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Summary:

The robot invasion has begun, only the form factor may not be what you expected. For example, a ceiling fan company has launched a connected product that learns when to start circulating.

A Big Ass Fan that could one day include Thread.
photo: Big Ass Fans

Big Ass Fans, a company that began in 1999 making a 14-foot fan for industrial customers before eventually branching out into the home market 13 years later, is adding smarts to its residential ceiling fans. But unlike many companies that slap a Wi-Fi chip and an app on their connected products, the Lexington, Kentucky company has taken a page from Nest and built a fan that learns what you like and then turns on when it thinks you want to be cooler. Yes, it has built a ceiling fan that is a robot.

Robots are defined as any machine that is “smart” enough to make autonomous decisions, which is exactly what the fan’s Wi-Fi module, microcontroller, sensors and learning algorithms will allow it to do when it starts shipping later this summer. Yes, there’s an app, which means if you want to “teach” the fan from the comfort of your couch, you can. But the app is almost tangential to the experience of the product, says Big Ass Fan CEO Carey Smith.

“We don’t think in general you want to play around with apps,” said Smith. “And we think that 100 years from now people will think it’s amusing that you even ever thought about these things. It’s a waste of personal energy to have to think about that.”

Big Ass Fans Founder and CEO Carey Smith  shows off the SenseME app and smart Haiku ceiling fan.

Big Ass Fans Founder and CEO Carey Smith shows off the SenseME app and smart Haiku ceiling fan.

And that’s is the key to understanding the value of the smart home for people — it’s not about the apps. It’s about the automation. And that’s the killer app for the internet of things. Not the convenience of being able to check that your garage door has been left open, but the convenience of having a garage door that knows when it needs to shut. The ideal smart home isn’t going to provide you with a stream of notifications asking for input, it will take action.

That’s the smart home we’re hoping that Google will build on its Nest acquisition and with its research into machine learning and context-aware software. Presumably, that’s the home that Apple’s HomeKit will evolve into thanks to powerful and context-aware apps. But when it comes to the ceiling fan, it’s not going to come cheap.

Big Ass Fans started out making fans for industrial settings, placing giant, custom fans in warehouses, barns and other places that wanted a tougher, less energy-hogging fan. In 2006, after seeing that commercial spaces like churches and restaurants were buying their fans, they redesigned their motor for quiet operation and offered a commercial version in 2008. The move to residential was an obvious next step after seeing customers install the commercial products in high-end homes.

And these are high-end fans. The current line up of “dumb” Big Ass Fans start at $895. So for those who have deep pockets and need a ceiling fan, Big Ass Fans’ Haiku fan with SenseME technology will run you a whopping $895 for the base model of the fan and $150 for the smarts. Smith spent most of the call selling me on the fan itself, which at first seemed odd, but doesn’t really if you buy into the idea that in the future, we’ll have connectivity in just about everything.

Our role as consumers will be to pick our robots based not on the fact that they have connectivity and an app, but because the underlying product is one we want to own. As for tying Big Ass Fans into other connected products, it probably will happen (Smith declined to discuss what was in the works), but that’s not the focus today. The goal is simply to build a fan that cools the room to the temperature that’s comfortable for you without you having to do anything but walk into it.

I’ll be honest, I spent much of last night trying to justify spending 4x the cost of my current ceiling fan for a Big Ass model that has Wi-Fi, a motion sensor, temperature sensors and a robot brain. If anyone makes the leap, let me know.

  1. The cost of the smarts seems somewhat reasonable, but what could possibly justify that base price?

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    1. I suppose one could argue the R&D that goes into redesigning a motor and the different construction of the blades isn’t cheap, but I am really hoping someone who has one will pop by to tell us if it is all that and a piece of cake. I live in Texas and value my fan, but that is a REALLY expensive ceiling fan.

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      1. You mention in the post that Smith spent most of the call trying to sell you on the fan. Did he say anything that might explain the cost?

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        1. Lots. He went into the details of the motor. It’s quiet, developed to consume between 2 and 30 watts (my current fan consumes 57) and uses magnets. He showed videos of the airfoils’ durability and many other things. However, I didn’t delve too much into that, because it’s not something I know a lot about and this isn’t a commercial for BAF :) But the web site has much of that information.

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          1. Interesting. Thanks!

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          2. Every single motor on Earth uses magnets. This company sounds quite a bit like Dyson, who famously over engineers products, then famously over market their engineering.

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      2. After 10 years in the borderland of New Mexico/Mexico and a burned out Hunter and wobbly Casablanca I took the plunge and installed a Haiku. With 14 foot ceilings in the living room the electricians fee added another ~$200 to the process but I have not regretted the investment for one second. The fan motor is silent, moves a ton of air noiselessly, and I have had to make adjustments to the speed only in the spring and early winter,(4 times so far) which raises the question in my mind, “What is are the “smarts” going to be doing the rest of the time?”. The Haiku is so efficient that it doesn’t need more tweaks and it certainly doesn’t need the multiple speed adjustments I had to make to my previous fans.
        As for the cost, my response is the same as it was when I bought the first BMW and my wife asked, “Do you really need it?……Noo, but I really like it. You get what you pay for.

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  2. While I can appreciate that we are attempting to bring intelligence into the house, but these ‘learning’ systems are attempted to learn behaviors that even the person being modeled can’t explain. Statistical modeling will not identify that I have just completed a workout and need to cool down, or I burnt some food and need to circulate the air, or that I am running a fever and just feel hot.

    I used a Nest for 3 months and spent more time overriding it than the Programmable unit it replaced and I expect this product to provide a similar experience.

    Ultimately, the machine is not going to know me better than I know me.

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  3. How do we know they haven’t put in listening devices and cameras in those fans?
    Leslie

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  4. Thanks for the great article. Big Ass Fans seems to have carved out a unique market and I love seeing their ads in Dwell Magazine. We recently purchased an air-conditioner (for our home) but I wonder if a high quality fan would have made better sense.

    Your observation about the internet of things, machine learning and automation is great. Smart companies like Apple and Google are certainly making these connections and its certainly a sign of times.

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  5. So you add a thermostat to a ceiling fan, move the control from the wall to your iPhone and you can charge a couple hundred dollars more, call it ‘a Robot’ and ride the wave of the Internet of Things. So, is my car also a robot because it has cruise control, or do I have to control it via my phone?

    At one point we need to define the line where technology overuse becomes ridiculous and people are better off going through all the effort of setting the thermostat manually and donating the extra hundred bucks they saved to people that really need the money, like the millions of kids dying of hunger,

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  6. I could never justify that base cost. There’s central air units that cost only a little bit more. I think I might try to replicate this though. I’ve built projects with wifi and motion sensors and I have some idea of how to program the AI.

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  7. Hi Stacy, Currently in early stages of smart home 2.0, platforms such as Apple and Google will provide the groundwork for smart home 3.0! Smart devices that take into account life without an app is good news…

    Busy time ahead – Gerard, aka Smart Homes Rock God – homementors.com.

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  8. Apologies, Stacey, missed the ‘e’ in your name! Gerard

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