Thursday, January 3, 2013

Not Ready for Prime Twine : A review of Super Mechanical's Kickstarter hardware

A lack of an in-apartment washer and dryer can make life a bit of a drag.  Earlier this year I was wondering why our building's washers/dryers don't have internet monitoring.  I did some research and found a number of companies were offering internet monitored washers/dryers but they mainly seemed to be in use at college campuses.  Makes sense.

I brought it up to my  landlord and it turned out that the company that sold him the system in the building had them available and was willing to do an upgrade for him.  There was, however, the small problem of cost.  They wanted over $200 a machine to upgrade the "readers" as well as an ongoing monthly fee of around $100 for the service.  He and I concluded that people weren't willing to pay $5 per load of laundry and that we'd all just have to keep using our microwave timers / iphones to keep track of our laundry.

It was around this time that I ran across a project on Kickstarter that I thought might help. I'm a big fan of Kickstarter and have funded a variety of things on there including Double Fine Adventure , Mail Pilot, and my personal favorite The Travoltas who I will be traveling to see in Houston this February.  But, the Kickstarter I'm talking about in this case is this one called Twine.

It looked interesting since it was a simple sensor system with built-in wireless.  It  included temperature and vibration sensors and since I had this washer/dryer thing stuck in my head I figured I should check it out.  The project had already been fully funded but I went ahead and pre-ordered one and then promptly forgot about it. That is until about a month ago when I got an email saying that my Twine was ready for shipping.  The email also said that things had turned out a little more expensive than they expected so the cost of the Twine with full sensor package was $199 instead of the $174 when I pre-ordered.

My Twine arrived within a couple days and I have to admit as far as packaging goes it was amazing.  The guys at SuperMechanical certainly know how to put together a cardboard package.

 The Twine itself as well as all the add-on sensors are sleek looking and well made.

After pulling everything out of the box I was pretty excited to start playing with my new toy.  Unfortunately this is where the excitement ended and the disappointment began to set in.

I installed the batteries in the Twine and fired up my laptop.  A new wireless network appeared and after connecting my laptop to it, a browser popped up asking me to select my local network and password so it could jump on my wireless.  I had a moment of trepidation here as I'm not big on putting passwords on devices that I don't have the source code to but I moved ahead.

After that I had to create an account on SuperMechanical so that my Twine could start sending data to their web site.  This was all a relatively painless process and within a few minutes I could see that the Twine knew what orientation it was sitting in and that it was sending the temperature of my apartment.  Immediately I noticed that the Twine thought my apartment was anywhere from 78-80 degrees which is pretty much about 10 degrees too high. Oh well no biggy, next I thought I'd check out the vibration sensor. "Currently not supported".  Huh what?  That's why I bought the thing.  Nope,  I was out of luck.

I moved on to play with the other sensors, moisture, magnetic switch, and break out.  They all worked as expected.

The Twine is easy to take apart and if you look at the main board it's pretty clean with a 32 bit ARM based MCU, a Gainspan low power wifi module, and some Flash memory. The board has a Micro-USB port but that is only for power, not communication.  The 4 pin sensor adapter plug is wired with the following : 3.3V,GND, Input, 1 Wire.  The Input is the input voltage from a sensor and the 1 wire is used to identify that sensor.  Each of the sensor boards has a 64 bit Unique ID chip with 1 wire interface. I'm pretty sure the people who are planning to plug their sensors in using a Y cable are going to be in for a surprise.

After playing around with the website for a while what I really wanted was to get the data directly from the device to one of my local computers.  Why make me round trip from the Twine to the SuperMechanical web site back down to my local computer.  I understand the "hey you can see it anywhere on the internet this way", but "hey maybe I only want to see it locally".

I posted a message asking about the local network support in the software developer section but didn't receive any kind of acknowledgement from the powers that be.  A couple of other Twine users responded they'd like to see the same support.  My guess is the SM guys are probably a bit overwhelmed right now.  (I sent them a copy of this to see if they had any comments back on December 19th and never heard a word.)

At one point I considered throwing a proxy in the middle to see what the device is actually sending to the SM servers, but I decided I wasn't going to invest that much time in it since I was probably going to shelve it for now anyway.

The Twine sends its updates to the server at a couple of different rates.  One is about every 45 seconds, the other is in a continuous fast update mode.  It will switch back to the slower mode on its own if you don't click a button on the website stopping it.  This was another reason I wanted to access it locally instead of the whole crazy round trip it was doing to be able to monitor it from 3 feet away.

Although the actual hardware of the Twine seems to be well thought out and well designed (maybe even over-designed a bit) the software side is quite lacking.   As it stands today if you want to sense temperature and a single input of one other type, send that info to a server somewhere, then have it email you, tweet, or post to an http url using very simple rules then this is the device for you.  If your use doesn't match that exacting criteria then $200 seems a little high when you can buy an Arduino or a Raspberry PI for less than 1/5th the price.

I hope they open source the system or at least open up the interface to the local network. This would allow alternate uses for the hardware to grow. Without that I think the Twine is in for a rough road. I wish them luck as they seem like good guys who really know how to do physical product design.  Right now there's better value for your money if you have any DIY skills at all.


  1. I wonder if the MeterPlug guys are planning an API... That would seem to be the perfect fit. Certainly consumption during use would be high enough to easily give a binary "done yet?" response, though I bet YOU would build some logic to know based on energy usage when washer hits spin cycle, etc. Or track average time of use to estimate time to completion. Anyway, only downside is it's bluetooth so might have to relay it through another device. lame!