Concept #3 : Automatically detoxing your kitchen.

A very curious device that I found in every apartment when I originally moved to Brooklyn, was this white circle shaped plastic protuberance hanging from the ceiling in almost every room. I must mention that back then, I also moved in with my own black circle shaped metal device also known as a “comal”. A comal is a cast iron flat plate to cook everything from tomatillos, cecina to tortillas and everything in between. It was not long until I discovered that both of them didn’t like each other. Every time I turned the comal on to prepare a midnight quesadilla, the white protuberance on the ceiling started howling as if I was a thief. What was so important to guard that couldn’t wait for my midnight snack to be ready? Now I know, it was my own life.

I was about 8 years old on a christmas family reunion when I discovered the smell of kitchen gas (I figured later, that smell was added on purpose). I remember standing there in the kitchen inhaling what I assumed was a delicious toast bread smell. My aunts rushed in and made a big deal because gas was leaking, opened the windows etc. Additionally they decided, that it was a good moment to give little R a good life lesson and proceeded to give me a bunch of facts on how dangerous gas was, how many people die every year from poisoning, etc. From that moment on, I became obsessive about it, always (literally every day) checking whether the stove was not on before going to bed or when coming home. The irony is that all this time I’ve missed the main cause of death for this kind of accidents: Carbon Monoxide. Assuming no explosion, Natural gas kills you the same reason water kills you when you drown: Lack of Oxigen to breath. You’ll get drowsy before it is lethal. On the other hand, Carbon Monoxide kills you because it attaches to your red blood cells resulting in your body not being able to capture the right amount of oxigen for a prolonged amount of time (1). In the former, the risk stops as soon as you leave the room (on time), the latter: it’s a death sentence if you are not treated fast enough.(3)

If you search for CO sensors on the internet you’ll realize they are extremely affordable. So, if CO is easy/cheap to detect, why are there still horrible accidents happening? 

Burning Natural Gas (properly) does not produce Carbon Monoxide. That means you can cook a soup for 4 hours straight in the middle of the winter with the windows closed at no risk. However, a bad flame (usually other color than blue) or preparing quesadillas in a comal, using an iron cast skillet or a poorly maintained gas water heater indeed produce CO (1).

What to do about this? First of all, get a couple of those white rounded plastic protuberances (CO sensors) and install them in the kitchen and rooms. However, detecting CO is half of the solution. A smart home should be able to do something about it in addition to sounding the alarm. My proposal is to remove the human from the loop. Same as AirBags in a car that just act when there is danger to protect the passenger, something in the kitchen or room should just act upon the threat of excessive Carbon Monoxide. 

Following: a far fetched concept on how to solve this problem, we need to start somewhere right?

Basic Idea

When you’re in a gas station, pay attention to what’s on the ceiling. A massive installation of something that looks like Medusa’s hair, it is a series of hoses pointing to you that will throw fire extinguishing foam to you and your car in case of fire. The point I’m trying to make is that in emergencies, everything is valid: Even soaking your client with foam (sounds like a Punk’d episode). What I’m proposing as a concept is something a little bit radical: To suck all the air in the room instantaneously and expel it out of the kitchen replacing it with fresh air from outside. It doesn’t even matter if outside is 0 Celsius (32F), what matters is that the room got detoxed and you’ll be fine.

Plan of Action

In a nutshell what I’m proposing is to have a return air fan and a set of separate dampers that will open at the dangerous CO levels event to let toxic air out and fresh air in. The fan needs to be big or powerful enough to recycle the room’s air fast enough. A better option is to be a little less radical and have the system detect CO early on and start moving air out before it becomes dangerous. In either case I need to make a hole on the wall or on a window for the air to flow in/out without having to depend on a sack of flesh (the human) to open the windows.

Regarding the actual CO sensors, I’m not a big fan of reinventing the wheel (although that’s what we do in this blog all the time), for that reason, it would be ideal to reuse the already commercially available ones. Maybe we could have a microphone that detects the loud alarm sound, to trigger the air flush sequence. As usual, humans (like me), will press the “silence” button in the alarm and keep preparing the quesadillas however, by then the CO Flusher would have already started the sequence of opening the dampers and start the exhaust fan. That way we get the best of both worlds: The human has been notified, and there is an actual automated action going on to clean the air.

In commercial buildings you have two independent air ducts: One for AIR IN and another one for AIR OUT. Additionally, there are cooling and heating coils in the air return to remove humidity from outside air and to heat/cool the air before it is returned to the room. However in this case, we use the same duct for IN and OUT intermittently to avoid the hassle of installing two ducts.

Design Notes

  • The most basic setup consists of a fan microphone and orchestrator, the dampers are optional but needed to keep the room insulated from external weather.
  • The internal CO sensor is used as a backup and to validate the alarm.
  • The orchestrator is needed to translate the sound into an event that will trigger the servo controller to open/close the dampers and for the drive controller to start the fan. Additionally, it approximates how much air flow has passed through the duct and reverses the motor for it to bring in fresh air.

Further Improvements

+ A set of temperature sensors and cooling and heating coils for incoming air to be at room temperature

+ A set of humidity sensors for outside air to be dehumified

+ A smarter orchestrator that could turn this prototype into a mini HVAC system.

Top of Mind Conclusions

Installing a system like this into an existing house or apartment would be a little bit complicated, however in new constructions it could be part of the default installations making it transparent to the user. This system could also be useful in small houses that require indoor fire burning (stoves, fireplaces, etc) and in any kitchen in the world where quesadillas are prepared…

This idea follows the Zombie Home Manifest

Read More




Concept #1 : Kitchen Plague Detector

Plague classification Neural Network running on stick GPU getting frames from camera in real time

One thing I know for sure… in my next life I’m going to be either a mouse, a rat or a roach. The reason I know that for sure is because I’ve killed so many since I’ve moved to Brooklyn that I have perfected my technique in ways I almost want to write a handbook about: Mice have really good hearing but they don’t have good eyes. If you stay still long enough they’ll start coming out from the corners. Or Rats, they are just messy and loud. They’ll just chomp through a box instead of trying to open it. Rats are zero stealth but they are damn fast. They can jump to places you can’t imagine (like to the top of a table) and eat through a wall. Roaches on the other hand, they basically hate humans, they go out when you are not there and pretend they are dead when you look at them.

So, what we know is that plagues: a. follow certain patterns , b. You’ll never see them enjoying themselves because they are always running from you. For every time you don’t see them , they are 100x on your food, on your clothes, on your dishes, etc. Maybe you just don’t want to know and pretend they don’t exist… or, you can use technology to reveal what really is going on =).

Plan of Action

We are going to design an hypothetical gadget that will capture images of the mice, rats or roaches while they are roaming around looking for food or just hanging out in an open space. This gadget would be a home version of the movement triggered cameras that nature photographers use to capture wildlife.

  1. Gadget is placed on floor level pointing to a corner or hole were the animal or insect is suspected to come from. Optionally, it could be pointing to a bait that we have setup for this purpose.
  2. Camera sends frames at a constant rate to the Stick GPU running the program
  3. Frame is input to the Movement detection neural network
  4. If Movement is detected, Frame is input to the Plague detection neural network
  5. If a rat, mouse or roach is detected, image is stored in Flash Drive.
  6. Once every hour, images are posted to IFTTT to a rule that send them to your email.

Further improvements

  • Have the program remember if is there have been recent events and have it in state of alert
  • Infer the presence of the Rat,Mouse or Roach from multiple frames (instead of one frame).
  • Use a microphone to cross reference sounds with images.

Design Notes

+ Even though a GPU Stick is the best option, a Raspberry Pi 3 could be capable to do the job. I’ve successfully run a face detection NN, a face recognition NN and a QR Code reader NN on a Raspberry Pi 3 in other projects.

+ No NN training is assumed.

+ I’ve never seen a Plague detection NN out there, it is just hypothetical. There is a big possibility that it is not even possible to build because of light conditions and size and speed of mice and rats.

+ The Internet Connection to IFTT is entirely optional. The user could retrieve the images from the SD Card directly.


This idea follows the Zombie Home Manifest

We can do better at Smart Home…

Today’s (2019) Smart Home offering is very politically correct, every gadget needs to look as if it was “Designed in California”. It needs to blend perfectly with your furniture and it must offer “analytics” not to mention an App in you smartphone.

I get it’s super exciting to see the temperature sway in your living room in real time while you are bored at the office and that the reported savings your smart appliance provided with its smart recommendations (which are partially true) will be a great conversation point, I know you’ll feel good about that light automatically changing its color when you come home after spending more on that bulb than you’d like to admit but… seriously, we can do better than that.

The current Problem : The common assumption is that throwing some sensors and actuators plus a couple of “ideas” to users, we’ll come up with awesome use cases and by doing so the revolution of smart homes will be bootstrapped.

In theory it is not a bad idea, I’m sure other industries have pulled a similar trick, the issue is that it is marketed as a plug and play solution. A real plug and play looks like a Gaming console that you connect and start playing with immediately after. I know a lot of people that have invested in smart gateways/lights or sensors just to open the box once and then abandon it because there is really no path towards solving a particular problem. To put it in perspective, imagine that IKEA sold exclusively a box with all the joints and screws and legs to assemble “something” for your house. I guess you could build the chair of your dreams but that is far from a straight path to solve a problem that you might have today and right now.

My proposal is to focus on problems or at least interesting projects first, technology second. As an engineer this is kind of saying that I’m going to the backseat. As a product designer I say: let’s come up with one hundred awesome ideas that demonstrate that you can have awesome home gadgets (or I’ll eat my hat). And just then, let’s start talking about implementation. If future doesn’t come, let’s bring it in =).

Zombie Home Manifest (and why I’m writing this blog)

Post apocalyptic movies depict a world were there is no internet, no electric grid, water is not always safe to drink and even more trivial aspects like lighting or communication can never be taken for granted.

You don’t need to go to the future or wait for the zombies to come, just go to a rural area around where you live and you’ll realize we are designing smart home technology for a very specific set of assumptions: Permanent connection to the internet, a smartphone and un-interrupted electric service.

I’m not proposing to cut the cord from the internet, go back to punchcards or operate everything on solar (although that would be super cool). Instead, I want to turn those “Must haves” into “Nice to haves”. Instead of trying to connect that lamp to the internet, let’s focus on things that are more important like: Reusability, Stand Alone capabilities, Simplicity and Cost. The how to get there is the Mission of this Blog.

Zombie Home Manifest

  • A Zombie Home uses technology to solve real problems, automate boring tasks and provide useful insight but:
  • A Zombie Home should not depend on smart phones to be operated.
  • A Zombie Home should not depend on Cloud Services or permanent Internet connection to work.
  • A Zombie Home should not depend on an electric grid to work.
  • The technology that makes a Zombie Home gadget work should be 100% salvageable to be used in another gadget.
  • The skill to setup a zombie home should be equivalent to the skills to connect any other home appliance.
  • Zombie gadgets should take advantage of old and latest technology without committing to any in particular.
  • But more important than anything: It should be affordable. Not only affluent people have problems that can be solved in a smart way with technology.