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A technologist's house finds its voice on Twitter

Liz Pfeffer
Tom Coates in his tweeting house.

These days, our technology is getting smarter. We don’t just talk on the phone anymore, we talk to them. Siri is already a household name and our homes are getting smarter, too. There are thermostats that you can control from your cell phone. And smoke detectors that will text you if there’s a fire. San Franciscan Tom Coates has taken this technology one step further. He’s designed his home to track its vitals and tweet them out to the world, all triggered by a network of wi-fi enabled sensors.

“New technologies come along all the time and almost nothing that I've done in this house is particularly complicated,” Coates says. “Nothing that I've done is really very expensive. Every piece of equipment in here was bought off the Internet. There's no extra kind of programming or code written for it at all.”

Coates says anyone could do it. His bright cottage, one of 5,000 originally built for refugees of the 1906 earthquake, is filled with tiny devices and sensors that act as portals between the built world and the Internet world.

The house communicates its actions on Twitter under the handle @houseofcoates. When Coates gets home he receives a welcome tweet, and when the sun goes down his house automatically turns on the lights in his office. The variety of tweets Coates’ house makes range from cheeky notifications that he stepped on his WiFi-enabled scale to warnings about the room temperature.

Coates’ products range from Belkin light switches he can control from his mobile phone, to a Twine device that monitors when his plant needs to be watered, to a Dropcam with a motion detector he can use to see who is in his home. 

“If it isn't me, I can turn on the webcam and have a look immediately and see who's in the house,” Coates says. “I can turn on the lights if it's too dark. And the Dropcam even has a little speaker in it so I can speak through my mobile phone and say, ‘What are you doing in my house?’ Or I can obviously, more likely, call the police.”

There is a long bridge between this and the technology in the movie “Her,” but instead of one super-intelligent computer running the show, Coates connects to the objects in his house with WiFi and easy-to-use mobile apps. He uses If This Then That to set automatic responses to simple triggers. 

Even though there are more than 1,000 Twitter followers who also know Coates’ every step in and out of his home, he’s not concerned about privacy.

If anything, he says that being able to check in while he’s away is a pleasant feeling.

“It sort of turned into this weird personality and this nice weird little Twitter friend that I like hanging out with,” he says.

And he isn’t the only one who sees the personality that his house has developed on Twitter. Its followers engage in conversations with the house and even create parody accounts. 

It could be called animism, the idea that objects can have their own spirits and personalities. But to Coates, it’s just home tweet home.

This story originally aired on February 25, 2014.

Crosscurrents technology