Connect All the Things

Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired

With the powers that be continuing to expand their use of sensors to monitor our every action as we move about in the world, it’s nice to encounter a product that lets us do the same inside our own homes. A simple “Internet of Things” device like Twine won’t give you the omniscience of a surveillance super-state, but, by allowing you to lord over your domain, it will give you a little taste of the joy The Man must feel whenever he catches a citizen running a stop sign, or gives the population of an island nation sufficient warning to escape an impending tsunami.

Twine is an inexpensive, customizable little box that can be rigged to monitor your home for various changes or actions, and alert you when they happen. It debuted in 2011 as a Kickstarter project, and became a fully funded reality in early 2012. The team behind this box, Texas-based Supermechanical, has continued development on the product, bringing both new software and hardware features. In March, Twine gained the ability to send text messages and place phone calls (both are paid services, starting at $5/month) along with a new accessory capable of interfacing with an Arduino board.

The basic Twine box, which costs $125, can sense vibration, orientation, and temperature. There are a few other accessories you can purchase (for $35 each) to extend it. There’s a magnetic switch, a moisture sensor, a breakout board, and the new Cloud Shield, which lets you connect directly into an Arduino board, allowing you to program and create some far-fetched actions, such as placing a phone call using a banana. The sensors all connect to the Twine through a 3.5mm cable.

I tested the entire Twine product line — one Twine, a magnetic switch, a moisture sensor, a breakout board and the Cloud Shield. You can purchase a bundle of all sensors (sans the Cloud Shield) and a Twine for $200.

The Twine box is small, roughly 2.8 inches square and less than an inch tall. It’s powered by any standard micro USB cable should you place it near an outlet, or by two AAA batteries (included, and it will e-mail you when they run out). After powering it on, you visit and follow a series of web-based prompts. Twine will create a private Wi-Fi network for you to connect to using your computer or tablet. Then, you’ll enter your local Wi-Fi networks credentials, create a Twine account, and verify your Twine has the latest firmware installed. From there, you’re ready to start setting up rules. Programming the Twine is straightforward — it took me less than 10 minutes from the time I first opened the box until I had my first rule created and running.

You don’t have to be a coder to create rules. You can do it all using simple menus in the browser, and the process is designed to be easy enough for anyone to use. You define a trigger — such as a specific ambient temperature measurement, or a physical orientation of the Twine — and then you choose an action. Possible actions are varied: turn on the LED on the Twine box, send a Tweet with predefined text, place a phone call, or send a string of information across the internet by way of HTTP. All actions allow you to insert variables based on the triggers.

For example, the moisture sensor will trigger any time moisture is found — or in my case, is found to be missing. I set the moisture sensor to alert me when my tomato plant needed water. I placed it about an inch into the soil of the planter and set it to e-mail me when moisture was no longer detected. Once the soil would dry out, I’d get an e-mail reminding me to add some water.

The rule looks like this: “Hey! You’re plants need water, the soil is [moisture],” and the “moisture” variable is set to “dry.”

Another example: I set up a rule to fire off an e-mail whenever a small magnet is moved in or out of half-inch range of the magnetic sensor, an optional add-on. For my testing, I hooked up Twine with the magnet board to my pantry door. Having three kids who are always hungry, I wanted to track how often they were getting into snacks. When the pantry door was opened, I was sent an e-mail within a few seconds of the switch being triggered. To my surprise, the door isn’t opened a whole lot between meals. Instead, it’s most active in the hour leading up to a meal and the hour immediately after. No wonder they never want to eat dinner — they’re snacking right before we eat.

Once you’ve created your rules, you have to sync them to your Twine. You can either wait a set period of time before the web service will automatically sync new rules to the device, or you can flip over the box to force the Twine to sync immediately. This may sound trivial, but depending on how you plan on mounting (i.e. duct taping) your Twine to a surface, you might not be able to turn the box over easily.

Photo: Alex Washburn/Wired

The breakout board (also $35) is where you have the potential to get really creative. You’re able to plug nearly anything with an analog or digital signal into the breakout board and set up actions. To test the breakout board, I purchased a $6 push-button automotive switch from Amazon. I plugged two wires into the breakout board, and Twine recognized everything was connected. Since the switch I purchased had two different phases, I was able to create two triggers. With an upcoming business trip, I figured I would set the switch to send me two different text messages: “We wanted to say hi, Dad!” and “We miss you a lot.” This would allow my kids to text me while I was away by just pressing a switch. Once I explained how it worked, my kids were ecstatic, and so was I.

The Supermechanical team laid out instructions for hooking up a Staples Easy button to the breakout board because, well, why not? There’s an impressive list of different use cases for Twine with the various sensors on the Supermechanical blog; it’s worth a read if you’re considering the Twine.

Any alerts coming from Twine were reliable, with minimal delay. The only issue I had with notifications was when I would switch sensors without deleting any sensor-specific rules. For example, I switched out the moisture sensor with the magnetic switch, then created a new rule for the switch without deleting the rule for the moisture sensor. Any time the rule for the switch was triggered, the moisture rule was also triggered even though it was no longer hooked up to the Twine.

My biggest complaint about Twine is the lack of a mobile app. Currently the only way to set up rules is through the website. Having a native app, or even a web app built for smaller screens, would let you create rules from your phone more easily. As it is now, it’s barely usable on an iPhone.

WIRED Receiving accurate notifications for just about any action or environmental change in your house is rad. Limitless potential. Personal creativity is the only barrier. Relatively inexpensive if you choose the bundle.

TIRED No native mobile app, and the website isn’t formatted properly for smartphone screens. You have to remember to re-write your rules when you switch sensors.