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Twine review: the little blue box that hacks the world around you

A DIYer's dream setup, made dead simple

It's hard to remember life before we were bombarded with notifications throughout the day on all manner of devices, for everything from Twitter replies to earthquake alerts in Japan. With very few exceptions, though, these all have one limiting factor in common: you're relying on someone else's software to interpret data and relay it to you. What if you could program your own notifications from objects or conditions in your physical environment, set to tell you anything you want to know, when you need to know it?

That’s the proposition offered by Supermechanical's Twine, a small turquoise box crammed with sensors. Launched on Kickstarter last year, it takes standard accelerometers, thermometers, and other sensors, and fits them into an ambitious package that promises to be a lot easier to set up than your average Arduino-powered DIY assembly. How does Twine work? Does it even work at all? Will it change your life? Let's find out.

Opening Twine

Opening Twine

Twine makes a great impression out of the box
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Twine makes a great impression out of the box. Its brown cardboard packaging befits the product's humble Kickstarter origins, but it's emblazoned with an attractive design on the outside and thoughtful compartmentalization when opened. Each sensor has its own labeled section, making it easy to tell which spartan part is which, and Twine itself rests in a tray on top of the whole package with its battery section exposed. That's another nice consideration, since it's actually pretty hard to open the device up again — the main Twine unit is a white plastic box encased in a teal silicone sleeve that has an incredibly snug fit. Once your batteries are in and the sleeve is on, though, you're left with a simple palm-sized square about 2.8 inches on each side.

Twine's corrugated pattern recalls a ball of wool

A Micro USB port and a 3.5mm headphone jack let you hook up external sensors with a male-to-male cable, and your sole hardware output comes via a blueish white LED that glows when Twine is responding to something. The most distinctive part of Twine's design is the corrugated pattern that breaks away at one end, recalling a ball of wool. It's not just for show, either; the wayward "string" leads to a hole in the top left corner, which goes through the whole box and makes it easier to attach or fit Twine to otherwise awkward places.

The standard Twine unit comes with three functioning sensors that detect orientation, temperature, and — enabled via a recent software update — vibration. The basic package knows which direction it's facing, can tell you the temperature in Celsius or Fahrenheit, and tracks whether and how intensely it's in motion. For anything more than that, though, you'll need to connect some external sensors, which you can order in various configurations from Supermechanical. The company also recently launched an accessory called the Cloud Shield, which attaches to an Arduino board and sends information straight to Twine.

My Twine shipped with three sensors: a moisture detector, a magnetic switch (plus an adhesive magnet), and a breakout board that dramatically expands your options for connectivity. With the board, you'll be able to connect photoresistors and other components that Supermechanical doesn't sell itself. All of these attach via an included 3.5mm male-to-male cable, and Twine detects them automatically. In appearance, though, the sensors are everything Twine isn't; the exposed circuitry jars a little with the sleek and friendly package offered by the main box. The moisture sensor in particular was a little alarming when I first started using it — is it really okay to put something like this outside in the rain, exposing its elements to the elements? The answer, so far at least, appears to be yes, but I have to admit to a degree of trepidation in my first days with Twine. Since then, however, Supermechanical has updated its website and blog with more useful information on how the sensors are supposed to work, which should give owners a bit more peace of mind.

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Using Twine

Using Twine

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Since Twine itself is pretty much a featureless box, all your interaction with it is handled through a well-designed web app. Changes in the environment are accurately reported online; Twine usually updates its status every 45 seconds or so, but you can force more frequent reports at the expense of battery life by placing it face-down. Twine uses two included AAAs for power, and while Supermechanical officially claims they should last around 30-40 days under normal conditions, I didn't find performance to be nearly that good. My unit tended to send me a message warning of low energy after just over a week, which isn't great, although Supermechanical has acknowledged the issue and pledged to fix it in an forthcoming update. In any case, you'll probably want to invest in a decent set of rechargeables or use the Micro USB port instead.

Twine's hardware works well and is wrapped in a convenient package, to be sure, but it's nothing many DIY enthusiasts couldn't string together themselves. Where it takes a leap into a new realm of accessibility, however, is in the setup and software. The first thing you do with Twine is read the message embossed on the back of the device, which tells you to go to twinesetup.com, and in a couple of minutes you should be hooked up to your home Wi-Fi network. Once that's done, you use a simple web-based interface to set up rules and conditions for Twine to respond to. This really couldn't be much easier to use: a box on the left tells you what state your Twine is currently in, and you can create new rules by selecting from just a couple of options. For example, it's easy to set Twine to let you know when the temperature drops below a certain level, or if the moisture sensor gets wet, or if the magnet switch is tripped. The website has been updated significantly since I first received my Twine, and now features a semi-responsive design that scales down well to Android, iOS, and Windows Phone 8 devices — though I couldn't get it to load on Windows Phone 7.

Living with Twine

Living with Twine

So, Twine works well enough in theory, but how about in practice? I've tried as best I can to slot the little box into my life and find potential uses for it, and in my personal situation the results have been mixed. For example, I thought the moisture sensor might work well as a way to let me know when the weather took a turn for the worse so I could bring my laundry in. It does indeed do this, but I found I needed to place the sensor in a glass that would collect enough water in order to trip both prongs, by which point I'd probably have noticed the weather by looking outside the window — or my clothes would be too damp for it to matter. I could see the moisture sensor working effectively in more drastic scenarios, however, such as keeping track of a basement prone to flooding.

If this, then that

I also tried using the vibration sensor to let me know when my washing machine's cycle was done (Supermechanical has posted a handy guide for this), and while it did work well enough, in my miniature Tokyo apartment it's not like I'd ever miss the beep that the washer makes itself. I also found that keeping this parameter set would often result in Twine sending me messages that it was no longer moving, even if it had simply been lying on my table for hours; perhaps I'd need to tweak the sensitivity settings further, or perhaps it's the sort of thing best turned off when not in use.

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My greatest success came with using the orientation sensor. Twine reacts really quickly and accurately to let you know which way it's facing, and I put this to use in my mailbox (physical, not electronic). By placing it within a couple of inches of the letter flap, I was able to make it send me a message whenever the mailman inadvertently knocked it over with his delivery. Granted, this often gave me false alarms whenever I got junk mail from Domino's, meaning I'd have to go downstairs to both put Twine back upright and dispose of a pizza menu, but it still gave good results for the most part.

The temperature sensing also worked well for me. In Tokyo's volatile weather, I often find myself leaving the heater or cooler on longer than I probably should; by setting high or low thresholds for your room's temperature, Twine can let you know that it's probably time to adjust your thermostat. As with the other sensors, I found temperature readouts to be responsive and accurate.

Obviously, Twine’s potential is pretty intimately tied to your living situation. I work at home most days in a fairly small apartment, so a single box that can tell me a single thing that’s going on within my general location isn’t hugely useful to me. If I had a larger living space, a commute, and more Twines, however, the story might be quite different. I can imagine elaborate schemes where multiple Twines work in tandem to notify workers of various things going on in their houses while they’re at the office, or vice versa.

Keeping in touch with Twine

Keeping in touch with Twine

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When its environment changes and its sensors are triggered, Twine can contact you in a variety of ways. The easiest is email — it works with any address, and you can set the subject line and body of each message. I found that these almost always arrived within a couple of seconds of tripping Twine's sensors, and if you send them to an account that gives you push notifications on your phone, it's probably the best option. You can also set Twine to send SMS messages or voice alerts to your phone number, though you'll need a paid subscription. I also had trouble getting them to work on Japanese carriers at first, but the system was reworked with the introduction of subscriptions and voice alerts, and now works perfectly. In any case, I found the email alerts to be a better option; you're less limited in formatting, and the messages are free.

Supermechanical rolled out a further update that added Twitter support during the review period, and while I'm still waiting for it to talk to my Pebble smartwatch directly, it's a bit of a moot point — the Pebble can already receive emails, tweets, and texts that Twine sends to smartphones. Another somewhat unorthodox future notification method is the Spark Socket, which will let you control your home light bulbs based on feedback from Twine. I haven't seen exactly how this will work yet, but presumably it'll be based on the same simple system of rules that powers the more conventional sensors. If Twine as a product picked up steam, I could see it becoming a solid platform for this kind of thing; its software is basic, but useful enough to be easily applicable to a variety of devices and situations. There's a whole ecosystem of outlandish hardware products that connect to the iPhone — I'd like to see more using Twine as a bridge to the home.

If you've read all this and have a couple of ideas for how you might use Twine yourself in day-to-day life, I'd absolutely recommend it — it's versatile and reliable, and it's just plain cool to get notifications from your apartment. On a basic level, too, it's a lot of fun to play around with, though the $124.95 entry price for the box alone might be a little steep for anyone who doesn't have any particular usage in mind. Me? Well, I’ve found it at least does a pretty good job of letting me know when something’s come in the mail. Not life-changing, perhaps, but it's nice to have my constant stream of electronic messages broken up by some communication from the real world. Twine is a great idea well executed; if that idea appeals to you, it's a great product too.

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