House keys go digital Star Tribune

House keys go digital

    Article by: STEVEN KURUTZ NEW YORK TIMES Updated: October 18, 2014 — 5:29 PM

The humble house key may soon be replaced with pass codes and touch screens.

The August Smart Lock, which opens automatically for approved users. Electronic door locks, controlled by smartphones, are challenging the venerable key.

In this age of rapid transformation, the house key has been surprisingly resistant to change. Cars have mostly switched to key fobs. Hotels and office buildings favor the pass card. And yet the little metal keys we carry around — part security device, part domestic totem — aren’t that different from the ones carried by our parents, their parents or their parents, going back to before the Civil War, when Linus Yale Jr. invented the cylinder lock, modifying an ancient Egyptian design.

That was before the Internet of Things, an approach to life in which every household fixture, no matter how unsexy or long neglected by designers, can be rewired for digital living. And now, like the thermostat and the slow cooker, the house key and its mate, the front-door lock, are going “smart,” too.

In the past year or so, several electronic door locks from industry bigwigs like Schlage and Kwikset have hit the market, making it possible to unlock your home using a smartphone, tablet or computer. And two new locks created by tech startups, which are forthcoming, promise the hands-free ease of unlocking the door automatically as you approach it.

The sales pitch for smart locks appears not to be additional security but convenience. No more fishing in your pockets for the keys. Or racing home to let the plumber in. Or, if you install the Schlage Touchscreen Deadbolt, paying a hardware store to make duplicate keys.

Steve Down, who oversees residential security for Schlage, said the Touchscreen eliminates that whole experience. A pass code is entered, either in person or, if the lock is connected to a home-automation system, from miles away by smartphone, tablet or any other Internet-connected device. Pass codes can be given to family members, houseguests and service providers.

“You can have 30 pass codes at any one time,” Down said. “I’m guessing that most of us don’t need more than that.”

Joshua Mangerson, who lives in Brooklyn, was one homeowner who was finding his key situation inconvenient. “Tedious” is how he described running down from the roof deck two floors above his apartment every time a guest showed up and needed to be buzzed into the building.

Mangerson, who owns a company called Wavsys that builds cell service networks, considered installing an intercom on his roof deck, but he was quoted a price of $2,000. And giving every visitor a mechanical key in advance would have been impractical, if not impossible. Instead, he paid a few hundred dollars for KISI, an access-control system that, like the Schlage lock, allows users to control the lock with a smartphone and distribute “e-keys” to visitors.

“Whenever my wife and I have a get-together I say, ‘Here’s your key’ and send one to everybody,” Mangerson said. “Then I deactivate it the next day.”

Bernhard Mehl, a co-founder of KISI, said the technology is aimed at urbanites, many of whom have busy work lives, travel frequently and live in apartment buildings, where it isn’t feasible to hide a spare key under a flowerpot in the yard. Urbanites have a particular anxiety about losing their house keys, since the front door is often the only way in, and neighbors are often strangers. Being asked to keep a friend’s spare set is a sacred duty.

Even some professional locksmiths aren’t reluctant to replace the standard lock-and-key. Terry Whin-Yates, the president and chief executive of a British Columbia-based company, Mr. Locksmith, said his front door has an electronic lock by Schlage that he hooked up to a home-automation system.

“I can unlock my door, I can look at my house and I can turn lights on and off, all from my iPhone,” Whin-Yates said.

House keys go digital Star Tribune

Yves Behar, a designer in San Francisco, isn’t a fan of the mechanical key, either, which he sees as cumbersome and easily lost. But the idea of replacing it with a keypad or another device that you have to operate before entering your home isn’t sufficiently “magical,” in his view.

August Smart Lock, the access-control product developed by the company of which Behar is a co-founder, is about the size and shape of a hockey puck and uses Bluetooth to communicate directly with your smartphone. The technology works with your existing lock and, for approved users, the lock opens automatically. (The concept is so futuristic that the release date has been delayed several times.)

“For me, it was about making the experience invisible,” he said. “You don’t even have to look at your phone.”

Going keyless, of course, raises all sorts of practical concerns. How will you unlock your door if your smartphone is lost or stolen? Can you still operate the lock if there’s a power failure or your Wi-Fi goes down? What if your phone’s battery dies? Will door locks be susceptible to hackers? Each smart-lock maker has addressed these questions but not in ways that are always satisfying.

August Smart Lock works even without power or Wi-Fi service, Behar said. And if a smartphone is lost or stolen, he added, the user can alert a service that will deactivate the August app. But to do so requires logging in to an Internet-enabled device. And as with losing a mechanical key, there is still the hassle of tracking down a friend or relative to let you in (or using an old-school key, which defeats the point of the technology).

KEVO, the Bluetooth-powered lock introduced last year by Kwikset, retains a cylinder for a mechanical key, said Keith Brandon, the company’s director of residential access solutions.

related content

The KEVO by Kwikset, a Bluetooth-powered lock that retains a cylinder for a mechanical key. Electronic door locks, controlled by smartphones, are challenging the venerable key.

(Handout via The New York Times) -

The KISI door lock, which lets users distribute e-keys to visitors. Electronic door locks, controlled by smartphones, are challenging the venerable key.


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