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FlipFlic wants to make all blinds smart

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Kickstarter prototype shows promise but there's work to be done

Maybe you’ve seen the FlipFlic on Kickstarter by now. The solar-powered controller that transforms regular blinds into smart blinds is one of those campaigns that sounds brilliant, but also might be too good to be true. According to the inventor, it’s easy to install on most horizontal or vertical blinds, and then adjusts the angle automatically based on the amount of light, the time of day, or temperature. You can also manually control them from your smartphone and integrate it into existing smart home systems. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone you trusted was able to test the device and verify the claims? I’ve always thought so which is why I’ve had an early prototype in my house for the last few weeks.

Ksenia Vinogradova, co-founder and CEO of FlipFlic, sent me a third-generation prototype to test. Unfortunately, the only blinds in my house use pull strings, not a wand or chain control required by FlipFlic (a future campaign is planned for my type of blinds). As such, she also shipped me a set of blinds to test, along with a quick start guide with links to operational videos.

FlipFlic FlipFlic

I removed the wand and installed the FlipFlic in seconds and without any tools. I only had to find the right adapter to slip over the nub that was attached to the wand which then slotted into the FlipFlic. The magnet on the back attached itself snuggly to the thin metal frame of the blinds. (Double-sided tape can be used for blinds with a plastic frame.) The FlipFlic app paired quickly with the blind controller over Bluetooth by taking an in-app photo of the QR code located on the box or on the back of the controller. So far, so good.

I was able to adjust the angle of the blinds easily enough from the app. The battery produced enough torque to fully open and close the blinds though I do wonder how well it’ll work on larger blinds. Vinogradova says it’ll work with blinds measuring up to 60-inches / 152-cm wide — the blinds I tested with were considerably smaller than that. Fortunately, the included solar charger should keep the FlipFlic operating at max power output.

The app is confusing and needs polish

The app itself is confusing and definitely needs some polish, which Vinogradova says is "on the roadmap." For one thing, it’s not clear what "open" and "close" means. For horizontal blinds, closed could mean that the slats are angled either all the way down or all the way up. And does open mean that the slats are parallel with the horizon or angled to let maximum sunlight in? This ambiguity created confusion when trying to schedule the blinds to open or close at set times during the day. I eventually figured it out but not without a lot of trial and error. Out the box FlipFlic should have some type of calibration routine which isn’t currently offered. Another complaint is that I could only schedule the blinds to operate at the top of the hour. So I could schedule them to open at 6AM for example, but not 6:15AM when my alarm goes off. This also meant that I had to wait an hour between each test of "open" and "close" which is frustrating to say the least.

That brings me to things that didn’t work. The Zigbee radio is currently disabled so I couldn’t test with my Hue lighting or SmartThings hub. I was assured, however, that it would be enabled when FlipFlic ships to backers. Regardless, I couldn’t try it out with "scenes" which is where the real power of any smart home appliance, uh, shines through. The FlipFlic is also equipped with temperature and light sensors that should regulate the blind openings when set to automatic mode. My prototype didn’t do this. In fact, my office regularly read 71-degrees Celsius (159-degrees Fahrenheit).

The FlipFlic makes the classic smart device mistake of inhibiting manual control. True, it offers a "manual" mode from the app, but every member of the household has to have access to a smartphone and app to use it. You can’t just walk up to the blinds and open or close them. Automatic or scheduled control is great most of the time, but there will always be exceptions. Hue lights suffered from poor early reception until Philips eventually offered compatible wall-mounted switches.

FlipFlic, at its core, works, but most of the advanced technologies remain unproven. And because it’s a crowdfunded technology campaign there’s the inherent risk of unseen complications that could delay shipments or result in a product that ships without promised technologies enabled. But you already know better than to treat Kickstarter like a store, right? FlipFlic is currently funded, having amassed over $80,000 of its $50,000 goal with eight days to go.