Ifa thin hero

DigitalStrom: A Brain Transplant for Your Dumb Appliances

These little Lego blocks can turn any old washer, dryer, or refrigerator into a modern smart appliance.

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Either time travel has successfully changed the path of humanity or Hollywood was wrong about the origins of Skynet. Either way, the machines are starting to become interconnected. Though that sounds a little scary to sci-fi fans, the good news is that it isn't happening through some insidious government project. Instead, inter-machine communication will have its origin in your home, and it will all start with one little... Lego block?

The Brains

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The lego-shaped digitalStrom modules are truly tiny. View Larger

The German company DigitalStrom (a brand of Aizo AG, which translates to "Digital Current") is showing off its new standard for smarthome connectivity at IFA this year. It works like this: A small Lego block–shaped module that houses the required chips and logic is connected to your run-of-the-mill "dumb" appliances, and instantly they can communicate with similarly outfitted devices.

What this means is that consumers will be able to have all the benefits of a connected smarthome without having to purchase all-new appliances and household electronics. That makes the move to a smarthome setup much more palatable for budget-conscious consumers. What's more, it allows you to purchase whatever appliances you like, rather than being locked into a single brand whose appliances can "speak" to each other natively.

The Signals

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Judging from the company's press release, DigitalStrom's solution promises to be quite robust. The individual modules are able to detect the state of connected devices by measuring the amount and pattern of power they're drawing. In other words, the modules know when devices are turned on or off, and are able to pass along that information to all other connected devices.

But the modules aren't just sensors; they also have the ability to send commands to these devices—including "on," "off," and more intricate commands such as "pause playlist" or "dim to 20%"—through the power lines themselves. While this approach is not novel (X10, a similar standard, has been around since the 1970s), it still might be the best for broad inclusiveness, since all devices, no matter the type, must be plugged into the power grid. Literally any device that draws power can be folded into your smarthome network using the digitalStrom standard.

The Control Center

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With DigitalStrom, your devices now know what all the other appliances and electronics in the network are doing. So the question becomes, how do you leverage all that shared information to improve the way your household runs?

That’s where the user interface comes in. Your DigitalStrom-enabled smarthome can be completely controlled from other smart devices: your phone, tablet, or computer. The provided interface allows the user to programmatically create scenarios involving one or many of the connected devices.

The user can then trigger those scenarios in a number of ways: with the press of a button, by the activation of another device (turn on the grinder and the coffee machine starts up), on a schedule, or even with voice commands (DigitalStrom promises integration with voice recognition functionality on smartphones).

The Environment

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In addition to controlling the way your electronics and appliances run, the digitalStrom system also lets you collect long-term data on per-device power consumption. This is particularly interesting in the European market, where energy prices are several times higher than in North America, but will appeal to eco warriors regardless of geographical location.

You can also use the system's scheduling function to program high-power devices like clothes dryers to run during off-peak hours, easing their impact on the power grid. In situations where electricity costs vary by the hour—as in most of Europe and Canada—this feature could shave a sizable chunk off your monthly bills.

Putting it all together

The pieces are all there: the devices are self-aware and they are talking to each other. They can be programmed, they can be sent on missions, and they can be sent back through time.

DigitalStrom's smarthome standard has broad appeal for those looking to modernize their homes without spending thousands on all-new appliances.

Okay, maybe not that last part, but how scary is a refrigerator from the future, really? In any case, DigitalStrom's smarthome standard seems extremely promising, and has broad appeal for those looking to modernize their homes without spending thousands on all-new appliances. Chances are, you built your first dream home out of multicolored Lego blocks, so it's only fitting that your first smarthome be built from these Lego-style modules.

Photos by Flickr user Aban Nesta CC BY-NC-ND 3.0, howardignatius CC BY-NC-ND 3.0, “Caveman Chuck” Coker CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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