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In Portland, Iotas’ pre-wired smart apartments let you rent the high-tech life (Update)

If you move into Grant Park Village in Portland, OR, the apartment building’s amenities will include an on-site fitness center, a dog-wash station, and built-in smart devices — though you might not notice the smart lights, plugs, and sensors. That’s by design.

“Let’s say you come home really late at night, and you’re drunk, and all you want to do is go straight to bed,” says Sce Pike, co-founder of Iotas, the start-up that installed all the Internet-of-Things (IoT) tech in the apartments. In your inebriated state, you don’t want to fumble for lights, which is why the apartments come with preset rules. While it’s not called “drunk mode,” there’s still a condition that will automatically shut off all your lights after you shut the bedroom door. The “welcome home” rule turns on the lights and plays music when you walk through the front door.

Automatic for the people

“We want to enhance people’s lives instead of making people frustrated with smart-home technology,” Pike told Digital Trends when we toured Grant Park Village. That’s why Iotas is starting slow with what goes into each apartment. “We could do a lot more,” she says. “We’re just not going to throw everything at them all at once.”

“The premise here is that if you look around it’s exactly like a normal home.”

Right now, for example, the Iotas system doesn’t work with Nest or any other smart thermostat, though that could be on the horizon. Pike says a lot of people don’t even know what about smart-home technology and aren’t familiar with the term Internet of Things. “The premise here is that if you look around it’s exactly like a normal home. There’s nothing really amazing about it,” she says. “We believe that it should all be hidden. You shouldn’t have to think about your home in any other way. We don’t want to scare them.”

Part of the appeal for those who are eager to embrace this technology is that they don’t have to shell out hundreds of dollars for the equipment themselves, nor do they have to rewire their light switches or install something that will result in them forfeiting their damage deposit. Since Millennials are often amongst the early adopters for these gadgets, this is significant because only 35 percent of under-35-ers own homes.

600 square feet of smart

Planning for a smart apartment is very different from doing so for a whole house. Obviously, apartments are smaller, so it’s easier for the Iotas team to outfit every switch and plug. One reason the system isn’t integrated with Nest is that the building’s Cadet heaters – kind of like in-wall space heaters – aren’t compatible with the smart thermostat. Instead, Pike says buildings overall have to become smarter about how they funnel air to each room; at 3:00 a.m., it doesn’t make sense to heat the kitchen when everyone’s sleeping in the bedroom.

Iotas is centered around this kind of adaptive system, and it plans on using the data gathered from residents to make everything smarter. “Once we have some level of learnings from how you are living your life, we will start anticipating your needs and start offering up behaviors and offering up rules to you,” says Pike. If you fire up the radio in your bathroom every morning, eventually the system will suggest a rule that pairs turning on the radio along with the light in the a.m. If you decide that’s a great idea, you can accept and Iotas may suggest another rule in a couple days. If you’re creeped out and decline the suggestion, it may be two weeks before you get another rule recommendation.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

You can control all the lights and plugs from Iotas’s app, but the real goal is to have your home learn enough from your habits that runs on rules. “It’s to get you away from the home control interface and just have your home automatically adjust to you,” says Jeremy Steinhauer, Product Engineering Lead for Iotas. While renters will be able to make up their own rules, Steinhauer says the 10 that are preinstalled, plus the ones the system will start suggesting, should be sufficient for most people. “Setting up a rule is programming, almost,” he says. “We don’t want to have to have people learn how to program. We want to have to be able to automatically generate those rules for them.”

Data: Mine!

In order to make rules, the system does need to keep track of your habits. This may make some people uncomfortable, which is why the smart devices still function as dumb devices; if you don’t want to opt in to the system, you don’t have to. And Pike insists that the data gathering is solely to make the system better. “Our living profile captures your patterns, your routines, your preferences, and settings of your physical environment,” she explains. “And so that is what we combine to be able to make a profile. And that living profile will be able to move with you from home to work to car to hotels, eventually, and then potentially to retailers as well.” While one day Iotas could potentially help you monetize your data — “Our firm belief is that your data is your data; we want you to own that data,” says Pike — that’s a long way down the road.

“We don’t want to have to have people learn how to program.”

That data could be attractive to other smart device makers, too. The smart apartment building is a sort of controlled little microcosm. For one thing, only half the units are equipped with the sensors and connected switches; Iotas is performing a A/B test to see which set of dwellers has lower energy costs and is enjoying the building more. Because some variables are consistent throughout — floor plan, apartment size, etc. — the data should be “clean,” or at least cleaner, says Pike, than from single-family homes that are a myriad of shapes and sizes, some with one smart device and others with many. Of course, people are the wild card in any experiment, and Grant Park Village is targeting empty nesters, single professionals, and young families. It’s a brand-new building, and as new renters slowly trickle in, they’re concerned more about facing the courtyard than whether their lights turn on automatically when they open the door.

Despite the project’s slow build, Iotas is rolling out more smart apartments in Boston, D.C., Seattle, San Jose, and Columbus. If these automated apartments catch on, the next time you’re looking for a place to live, you may want to type “smart” into the search field.

Updated 8/9/2016: Iotas has partnered with Honeywell so its smart thermostat works with the system and plans to work with Nest and other smart home products, such as smart door locks and the Amazon Echo, in the future.

Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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