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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.”
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.