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Is assemble-it-yourself smart tech the way of the future?

Ikea reached out a few weeks ago about the new Starkvind air purifier. Ikea’s Tradfri line of smart home products offers affordable and readily available devices. Of course, I was interested. I waited, and then a box arrived on my doorstep — unmarked, with no indication where it came from. I opened it up to find a lot of different pieces and an instruction book.

It was the Starkvind Air Purifier. And I had to assemble it myself.

The Ikea Starkvind is a table and air purifier in one.

We need a smart hex key

After the initial surprise, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was Ikea; of course I would need to assemble it myself. The box full of parts turned out to be four legs, a filter, a tabletop, a handful of screws, and the air purifier itself. You see, the Starkvind is a side table with an air purifier built-in. It’s an innovative design that actually makes for an attractive piece of furniture — and a great example of convergence.

I used the included hex key (or Allen wrench to some of you) to put the pieces together. It was a single-person job, and took only about 20 minutes — though some of that time was spent searching for screws. They were not included in any kind of package, but instead were scattered around the inside of the box.

The entire process got me thinking: What are the implications for build-it-yourself smart home tech? Sure, all I did was attach legs to the table, place the filter inside the purifier, and then secure the tabletop. But Ikea is known for leaving the assembly to the buyer in exchange for keeping prices low. Could the same concept extend to smart home tech in the future?

Can building it yourself bring down prices?

Ikea is the favorite furniture brand of college students for one simple reason: It’s affordable. Even the Starkvind table and air purifier combo is just $220, versus the $500-plus you might pay for comparable purifiers.

The Dyson Pure Cool Tower blows air throughout a room.
The Dyson Purifier Cool is $550. Dyson

While that’s not what I would call cheap, it’s also not going to kill your budget — especially when you get a table with it at the same time. (I was a student once; I remember using a box as a nightstand.) It begs the question: If you could get smart home devices for a lower cost at the expense of putting them together yourself, would you?

The range of devices that you could build with just a few instructions and a YouTube video is impressive. Even devices like smart assistants could be built yourself, although it might take a little more know-how. Think about microcomputing kits like the Arduino; they include step-by-step instructions for how to assemble the various boards, hook up the microphones, and more. It would give users a closer connection with their devices and help them understand how everything works. Plus, the increased privacy is always nice.

Assembling your own smart home tech also opens up options like different configurations. Imagine if every piece of kit came with different ways to assemble it. You could choose the one that best-suited to your tastes and decor or even the layout of your home.

Of course, this doesn’t work for every type of device. While you could easily put together something like an air purifier, a smart assistant, or even a robot vacuum, something like a smart fridge or a smart washer might be a bit outside what most people would feel comfortable with.

Ignorance is bliss, but awareness is key

If build-it-yourself smart home tech becomes a reality, it can also help address another issue that has plagued the industry: Privacy. In 2019, Nest revealed that the Nest Secure line of smart home devices would get the ability to respond to voice commands through a built-in microphone — a part of the device no one knew existed. Users didn’t exactly react well to the news that their technology contained a hidden microphone.

The Starkvind has an easy-to-access filter.

If you build your own device, you’ll know exactly what kind of technology is inside it. You could choose whether to enable voice commands or not by deciding whether or not to attach the microphone to the board. As anyone that has ever built a PC before knows, working with small components makes you intimately familiar with every part of the process. You have to be, or when it comes time to boot up the device, you won’t be able to troubleshoot any problems that arise.

Assembling the Starkvind makes for an amusing anecdote, but it also means I’m more aware of its presence in my home. I often forget to use air purifiers, especially if they’re not automatic. The Starkvind is used as a table, and since the knob to turn it on and adjust its filtration speed is in plain view, it gets used far more than a purifier that gets tucked into a corner. The thought of building your own devices might seem intimidating, but if the process is intentionally kept simple (with the most complicated parts preassembled), it might present a way to bring down the cost of smart home devices and make them more accessible to everyone.

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