SmartThings founder sees a limitless Internet of Things

Washington D.C. startup seeks to be the platform in a high-stakes race to shape the Internet of Things

WASHINGTON -- The idea that sparked the start-up SmartThings was a personal disaster.

The family of Alex Hawkinson, CEO and founder of Smart Things, owns a mountain house in Colorado. It's a getaway for skiing and hiking. In the winter of 2011, its pipes froze and burst, possibly the result of a power outage. Once electricity was restored the water began flowing again, causing so much damage that the drywall was coming down.

Alex Hawkinson
Alex Hawkinson, CEO and founder of Smart Things.

A nearby handyman could have quickly shut off the water had Hawkinson known. It seemed crazy to him that you can know the status of a friend on Facebook but are unable to know what's going on inside your own home.

Two years later, in an old mill building along a canal in the Georgetown section of Washington, Hawkinson is producing a platform and devices for creating an intelligent, connected and controllable home.

SmartThings builds a hub that connects to a home router and to sensors that can detect states like motion, moisture, temperature, or presence, such as the comings and goings of pets. But more important, it's building an open development platform for independent developers and device makers developing tools for the Internet of Things.

For instance, in SmartThings offices, a Sonos wireless speaker suddenly blares with the sound of a barking dog. It sounds very real. A developer created a connection between a door bell and a virtual guard dog that will bark if no one is home.

Why stop at a barking dog?

The wireless speaker can be linked to network enabled smoke detector, which can be used to help spread the alarm and even relay pre-recorded instructions to a child in an emergency.

The possibilities expand creatively.

You wake up, walk into kitchen, where a motion detector senses your presence and knows, because you gave an audible 'good morning' signal to your smart phone, that it's time for you start getting ready for work. A weather app announces the forecast over the speaker and then shifts to the type of music you like at that hour. All are integrated into the SmartThing's app platform.

"Sonos would have never imagined that use case, but it's made possible by the developer community," said Hawkinson.

A motion sensor signals lighting controls as well as prompts a connected thermostat to behave differently as rooms empty or fill. Lights can be programmed to shut off when you leave the house as connected doors automatically lock, and security apps turn on.

Someone taking care of an elderly parent can use the motion sensor to help determine whether the parent's motion patterns are normal or not.

Manufacturers are making network-enabling ordinary products for wired and wireless communications. The SmartThings Hub supports Wifi, as well as Z-Wave and ZigBee, two low-power communication protocols.

The wireless support enables developers to connect one device to another to create new functionality around unrelated products, such as doorbell and the wireless speaker.

All these apps can be integrated into SmartThings platform.

There are about 1,000 devices that can use the platform today, and with its developers, SmartThings has formed a community of about 5,000 so far, said Hawkinson.

The world "almost becomes programmable in this new way that people didn't expect," he said.

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