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8/22/2012
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Twilio Hacks: Home Automation To Dog Treat Dispensers

Looking for a legit DIY hacking project? Twilio developer evangelist Jon Gottfried describes some of the useful hacks the IaaS makes possible when you add a $40 Arduino and some creativity.

Do you ever sit around at work wondering what you can hack? Due to all the computer code we used to publish in BYTE, a hack described on Twilio, the cloud communications IaaS company, caught my eye.

I spoke with Jon Gottfried, a developer evangelist for Twilio, about his DIY home automation system made with Twilio, a PowerSwitch, and an Arduino microprocessor board.

Now, you're probably wondering, why would anyone want to hack his own power? Easy: Gottfried accidentally left the air conditioning on in his apartment and decided to look for a way to control it with a distributed network.

Gottfried is a Web developer who dabbles in hardware hacking. At Twilio, he works with the developer community to help it build the next generation of communications apps. He recently hacked together a phone-controlled robot, which he controlled wirelessly from his phone's dialpad via Twilio, Arduino, and some code. We asked him about his power hack.

BYTE: Why did you decide to hack your electrical outlet? Is it dangerous? At a minimum, what do people need to know?

JG: I decided to work with a power outlet because home automation has always fascinated me. I love the concept of having an "Internet of Things" and have always wished that I had the time and money to build a "smart" home. So the simplest way to start down this path was to control a single power outlet. It can be dangerous if you are wiring your own relays, but the PowerSwitch Tail (which I used), is safe to use without modification as it is an enclosed relay so you don't have to deal with any high voltage wiring on your own.

BYTE: How can people use Twilio hacks at work? What are the best examples you've seen?

JG: There are more ways than I can count to use Twilio in the workplace. Some of my favorite examples are to use Twilio for increased security with phone verification or two-factor authentication; mobile app distribution; or call tracking. All of these use cases can be implemented very quickly and provide a lot of value to companies and their users.

BYTE: Can you tell me more about increased security with phone verification and two-factor authentication?

JG: Having your accounts stolen is an unfortunately common scenario these days. Crackers have developed increasingly advanced techniques that they can use to steal passwords, log into accounts, and in some cases destroy your entire digital life. While that may be scary as hell, I for one will continue to use every Web service that piques my interest. But to make sure I don't get cracked, I use two-factor authentication whenever possible, primarily in Gmail.

Two-factor authentication allows you to tie a verified physical device (in this case your phone) to a virtual account. That way, whenever you log in you will need to provide a unique code that is sent via text message or phone call to your phone to confirm that you are really you, not some cracker in another country. This way, even if your password gets stolen, it is unlikely that someone will be able to log into your account.

BYTE: How do you think the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement and consumerization of IT is changing the way we communicate? What are some examples you've seen with Twilio?

JG: Just the other day, at the Meetup Battle of the Braces Ruby/Python Hackathon, someone built a Twilio SMS-powered Arduino dog treat dispenser. The amazing thing about this was that two people were able to build their own functional device that solved a real problem despite it not existing as a consumer product. The fact that anyone can spend $30 and get a powerful programmable piece of hardware and then build their own devices is fascinating to me and I think that as devices become cheaper and more versatile we will continue to see innovation in this space.

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