer up a near-impossible menu of options with an indecipherable array of buttons, which serve to confuse - usually leading to one of two outcomes: you being the proud owner of a dead lawn, or being the idiot who left his sprinklers on in the rain. I haven't been happy with mine for a long time, but that's now all changed, with a system from Rachio, my latest move to make my home smarter and more connected.

Like my Nest thermostat and smoke detectors, Rachio converts a long-neglected but important part of the home, and gives it intelligence, tapping into the Web and putting the power of a data into a smart app on my phone. Now I know exactly how much my yard is getting watered, when the sprinklers will spring on next, and can make changes for seasonal adjustments.

The Rachio App Shows Weather, Next Water Cycle and Status

When we moved into our home four years ago, we inherited a well intended, but poorly implemented sprinkler system, offering three watering zones, and options to water each area on odd days or even, or by days on the calendar, with adjustments for time and percentage of the usual watering levels. I could tell it to run, or to be off, but I honestly couldn't tell you the number of times I'd expect the sprinklers to go on, but they wouldn't, or my wife or I would get lost in the menu. The sprinkler system was a mess best left ignored.

So this weekend, I took this beast of a device off my house, and, despite my lacking an electrical engineering degree, managed to put the $249 Rachio Iro system in place and running fairly quickly.

This Sprinkler System Had to Go

I was first encouraged to photograph my existing setup and label each wire before installing the Rachio system, as you can see above. This fallback also served as an escape route had things gone wrong, to go back and set things up as they were before and carry on with the mediocre status quo. But the instructions were pretty straight forward, and within minutes I was on my way to having a better looking and better behaving system.

The Rachio Iro Looks Like a Nest or iDevice (Image via Electric Imp)

Following the included diagram, I hooked up the wires to the Rachio system, plugged it in, and then used the Rachio app on my Nexus phone to enter an account, add my WiFi credentials, and then performed a "Blink Up" on the device - a feature that comes from Electric Imp, to send the WiFi data to the unit via the small photosensor in the bottom left of the unit. That was cool, and once I realized I had to do that without too much light behind me, the WiFi indicator on the Rachio flipped from red to green, and we were good to go.

With the unit set up, I now don't have to go back out to the side of the house to mess with the scheduling any more. Instead, I went into the app to name the watering zones, and could even go so deep as to say what type of zone they were, including whether it was grass, shrub or trees, the soil type, from topsoil to clay, the amount of shade, the slope and the type of sprinklers I've got.

You can get as detailed as you like, or just let the system run with its presets, which at the very least will get your yard watered exactly when you want it to.

With this move, I've been able to transform a complex set of pipes and wires to an app I can control anywhere. And just like I can use my phone or tablet to turn the heat on or off in my home with my Nest thermostat, or to manage my Sonos speakers, I can now turn the water on and off with the press of a button.

The foundation for Rachio's beginning was as simple as seeing a neighbor's sprinklers on in the rain. Here in California, where we're in yet another drought, and fines are being threatened for water wasters, bringing a smarter watering system makes even more sense. In fact, my scheduled watering times don't even start if more than a dab of precipitation is predicted for my zip code. So it's not only smarter and better financially, but like my move to solar energy with Sunrun, it's just a good idea for the environment.

Taking complexity out of products and making them delightful will always be a great idea, and the more old tech under assault by smart engineering, the better we'll all be. For a topic as boring as watering one's lawn, I'm pretty excited about this.

Disclosures: Nest (mentioned above) is a Google subsidiary. I work at Google. I've always paid full retail for my Nest products, and happily paid for my Sunrun, Sonos and Rachio equipment too.