Thursday, October 20, 2011

Theme: Personal Automation

This is the first in a series of posts about technology themes that I outlined in my last post.  This post is about Personal Automation.

To begin, what is personal automation?  When I first think about personal automation, the first thing that pops into my mind were the "intelligent agents" people spoke about when the Internet was just coming into vogue.  People would wake up and the news tailored to them would be delivered to them by programmatic agents that gathered things of interest to them. 

Today there are no shortage of services that offer features like that, but when I think about personal automation I think about it at a more nuts and bolts level.  By that I think of it as a fairly straightforward combination of programs, rules, notifications and web services.  I will explain that more, but I think that this way of thinking about it is fairly broad and allows for personal automation on a broad scale and this also highlights how big the opportunity is.  I plan on walking through a number of examples and services to illustrate the point. 

Why does personal automation matter or more specifically what is the benefit?  To me there are 3 key benefits of using personal automation.  The first one is that you can adjust your technology or delivery of information based on context.  Examples of that might be "turn my phone on silent between 10 PM and 6 AM", or "If I am home or at work turn on the wifi of my phone on and turn it off when I leave" or "If there is any new information about my fantasy football roster send me an instant message."  Context is huge.  At work or at certain times of the day I may want things sent to me or blocked based on the work context. 

The second benefit to me is that you are able to shift off work into the background and allow your technology to work for you.  I don't need to scour blogs for information on a topic.  I can have them sent to me.  I don't have to wonder what the weather is going to be like today, I can have my phone read my the forecast when I wake up.

The final benefit which is closely related to the 2nd is the benefit of set and forget.  If I am willing to do some work on the front end, I can enable a variety of services to perform in the background and know that they will continue on unless I intervene to stop them.  While that may not seem like a big deal to some, using these types of technology allows you to structure how you work and also allows you to protect yourself by giving you self imposed "time outs".

Ok, so lots of jargon speak.  What EXACTLY are you talking about.  I think the best way to do that is to walk through the services I use as an example.  In general I am going to discuss this as it relates to web services, mobile devices and other devices.

Web Services - A couple of my friends who are some of my favorite entrepreneurs started a service called that unfortunately they recently shuttered.  I was an advisor to the company and I totally got the value proposition but unfortunately they didn't come to a clear business model and other projects ultimately led them to the conclusion that it was better to shutter it and refer users to other services.  When it was up I used almost every day over a 2 year period.  The basic service allowed users to subscribe to a feed or some information source and then direct information to some communication output.  The output could be email, SMS or instant messaging.  In my case I used instant messaging which allowed me to not get text messages around the clock, only when I was at my computer working.

My three main use cases were A. Realtime fanatsy football news, B. Hacker News updates and C. Updates to a wide variety of music blogs I follow.  In each case there was a different value proposition to me.  Recency of information is an advantage in fantasy football.  Hacker News is a good way to monitor real time tech stories and the music blog subscriptions was a serendipitous way to remember some great sources of music that I rarely visit.  For other users certain use cases were stock prices, ebay bidding, craigslist postings and system administration notifications.

While I am bummed for the guys that it didn't work out, it was a great inspiration for me in thinking about how this sort of automation is valuable. - When went dark, they directed users to two different services, one which wasn't live yet and which stands for If This Then That.  The scope of what they are trying to accomplish is much broader than what set out to do.  On the one hand, I think that makes the tool more powerful, it also creates a slightly higher bar for users to get up and running.  To me this is driven primarily by the  fact that the sources of data and output are so broad that it may be difficult for a casual user to get their head around it.  One way that the founders address this problem is that they allow users to create recipes that are a blueprint for others to use the service.  If you have any interest in the topic of this post then I highly encourage you to check out the service, it is super cool and very useful and the investment of time has a great payoff.

For me, I sue the service primarily to replace the fantasy football aspect that I used with  It covers off the exact same feed with the only difference being that the output is directed to a Google Talk client and not a generalized jabber client.  Because it is Google Talk and I have an android phone, I get the messages on my phone 24/7 and not only when my computer is on.  I am sure I can figure out a way around this but hopefully there will be a general solution that I can use later on my iChat or Adium client on my Mac.

Several other examples of tasks I have created are as follows:

If the forecast for my home is rain tomorrow I get a text message

If I send a text message to a certain phone number provided by IFTTT, a google calendar event is created on my schedule.  In this case I can say things like lunch tomorrow at noon with Shawn and it works flawlessly.  I also use Google voice recognition to send the text, sort of like what has been demonstrated with SIRI.

If the temperature at home tomorrow is going to be above 75 degrees I get a text message telling me that tomorrow will be a warm day.

If anyone I follow on Twitter posts a link to an article, the article is saved to Instapaper for reading later.  I have to turn this one off alot and I also have been unfollowing some folks who overshare.

Finally if anyone new follows me on Twitter, I get a phone call to my cell telling me.

While not all of these are entirely important to me, the breadth of what they are doing is really impressive and if they can get the user up to speed quickly I think they will have success although I think a lot of the business model issues that faced will be similar but hopefully scale helps to solve that problem.

Originally I had intended to address several other services but in the interest in not rambling on I will just mention that I use Google alerts almost daily to track specific news items and topics and I also use both to chronicle what I am listening to but also to check out what my friends are listening to as well.

Mobile Services

The advent of smartphones has had a transforming effect on mobility from simple communication to full blown computing in the palm of your hand.  In terms of personal automation the intersection of this computing combined with GPS and other device capabilities has created some interesting services and opportunities.  I'd like to mention a couple of the services that I have found useful in this regard.

Locale - When Android debuted with the G1, Locale was without question the coolest application on my phone.  While I have a Macbook Pro, and Ipad2 and an Ipad Touch, the ability for Android to run things like Locale in the background has kept me a die hard Android user since the beginning. 

Locale has changed a bunch since I first started using it, but the first couple of use cases for me were to post a message to Twitter every time I arrived at an airport.  This was pretty cool when you think about it because Locale would use the GPS to determine my location and then use the Twitter application to send a pre set message based on the airport I was near.

Locale events are triggered off of conditions.  Default conditions include Battery level, a contact interaction, location, device orientation and time.  Based on those conditions you can change settings for Bluetooth, screen brightness, ringtone, screen timeout, volume, wallpaper and wifi settings.

Currently I have a couple of settings enabled.  My primary one is to turn wifi on at home and work and then turn it off when I am  not in those locations.  This saves my battery and also enables wifi calling for me at home as my reception with the carrier is not that good at home.  The other main setting I use is that when my phone is face down on a desk, the phone turns to silent.  When I set it face up it turns on again.

This is simple out of the box Locale.  Locale also created a developer framework that has resulted in several hundred plugins for Locale to do things like send messages on Twitter, integrate with email programs, integrate with productivity software and do some cool stuff with a variety of the phones device capabilities.  Bottom line with Locale though is that it is really simple and easy to use.

Tasker - Tasker and Locale share many of the same types of features and in fact support a lot of the same plugins.  The big difference with Tasker and Locale is that Locale is like a Mac and Tasker is like Unix.  You can do almost anything to your phone without a plugin if you can learn to program with the Tasker scripting UI.  It is super powerful and really hard to use if you don't spend the time with it.  It is, without a doubt, bad ass.

I have spent some time with Tasker and currently use it for the following:

My phone turns off the ringer, wifi and bluetooth everynight at 10 PM and turns them all back on at 6 AM.

At 7AM each morning, my phone speaks the weather forecast for my home.

I had Tasker doing some more of the wifi stuff but found that for some reason the GPS setting are more responsive on Locale.  For the less technically inclined, Tasker has "profiles" which are like IFTTT recipes but you can download them to your phone and configure them.  A ton of the coolest ones like turn on my bluetooth and go into car phone mode when driving (using your speed as the variable) were disabled by Gingerbread which made it impossible for non rooted devices to switch the GPS receiver on and off.

There are other cool mobile personal automation applications but these are by far the most noteworthy to me at this time.

Other devices

There are a grab bag of other devices that I would consider personal automation and will briefly highlight a few of them including our chumby devices.

chumby - Why not start with my most familiar?  ;-)  I would argue that chumby is one of the most awesome personal automation devices in that it brings stuff to you like the "intelligent assistant" example at the beginning.  More directly though I think there are some clever ways I use my chumby.  My sister in law is a rock star and one of the ways we keep track of her is to subscribe to all the Flickr photos that are tagged with her name MNDR.  At my desk at work and in my kitchen at home we periodically get to see new pictures of her when she is out on tour.

I also subscribe to things like Foursquare on chumby which keeps me notified when people happen to be around in San Diego and it is a reminder to reach out.  Others use chumby to wake up to Pandora or in some cases run things that monitor their home power consumption!

Eyefi - My friend Mike who is a professional photographer turned me on to Eyefi a while back.  Eyefi is essentially a wifi enabled SD card for your camera.  No more forgetting to transfer pcitures.  Whenever my caemra is on and in wifi range, it starts automatically uploading the images to my computer.  How sweet is that?

Time Capsule - After one near epic photo-apocalypse, I became a devoted backup fan.  Unfortunately until I had a time machine backing up actually meant remembering to back up.  With Time Machine I have a hard drive at home and a hard drive at work that automatically keeps an up to date image of my laptop at all times.

Two last mentions to conclude.  One is X10.  I have three unopened boxes of X10 home automation devices that I can't wait to install in the house.  Unfortunately I have had them for over 6 months and I can't seem to find the time to break them open.  One day soon. 

The last one is Google Power Meter / SDGE smart meter.  My home has a smart meter and I apparently am the only person who used this service so Google has shut it down.  the biggest drawback thus far has been that all of the data come to you several days later which sucks.  You need the information real time if you want to get people to conserve power.  Show me burning money on a bonfire pile and I will turn off the dishwasher.  Let me do it from my smartphone on the road?  Even better.  There is still a long ways to go on smart energy but at least companies like SDGE are laying the foundations to make it possible.


This is only the tip of the ice berg.  As computing becomes ubiquitous and embedded in all of our devices, we will be able to do some amazing things.  Many of the sci fi scenarios from old movies won't just be possible, they will be a daily part of our lives.  As a consumer I will continue to keep a close eye on this and keep on the front end of seeing how this develops.  I would welcome any tips or pointers for other great services I might be missing in the comments.

1 comment:

Derek said...

Awesome post, Derrick. I was just actively searching for new technology to check out as it relates to automation, no joke.

I have a few to add to the list. A couple of iPhone apps that I am a fan of are Instagram and Summify.

Instagram to house all of my photos while automatically posting to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, while checking into Foursquare at the same time. Foursquare specifically to track where I've been in the photographs. Instagram hits all of these posting points that I could've spent time logging in and out of.

With Summify, I am able to aggregate the stories every 6 hours of what the individuals I follow find interesting (via RT). It shows up in one group summary of 10 stories and lists our which people found what story interesting. It saves me the hassle of having that twitter itch, checking out what's going on in the latest feeds.

I am now in the process of exploring all of your recommendations. I will definitely be checking them out.