A New Gadget Can Make Your Home ‘Smart’ Without Replacing Anything

For all their flaws, smart homes have a certain appeal. Being able to know when the roast is done, whether your faucet is leaking, and other useful stuff would be great, but you either have to replace all your appliances, an expensive prospect at best, or stick little sensors onto all of them, which is incredibly annoying. Now, researchers at Carnegie Mellon are changing things up, by creating a sensor you plug into your wall that does the job for you.

Synthetic Sensors is a prototype plug-in unit that measures things like heat, light, motion, sound and humidity, and then uses the data to draw conclusions about the room it’s in, creating “signatures” for each appliance and action. Say you fire up the sink to do some dishes; the sensors will track how the environment changes and, over time, will form a set of data that conforms to “doing the dishes” or “opening the fridge” or “scorching a roast so badly you ordered pizza instead” so you’ll be able to know what’s going on in your kitchen whenever you check.

This is appealing for a few reasons, not the least of which is ease of use; plug it in, boot it up, and you’re good to go. But it also means that you can just use it with your stuff, and you don’t need to buy a coffee machine that demands you only use a certain kind of coffee. It’s also a different approach in that it’s a passive device collecting data and giving you information for you to act on. Most of us want a stove that tells us when we accidentally left it on, not a stove with an overly elaborate app.

The device still has some issues to work out. Human beings are complex, and we do complex things for reasons computers don’t understand. But if it means we get smarter homes without buying thousands of dollars of gear, then the product will be worth it.