Skip to Content

GE has a plan to make futuristic ‘smart homes’ happen

GE Quirky Norm lifestyleGE Quirky Norm lifestyle
The GE-Quirky "Norm," a connected thermostat.Courtesy: Quirky

It’s 2014 and we have drones, 3-D printing, Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets, self-driving cars, wearable computers such as Google Glass, and artificial intelligence. We basically live in the future. But we’re missing big promise from The Jetsons: robot butlers. The reason, according to Quirky founder and CEO Ben Kaufman, is because real-life Rosies are awkward. He demonstrated as much today at a press event at the headquarters of his startup in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.

“I’m telling you, they’re creepy,” he said, as a four-foot tall robot slowly jerked its way across the stage. “You don’t want one of those in your house.”

Courtesy: Quirky

This idea—that no one wants a robot butler—is the basis of a new campaign to show people a different kind of futuristic home: one full of sensors, controlled by your smartphone. (And not a humanoid machine.)

Most Americans know about the idea of a “smart home,” which can include Internet-connected thermostats, garage doors, security systems, and lights. But only 23% think they can afford it, according to Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of General Electric (GE). Her company stands to benefit from rising interest in the smart home; for example, it has already unveiled a line of smart lightbulbs designed to last 22 years. Now, GE is using its partnership with (and investment in) Quirky to expand further into the category.

On Tuesday the companies introduced seven new co-branded products that all operate on Wink, their smart home platform.

Tripper is a smart window and door sensor that knows if something is open or closed. “You can imagine living in a very Jetsons-esque future where, when you open your front door, the lights go on,” Kaufman said. Overflow is a $35 moisture sensor designed to help people detect mold or water in their homes. Outlink is a $50 smart outlet that tracks electricity usage. Tapt is a $60 smart wall switch that allows lights to be controlled by an app. Ascend is a $90 smart garage door opener, also controlled by an app. And Norm is a smart thermostat that the companies have heralded as “the death of the thermostat,” a confusing characterization since the product looks and acts like a thermostat. (Though at $80, it is cheaper than the rival device from Google’s Nest.)

“We’re all quickly going to live in a world that has many more sensors in it,” Kaufman said. Yet consumers have been slower to adopt smart homes than hype around the so-called Internet of Things suggests. Indeed, since unveiling the Wink platform about four months ago, only “a few hundred thousand” people use it, Kaufman said. Many consumers see smart homes as “only for tech nerds, early adopters and rich people,” he added.

The robot butler campaign will aim to change that stigma with a series of television commercials and social media stunts like sending robot butlers to greet recording artist Snoop Dogg and media fixture Martha Stewart.

A "robot butler" and Martha Stewart at the 2014 American Made Summit. (Courtesy: Martha Stewart)
A “robot butler” and Martha Stewart at the 2014 American Made Summit. (Courtesy: Martha Stewart)

“Getting people’s attention and getting them to realize the smart home is already here is half the battle,” Kaufman said. “We don’t feel like the full story is being told yet.”

Kaufman acknowledges it might be awhile before consumers are comfortable with sensors tracking every aspect of their lives. Security, for example, is a “top concern,” as it is in any conversation about the Internet of Things, he said.

“It would be awesome if we sold things now, but the reality is there is a ton of education that needs to happen,” he said. “Quirky and GE are very patient about . . . not just making new stuff but also educating people.” His 313-person startup can probably afford to wait: Quirky is backed by $175.3 million in venture funding, from big name investors like Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, Andreessen Horowitz, and of course, GE.