Like many inventions, Barnabas Helmy’s PUCK began with a problem.
Helmy’s daughter, two years old at the time, ruined the remote control for their home’s Apple TV by chewing on it.
“They’re expensive, and it’s not even that functional of a remote,” Helmy said, sharing a story he has told dozens of times over the past three years.
Helmy recalls that when the bedroom TV remote broke, too, he decided to come up with his own solution. The result is PUCK, a small device which allows smartphone control of any TV, speaker or other machine which accepts an infrared signal. PUCK connects to a user’s smartphone via Bluetooth Low Energy technology, using an Android or iPhone app to translate commands into infrared messages other devices can understand.
So far, PUCK knows how to control more than 220,000 other devices, and it can learn new infrared codes for devices it hasn’t already met. One PUCK can control multiple devices, allowing users to, as Helmy is fond of saying, “toss those remotes.”
Rob Patino, a Springfield patent attorney and friend of Helmy, says that when Helmy showed him the concept for PUCK, he knew it could be “disruptive” to the existing marketplace.
“I think that really encouraged him and motivated him to pursue the concept,” Patino said, adding that he believed so strongly in the idea that he’s one of the investors.
Development of PUCK began in 2014, but Helmy’s path to today started much earlier. His interest in electronics began as a young man, when he would tinker with guitar peddles and eventually learn to build his own.
“It was a lot cheaper than buying them,” Helmy said with a laugh. “They’re easy to do once you figure it out.”
Helmy originally studied electrical engineering in college, but he ultimately graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in oil painting. Despite the vast difference between those two fields, Helmy says having an understanding of the relationship between form and function laid the foundation for his current endeavor.
“I’ve found that it has given me kind of an edge on other engineers because I have really strong design principles,” he said.
Helmy built the first PUCK prototype over the course of one month in early 2014. In the three years that followed, he met again and again with engineers and designers to refine the prototype.
Kevin Lust, director of the Small Business Development Center at Lincoln Land Community College, says his group met with Helmy several times to help develop a marketable business plan.
“Even at that point, there was still a lot to be done,” Lust said. “To Barnabas’ credit, he’s done it.”
Lust says the “prime directive” for groups like his is to avoid being a gatekeeper. In the case of PUCK, Lust knew Helmy would have to compete in a market filled with products which may not be the same, but which are similar enough to be confusing.
“We try not to pass judgement on ideas,” Lust said, “but we do try to be upfront and frank about the obstacles.”
With business plan in hand, Helmy visited Silicon Valley for a month, pitching PUCK three times a day to venture capitalists. All told, Helmy’s company, Smashtoast, Inc., raised about $500,000 in funding.
“It’s taken this long just to get to market because of the amount of capital it takes to make something on a mass scale,” he said.
In 2015, Smashtoast was awarded a $50,000 Arch Grant from the St. Louis-based Arch Grants Global Startup Competition, providing both capital and free legal and accounting services. Patino
says the Arch Grant was instrumental to Helmy’s success.
“It really gave him a second wind when he needed it the most,” Patino said.
Patino notes that the lag between concept and execution is one of the biggest challenges for a startup.
“Sometimes realities don’t play well with your expectations,” he said.
PUCK is manufactured at CCK Automations, an electronic circuit board maker in Jacksonville. Helmy says one benefit of keeping production local is better protection of his intellectual property.
While overseas manufacturers may offer cheaper production runs, some have been accused of stealing designs to build competing products using the very same factories.
In January, Helmy attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a major yearly industry convention at which electronics companies typically unveil upcoming products.
“We thought we were going to get lost in the fray, because there’s so much amazing stuff out there,” Helmy said. “But it was really validating for us, because everyone was coming to our booth and saying, ‘We can sell this. Everything else is a couple of years away, but this is something that works now.’ It was really exciting, and it really put us on the map.”
The CES trip led to calls from Walmart and several other retailers, and Helmy’s company reached an agreement with Walmart to sell the device in a few test markets.
“From March 27, they wanted it in stores in Miami, Dallas and Chicago – with a new display and new packaging – by Father’s Day,” he said. “From selling single packages online to this was pretty insane, but we did it.”
Helmy hopes to see PUCK sold in Springfield and across the country as early as Black Friday.
If he had to start over, Helmy says Springfield would still be his base of operations. The low cost of living has helped keep development costs low, he says, and the Internet has made it possible to work with developers and engineers anywhere. Helmy hopes that other Springfield-area entrepreneurs are emboldened by his success.
“You just have to take a risk and figure it out,” he said. “Once it’s figured out, hopefully other people will use that same channel.”
Lust says that while Springfield isn’t known as a tech hub – he only half-jokingly adds the qualifier “yet” – Helmy’s success so far serves as proof of what’s possible.
“He’s a terrific example of how you can draw on resources from all over the world, no matter where you are,” Lust said. “There’s absolutely the possibility that things can be done in Springfield.”
Lust says a major factor in Helmy’s progress has been his attitude and adaptability.
“Demeanor plays a big role in a business’ success,” Lust said. “Barnabas’demeanor throughout the whole process has been, ‘Okay, here’s a problem; How do we fix it?’ I know that translates well to investors.”
Patino adds that Springfield as a community could encourage other projects like Helmy’s by supporting “business incubators” like Innovate Springfield and by creating “investment angel” groups.
“I’m really hopeful that will do a lot to help promote and give resources to people who are like-minded,” Patino said. “Money is always a major issue for these startups.”
Looking back on his journey and armed with new knowledge and experiences, Helmy says he could develop another product in a fraction of the time.
In fact, he’s already working on his next big idea.
John Gomes is already living in the future. An early adopter of the kind of advanced smart home technology that is a fantasy for most of us, Gomes had his new Tribeca apartment intelligently connected about six months ago. He still gets a thrill when he realizes how much he can accomplish by doing almost nothing at all.
When he wakes, he says to his Amazon digital assistant, “Alexa, master bedroom shades up,” and it is done. When he puts his head on his pillow at night, he says, “Alexa, home off,” and the shades come down, while lights all over the house turn off. When he wants music, he requests it from one of the six Echo Dots spread throughout his 2,700-square-foot home, and Alexa puts on “Chill,” the Apple Music radio station that he always wants to hear. And most importantly, the lights are precisely calibrated to the right warmth.
Like many smart home early adopters, Gomes has a thing he’s really into—a kind of technological cause—and his thing is lights. Finding the right light for one’s home is “super serious,” he says. “I truly believe in the future that more people will understand this.” So he worked with his interior designer to find a company that makes custom light bulbs, searched for just the right lamps and sconces, and then, with the help of his smart home integration service, tweaked and tweaked the lighting till it was the “perfect amber.” These days, Gomes is one of the leading brokers in Manhattan’s luxury real estate market, but the amber glow of his apartment reminds him of the days when he was a waiter at the French brasserie Balthazar, and the lighting was just right, and everyone looked that much more beautiful.
The lighting in Gomes’s home has different settings—daytime, evening, and entertaining—to suit different moods and light levels. In the winter, he goes into his Lutron lighting control and adjusts the settings to account for the weaker light coming through the windows. When Gomes, his husband, and their twin babies are away at their second home in Connecticut (where the light is set to a more orange cast, appropriate for a country setting) and guests are staying in their city apartment, Gomes wants to make sure they have the right experience. From afar, he sets the house to “evening” mode before they walk in from their dinner and a show.
“When they come back at 11, I want them to walk in and say, ‘Wow, it’s still perfect,’” he says. Sometimes, Gomes says, his domestic life seems positively Jetsonlike: “I feel like I’m getting more out of life because I’m living more efficiently.” (The perfection of Gomes’s well-lit home is only occasionally pierced when his husband walks into the kitchen and absentmindedly hits a wall switch, turning on the overhead bulbs, which are not calibrated to the warm glow of the under-the-counter lighting.)
Smart home cynics might claim “efficiency” is shorthand for “enabling laziness,” as if, in a not-too-far-off future, people will waste the time they previously devoted to manually adjusting the thermostat and raising the shades by eating ice cream while watching episodes of Real Housewives. But to leap to this conclusion is to miss a whole lot of context in the lives of people like John Gomes—people who already have more than enough to do; people who are never off; people for whom technology demands as much it gives. People who are now realizing, more than ever before, just how infinitely customizable their lives can be.
Gomes’s search for the ideal amber glow is part of a larger quest for a more optimal existence. He made sure no wires are visible (“They make me very nervous”), and a company called Sun Basket delivers meal kits twice a week, and Amazon delivers certain necessities automatically, like Cocofloss, this special dental floss he likes. He vividly recalls the bad old days when he used to have to deal with “all these annoying things like wires and grocery bags and having to touch all the lights.”
And not having to do all those things makes Gomes less anxious, which makes him happier, which in turn makes him more productive, which is important, because he works pretty much all the time, and he needs to maximize every moment. Because you do not sell multimillion-dollar houses in one of the most high-profile markets in the world by taking it easy or failing to sweat the details. Everything matters—everything—and technology makes the precise details easier to sweat with every passing day.
Anyone who thinks smart homes will allow us to become lazy isn’t paying attention.
Don’t worry: Technology may come and go, but some things never change. In the not-so-distant future, cars will drive themselves and men may become obsolete (sorry, guys), but home will always be home. It’ll just be a heck of a lot smarter.
Granted, some tech is better than other tech. No one needs a Wi-Fi-connected juice press that doesn’t actually juice anything. Gadgets that offer real utility—like a smart oven or open source furniture—stand a better chance of becoming ubiquitous. If you’re skeptical, think of it this way: In-home refrigeration was the crazy, newfangled invention of 1913. Now, few among us can imagine living without it.
Thirty-nine million Americans now have a smart speaker in their homes—that’s 1 in 6 people—and all signs indicate this figure will only creep higher with time. In the living room of the future, smart speakers will be a central feature, with newer models connected to every element in your home, from the lightbulbs to the lock on your front door to the thermostat. They will become so essential you won’t think twice about plunking down $400 for one.
Watching TV and movies will be a wildly different experience. Why devote precious square footage in your living room to a giant screen when you could have one that effortlessly rolls up away and out of sight, like the one LG Display debuted at this year’s CES? Or you may choose not to have a TV at all and opt instead for a superhigh-resolution short-throw projector that turns any white wall into your own personal movie theater. Sony’s new $30,000 model would fit the bill, assuming the price tag comes down.
In the coming years, it’ll be much easier to design your living space. Apps and online platforms such as Modsy and Hutch will use virtual and augmented reality to help you visualize how a couch or chair will look in your home. You’ll have lots of options: Modular, open source furniture will dominate interior design trends, taking the lead from Ikea’s Tom Dixon-designed Delaktig couch, which has more than 97 different configurations. Choose wisely, because you’ll be spending more time on the couch than ever: Facebook Inc.’s forthcoming living-room-geared video chat device will reportedly use smart camera technology to make people on both ends feel like they’re sitting in the same room.
Also, expect your living room to be even more of a central hub than it already is. Deliveries will arrive here instead of on your front porch, thanks to Amazon.com’s new Prime service, which will let verified delivery persons carry goods right into your home.
And don’t for a minute think ultramodern gadgetry is only for the younger set: Homes for the elderly will be outfitted with internet-connected gear that allows adult children to monitor their aging parents.
Ultimately, the goal of kitchen technology won’t be to do the cooking for you. It’ll just make you a better cook. Smart ovens such as those from Junewill be outfitted with cameras and digital thermometers, helping you monitor your food as it bakes. And instead of just hoping the “medium-hot” setting on your gas range is hot enough, smart skillets will take guessing out of the equation by sizzling food at a precise temperature, which you’ll set on a connected app.
Smart refrigerators will help reduce waste by letting you know when the carrots in your fridge are about to go bad, and offer up several recipes for them to boot. The smart fridge from LG will even send cooking instructions to your smart oven. Meanwhile, 3D food printers will help you create intricately shaped pasta, and smart-technology-equipped ice cream makerswill automatically sense the hardness of the mixture within and keep it ready until it’s sundae time.
The latest wave of home-focused technology is about making everyday life better and easier, and that begins with a good night’s sleep. Sleep trackers such as Eight’s smart mattress and smartphone apps Sleep Time and Sleep Cycle will use sensors to measure your sleep metrics, while smart alarm clocks like Amazon’s mini Echo will help you begin your day on the right foot with time, weather, and news.
Need a gentler wake-up? The smart aromatherapy alarm clocks from Nox Aroma will sense when you’ve reached your sleep cycle’s lightest point and release a wake-up scent of your choice.
Once you’re up and moving, it’s time to get dressed: Your closet will be filled with clothes you don’t just wear. They will actually interact with you, tracking health markers and habits. Among them: MadeWithGlove’s still-in-development smart gloves, which promise to detect skin temperature and provide heat accordingly. Your clothes might even change shape or color based on your feelings, as will the Sensoree mood sweater, now available for preorder.
And if you want a new wardrobe, you won’t have to even leave the house to find the best-fitting clothes: Amazon’s patented mirror will let you virtually try on outfits from the comfort of your own bedroom.
In the future, spa-like experiences at home will be the norm. No need to draw your own bath—your digital assistant can do that for you with smart shower systems like those from U by Moen. High-tech tubs such as those from Toto will induce relaxed brain waves, while nose-geared gadgets like Olfinity will let you program and control your own aromatherapy session from your iPhone while you soak.
Sound far-fetched? Remember a decade ago, few of us could have imagined being so attached to our smartphones, let alone ordering groceries off the internet or barking commands at a digital assistant. With time, even the strangest things can become normal.