Hacking together design, programming and electronics is one of 2012's big creative trends. The latest device to help you put such projects together is a little green box called Twine, which has sensors to monitor the world and the ability to let the world know about it by email or Twitter.
The Twine system from startup SuperMechanical is based on a low-power wireless module (below) with both internal and external sensors that can connect to a Wi-Fi network and thence to the Internet. The project explains that "Twine is the simplest possible way to get the objects in your life texting, tweeting or emailing. A durable 2.5 [inch] square provides WiFi connectivity, internal [temperature and acceleration] and external sensors, and two AAA batteries that keep it running for months [power can also be supplied via a micro USB port]." The developers also say that "Twine will email you when you need to change the batteries."
Configuration, management and sensor data communication all occur in "the cloud" and "[a] simple web app [SuperMechanical's Web-based Spool service (above)] allows to you quickly set up your Twine with human-friendly rules -- no programming needed. And if you're more adventurous, you can connect your own sensors and use HTTP to have Twine send data to your own app."
So, let's say you want to know when a piece of equipment overheats. You might be able to simply drop a Twine unit into the equipment's casing or, if that's not an option, add an external temperature sensor and attach the Twine to the outside of whatever it is. You'd then set up the Twine unit to work with your Wi-Fi system, go to the Spool service, and configure the Twine unit to send you a message via texting, Twitter, email or a custom HTTP request (for example, a request to update a Web-interfaced database).
In operation Twine devices simply send sensor status updates to Spool service. The Spool service implements the rules that determine how sensor changes will be handled and trigger whatever actions are required.
The compelling advantage of Twine devices is that they are simple and cheap to setup and manage, especially compared to, say, something like building a custom Arduino system.
You can order a Twine today for delivery in May for $99 (around £63). With a breakout board for adding your own custom sensors it's $119 (£76), $134 (£85) with a moisture sensor or a magnetic switch sensor or $174 (£111) with both sensors. There's already an enthusiastic and active user community and popular demand has prompted SuperMechanical to commit to developing an electrical current sensor for the Twine which they plan to sell for $45 (£29).
One of the reasons for Twine's success is its canny use of online 'crowdfunding' platform Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a brilliant idea. On the Kickstarter site you can pitch an idea for a project and ask for donations. The compensation for those who chip in might, depending on the size of their pledge, be a T-shirt, a poster, or some other acknowledgement of their involvement or, if an actual product is involved, the pledge might be actually preordering the product.
Projects on Kickstarter cover a huge range, from art through agriculture to technology. Although Twine is now closed, the interest in the project was incredible: The original goal was $35,000. In the end some 3,966 backers pledged a total of $556,541 by the deadline of Jan. 3, 2012. I think it would be fair to say this pitch was successful.
If you're looking to jump-start your cool idea Kickstarter is the place to not only test whether people care but to find out if they care enough to fund you.