If you live in the Northeast, Hurricane Joaquin probably served as an unpleasant reminder of what you’ll no doubt have more of this fall and winter: blustery winds, sky-splitting rain and a general dampness that will permeate everything you love. And if you live in a sixth-floor walk-up, like the Brooklyn designer Nick Jonas, you can tack on many extra sprints up and down the stairs after forgetting your umbrella.
Those extra steps were the impetus for Raincheck, an umbrella stand that tells you when it’s going to rain. I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when I heard about this product. We live in an era of connected devices of dubious value, from a device that tells you when you've run out of eggs to one that reminds you to breathe. (I maintain a Pinterest board with even more examples.) So it would be easy to dismiss this idea and move on—but I won’t because Jonas actually has a point that doesn’t totally horrify me: He doesn’t want to have to check his phone every morning.
Enter a caption (optional)
“Our phones are the source of everything now,” Jonas says. “It becomes sensory overload. When you wake up in the morning, you want to check just the weather, but you end up diving into Facebook and Instagram and then you're answering your boss's e-mail in bed when you should still be waking up and not thinking about that. It became a goal of mine to see how I could disseminate this information to the right places to consume it.”
Sure, you could argue, look out your window. But a simple glance outside won’t offer the precision of Forecast.io, the weather API behind Raincheck (and the same data powering the popular Dark Sky app). Although Raincheck only shows data for the next eight hours, with each hour represented by a small LED, that was a deliberate decision made by Jonas based on his own lifestyle. “It started with me fine-tuning to my own typical New York lifestyle, and a bit of research,” Jonas says. “Having used it for a few months during the winter, it felt just right for me.” (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed persons last year worked an average of 7.8 hours on the days they worked.)
Those eight LEDs maintain a constant steady blue color when the weather is clear. If it’s supposed to rain, they blink. For snow, they turn white; for severe weather, red. But what if there’s only a slight chance of rain or snow? To trigger the blinking or white light, Forecast.io needs to return a 20 percent or higher probability of precipitation in that hour. “That was tweaked after using it for a few months during the winter, and realizing that you don't really need an umbrella for zero to 20 percent,” Jonas says.
Enter a caption (optional)
Fine, you say, but do I really need eight flashing blue LEDs greeting me when I enter and leave my home? While Jonas did make a wholehearted effort to make those lights as subtle as possible—experimenting with the radius and depth of the holes where they’re embedded, as well as methods of diffusion—it does seem like there could still be a better, less invasive way to clue you in on the weather. And soon enough, there probably will be. Jonas readily admits that connected devices still have a long way to go. Working as a creative technologist at Google, he has a few predictions about where the technology is headed. “The whole Internet of Things is obviously interesting, but I think the time we are at right now is the Geocities of Things,” he says. “It's so wide and anyone can take a hack at it. It's resulting in really shitty products. Products that are using technology for technology's sake.” As it becomes easier and easier to connect products to the Internet, Jonas predicts that we’ll have many more of these types of products in the future.
Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional) Enter a caption (optional)
Raincheck relies on Particle Photon, a tiny, $19 Wi-Fi development kit that can connect objects to the Internet. “There was a point in June when I went to Iceland for a few weeks to camp and do some soul-searching, thinking about everything,” Jonas recalls. “I realized everything was too complicated. It was simple on the outside, but the inside was running on Raspberry Pi and was so overly complicated for what it is. It's an umbrella stand. It should be simple.”
“The whole Internet of Things is obviously interesting, but I think the time we are at right now is the Geocities of Things.”
When Jonas came home from Iceland, he found that his own Particle Photon kit had arrived from a previously backed Kickstarter project. “I immediately tried it out,” he says. “It was exactly what I needed.” The small chip allows Raincheck to connect to a user’s Wi-Fi through an app on their phone, where they set their location and can then delete the app.
Enter a caption (optional)
Standing at 30 inches tall and six by six inches wide, the black walnut stand is large enough to fit “at least five umbrellas,” according to Jonas, who adds that “you can also hang some off the side.” (The designer has plans to make a wider stand for retail stores and other commercial venues.) All the aforementioned electronics are wired to a custom-fabricated PCB board alongside capacitors, resistors, fuses, a regulator and a level shifter, which are mounted to the base of the stand. Above them is another layer of wood and a half-inch layer of rubber matting to give the umbrellas some cushion and provide protection from any accumulating water. An internal coat of polyurethane is also added to preserve the wood, and the outside is finished in Danish oil. The stand plugs into the wall, a detail Jonas is not particularly concerned with, as the piece is not meant to move around. “It’s a fairly permanent fixture in your home,” he says. “It doesn't take up a significant amount of power, but going completely wireless seemed like overkill, and I didn't want users to have to replace or charge batteries.”
Raincheck will officially launch on Kickstarter this week, and Jonas hopes that a successful campaign will not only cover production costs but also tap into a community of people who want to be less connected to their phones, but still connected where it matters.
For now, the jury’s out. Should this product exist? Let us know what you think in the comments.