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A View from Erica Naone

MacArthur Award for Smart Home Innovator

TR35 winner Shwetak Patel has developed sensors that could change the way we live.

  • September 21, 2011

If one day we find ourselves living in much smarter homes, we will likely owe a debt to the work of Shwetak Patel, an assistant professor at the University of Washington and past TR35 honoree. On Tuesday, Patel was named to the list of 2011 MacArthur Fellows. A look through his work over the past several years reveals a creative devotion to improving daily life by introducing smart sensors into the home.

As TR wrote in 2009 when honoring Patel:

Walls can talk, and [Patel] captures their stories: tales of how people move through their homes and how they use electricity, gas, and water. Patel has shown that each electrical appliance in a house produces a signature in the building’s wiring; plugged into any outlet, a single sensor that picks up electrical variations in the power lines can detect the signal made by every device as it’s turned on or off.

Patel has pursued that vision relentlessly in the years since then. He started with sensors that could track home water use. The idea led to a startup called Zensi, which was soon acquired by the electronics hardware manufacturer Belkin.

After realizing that replacing batteries might hold people back from deploying sensors, Patel and colleagues also produced research on how to reduce sensor power usage by leveraging the existing wiring in a building as an antenna.

Earlier this year, Patel participated in a project that could turn an entire home into a smart interface. The result was technology that can turn walls into a touch-sensitive surface akin to the screen of an iPhone.

Congratulations to Patel on his latest honor.

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