Empty Nest?

I’m typically an optimistic fellow, often to a fault. Optimism can get you in trouble when you are estimating project hours, gauging the abilities and dedication of students, or making out your monthly budget. Don’t ask me how I know that.

So why is it I’m decidedly not optimistic about Nest’s acquisition by Google? Tony Fadell told us that he will be able to spend more time working on products while Google helps them scale. Matt Rogers assured us that Nest products will still interface with iOS and promised that Google won’t be utilizing their thermostat as a peeping Tom. I’m sure they believe that, and I would certainly like to.

However, I know what goes on when a small company gets swallowed by a big one. They say they want to keep you just the way you are. They value your people, and they recognize that there is something special about the way you do things. But they just can’t help themselves. Human Resources digs in first, followed close behind by IT. Before you know it, you’ve been surrounded by policies, bombarded with meetings, and good people start leaving.

Maybe Google is different. Maybe they’ll let well enough alone. Maybe this time next year I’ll be writing a glowing review of Nest’s new, innovative home security system, or whole home backup battery, or internet fridge.

Nest, we hardly knew ye.

Nest Protect

I had been wondering what Nest would do next. I was a little surprised that they released a second version of their thermostat before announcing a new product. Just this week they announce Nest Protect, a smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Once again, they’ve taken a device that everyone has (I have 8), but is ignored, and created an outstanding product. You may remember a student project I posted in the Spring of 2011 from my product innovation class. Octavia solved some of the same problems in similar ways. What does Nest Protect do better than the standard smoke detector? A lot:

  1. I currently have smoke detectors all over my house. I have one carbon monoxide detector plugged into an outlet in the basement. Nest Protect combines them both into one device.
  2. My smoke detectors chirp intermittently when their batteries need to be changed. But the chirp is so infrequent, I have a really hard time figuring out which one it is. This typically happens in the middle of the night. Nest Protect performs a system diagnostic whenever you turn off the light in a room. It glows green to show everything checks out, or yellow to indicate a problem. Wave your hand at it, and it will speak to you, telling you exactly what’s wrong.
  3. It doesn’t just make a loud beeping sound (which children often sleep through), but actually speaks to you in a female voice, giving you specific information about the incident.
  4. It also acts as a nightlight, glowing white when it detects motion in a dark room.
  5. It knows what room it is in, so it can tell you which room smoke has been detected in.
  6. They talk to each other, so the one in the bedroom can tell the one in the kitchen to tell you that the one in the bedroom detects smoke.
  7. They connect to your WiFi network, and they have a mobile app, so your phone can also communicate with them.
  8. They also communicate with the Nest thermostat, adding to its awareness of when people are home, and telling it to turn off the furnace if carbon monoxide is detected.
  9. If it goes off because of, say, something you burnt in the oven, you can simply wave at it to turn it off.
  10. If you do need to physically interact with it, there’s a great big button you can easily hit with whatever you have that will reach.
  11. It isn’t a butt-ugly wall wart.

There’s only one problem: at $130 a piece, it would cost me $1,040 to replace all of the smoke detectors in my house. Just replacing one or two wouldn’t really help. So, as much as I admire the design of the product, it’s priced out of my range. The Nest thermostat is a little easier to swallow, since I would only have to buy one, yet I still haven’t come up with the dough to replace the thermostat that came with my house.

More Acquisitions

Continuing a trend I’ve remarked on before, two Pittsburgh design firms have recently been acquired.

BodyMedia was started in 1999 by a few guys I knew as a masters student at CMU. Chris Pacione was one of my professors, but is no longer with the company. I graduated with Ivo Stivoric, CTO and VP of new products, though I knew him as John. He was an industrial designer doing ground-breaking work with wearable computers. BodyMedia produces fitness armbands for weight and calorie management, activity tracking, and sleep monitoring. They’ve been used by the contestants on The Biggest Loser. A month ago, BodyMedia was acquired by Jawbone for over $100 million. I’m happy to hear that the team will remain intact here in Pittsburgh.

Gist Design was founded in 2002 by two friends of mine that also went through the CMU School of Design graduate program: John Beck and Shelley Moertel. They’ve done work with BodyMedia, as well as other medical device and consumer electronic manufacturers, focusing on “Research & Design with Practical Impact”. Earlier this month, Gist was acquired by TrueFit, a Pittsburgh-based innovation firm that helps entrepreneurial start-ups bring new technology product ideas to market.

Knowing the bright people that started these successful companies, I’m proud of their accomplishments, and I want to wish them all congratulations and best wishes for their futures. I hope merging with their new parent companies goes as smoothly as possible and that they are comfortable with any changes in corporate culture. In my experience, it can be a mixed bag.

Why, this car is Automatic…

Cars are slowly but surely transforming into consumer devices, and it’s about time. I’m tired of buying cars and having their onboard technology obsolesce in a year or two without a practical upgrade method. My Cube is a great little car, but it can’t charge my iPhone 4S, as it still has the Firewire-based cable. I jealously read about the new features in Fords and other brands that are taking advantage of current mobile device capabilities, knowing full well that I won’t be replacing my car for another five years or so. Imagine what our phones will be doing five years from now!

But, there is a glimmer of hope. Automatic Labs has announced a truly innovative product that will allow me to get a little more out of my existing car. Check out the Automatic Link.

The device plugs into your car’s data port and communicates with your iPhone or Android via Bluetooth. It gives you the following capabilities:

  • Automatic learns about your driving styles and gives you subtle audio cues when you do things that waste gas. It then scores your driving every week, and provides you with detailed information about your trips, like how much you drive and where.
  • Automatic calls for help in a crash, reporting your name, location, and vehicle description.
  • Automatic sends push notifications when your check engine light comes on, retrieves the Engine Trouble Codes reported by your car’s computer, and shows you what they mean. It even let’s you clear the light yourself.
  • Automatic remembers where you parked.

When I first heard about this, I assumed it would be a subscription-based service. That seems to be the direction everything is headed these days. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that you can purchase the Automatic Link for $69.95. That’s it. It’s available for pre-order, shipping in July, and compatible with gasoline cars sold in the U.S. since 1996. I’ve already placed my order.


As a college senior, Sean Dooley has some issues with laundry. He set himself the task of designing a laundry bin that would be more space efficient for purposes of storage and travel. After a lot of research into existing products, he was most influenced by paper grocery bags. After initial brainstorming and sketching, he produced a tiny prototype from cardboard, paper, and masking tape.

It took many iterations to get the folds right, especially as he increased the size of each prototype. Eventually, he had one made out of fabric that was large enough to test with friends and family.

The final prototype utilized heavier materials and sturdier construction. A more comfortable grip was created on the handles. Not only does it fold up small enough to stash in a suitcase, it serves another function as well. Laying flat on a table, it serves as a folding station. The two ribs running vertical on the side of the bin are guides for folding shirts.

Sean fully embraced the iterative process, rapidly producing prototypes that helped him surmount obstacles. The result was a design that clearly solved the stated problem and a prototype good enough to use as a production model. I could easily see this product on the shelf at Bed, Bath, & Beyond.

Gluten Free Goodness

I’m fortunate enough to not suffer any allergies, but I know plenty of people that do. I’ve witnessed how difficult it can be for people with dietary restrictions to eat out. Lindsey Estep, one of my students last semester, has first-hand experience with gluten allergies and the situations one must deal with at restaurants. She decided to take on this problem as her semester-long project.

Lindsey developed a service design that she prototyped with the help of Terra Cafe, a local Morgantown restaurant. Her solution involved table placards that served both to inform customers that there are gluten-free selections and, by turning it around and setting it out on the table, indicate that someone at the table was in need of gluten-free fare. The wait staff carried matching cards that they could write gluten-free orders on. These cards would then accompany the order to the kitchen, returning to the patron with their food as reassurance that their needs were recognized and met by everyone involved in preparing the meal.

The system was tested out on a Wednesday after some social media advertising. Only two customers required gluten-free service during the trial, but both indicated when surveyed afterward that they felt much safer and would be much more likely to frequent the restaurant if such a system were implemented.

The Rock Dock

Will Deskins was dissatisfied with the standard guitar stand. They are typically made of hollow, aluminum piping painted black. This makes them hard to see when empty and easy to trip over. They are light, with a small footprint, which makes them easy to knock over when holding a guitar. Having identified these issues, Will designed and prototyped a guitar stand that would not only do a better job holding a guitar, but would have additional utility and be attractive as a piece of furniture.

The Rock Dock is much larger and a good deal heavier than the standard guitar stand, so it wouldn’t be convenient for travel, but it works quite well in a studio or home. The arching neck support folds down to reveal a storage area in the back for cables. A small drawer in the bottom is the perfect place to keep picks and replacement strings. The base is padded where the guitar rests on it and has a slot to accommodate the pickup/strap button on the bottom of some guitars. The prototype pictured above doesn’t sport them, but the final product would also include power outlets in the base, relieving the need for a power strip to plug in an amp and other equipment. The entire stand is made of stained wood, giving it a sculptural quality.

Putting the Pee in Power

Yeah, I’m teaching a class on product innovation this semester, and I’m quite proud of the work my students are doing. But as good as their ideas are, they don’t come close to this.

Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, and Faleke Oluwatoyin, all 14 years old, along with 15-year-old Bello Eniola are participants in Maker Faire Africa. They’ve created a urine powered generator.

Let me say that again.

Four African teenage girls have created a freaking urine powered generator!

Now, I don’t know what the economics surrounding such a concept are, and I don’t have any idea how feasible it would be to employ such a technology, but it sure sounds like an awesome idea. I’ll have to take their word on how it works:

  • Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which cracks the urea into nitrogen, water, and hydrogen.
  • The hydrogen goes into a water filter for purification, which then gets pushed into the gas cylinder.
  • The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen gas.
  • This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator.
  • 1 Liter of urine gives you 6 hours of electricity.

Considering that adult humans produce between 1 and 2 liters of urine a day, that seems like a reasonable source of fuel. Here’s the source article on The Next Web.


One of the example designer-founded companies I had my students study this semester is Airbnb. It’s a great story. As cool and innovative as Airbnb is, it’s now doing something truly awesome. The company has a new service available through which New Yorker’s can offer their space for free to those stranded by Hurricane Sandy for free.

Over 100,000 people are still stranded by Hurricane Sandy. Airbnb has partnered with the City of New York to connect those in need with people who are able to provide free housing.

As of this writing, 513 Airbnb members have agreed to participate. Not only is this a fantastic way for the company to be socially responsible, but it’s a smart business move, resulting in a lot of publicity and likely a lot of new users of their service.