Like a lot of crazy ideas, the world’s first tweeting e-cigarette was conceived of in a bar. This particular bar is called Tir Na Nog, and it’s the unofficial satellite office of creative agency R/GA’s New York branch where—according to Michael "Pickles" Piccuirro—"a lot of what happens at this agency takes place."
Piccuirro is prototype studio product and technology director at R/GA, by all accounts a smart guy. So why is he spending his time linking e-cigarettes to Twitter? As this connected egg carton proves, you shouldn’t connect something to the Internet just because you can. But Piccuirro and his group of cohorts believe the world’s first connected e-cigarette might actually help people quit smoking.
"We work with a guy who's a Q/A engineer," explains Piccuirro. "His name is Will Creedle, he’s been a smoker for a long time and he's tried lots of stuff trying to quit. He picked up e-cigarettes. Since it's an e-cigarette that uses water vapor, you can smoke inside."
Because the members of the prototype studio spend so much time at the bar, eventually R/GA CTO John Mayo-Smith saw Creedle taking drags from the device and asked him about it. A few weeks later, Mayo-Smith read about the growing popularity of these devices in the New York Times and instructed his prototype studio to connect one to the Internet.
A few years ago, this would have been a daunting task, requiring hardware engineers, a fabrication shop, and expensive proprietary sensors. Thanks to the rise of open-source, cheap, and easy-to-program reusable microcontrollers like the Arduino, however, you can now connect just about anything to the Internet with very little overhead. Agencies are increasingly taking advantage of this new capability by setting up labs of people who can do much more than just conceptualize ideas for their clients.
"Everybody here is a maker, so at the end of the day we're producing something," says group director Marc Maleh, who oversees the prototype studio. That mentality lead to a functional connected e-cigarette prototype—built by associate technical creative director Kumi Tominaga—and companion iPhone app in just four days of work.
"The way we integrated it is kind of low-tech," says Piccuirro. "We have this thing called conductive tape. The conductive tape was put over the button of the e-cigarette, and we created this cigarette box that would house an Arduino with a Bluetooth shield powered by a nine-volt battery." When you press the button, the conductive tape completes the circuit and sends a signal to the Arduino, which connects with an iPhone app over Bluetooth. The app displays statistics and sends tweets to the device’s Twitter account, TweetingCiggy.
E-cigarettes use a battery and small coil to heat flavored liquid nicotine and water, providing smokers with an inhalable vapor that feels like smoking a cigarette, without the harmful chemicals and tobacco of the real thing. They’re primarily sold as a device to help smokers quit, but because they don’t use tobacco, they aren’t subject to FDA or state smoking regulations, and can be advertised on television. This fact has led big tobacco companies to start investing in e-cigarettes, which has some anti-smoking groups worried that they may start to use them as gateways to the real thing.
Connecting the e-cigarette to Twitter, where it could potentially go viral and reach millions of people, seems like it would be a dream come true for big tobacco companies. But the people at R/GA say they view the tool as more of a tracking device along the lines of the Jawbone wristband, and the tweets the device sends focus, however glibly, on the benefits of quitting, not the novelty of the device itself.
"I think of using those analytics as a cessation tool for people, rather than promoting smoking," says senior communications associate Martin Maisonpierre. "It's really understanding what your smoking habits are. You see, like, 'Oh my god, every Thursday after a meeting I consume three cigarettes. Wow, that's a stress point in my life.' Being able to understand and track those things can be a benefit."
There’s no doubt that adding a data layer to smoking habit could be an enormously beneficial quitting tool. As anyone who’s quit smoking knows, a key part of ending the addiction is discovering the daily events that trigger the desire to smoke and eliminating or finding different ways of coping with them.
Maleh says the next step for the prototype would be partnering with an e-cigarette company to build connectivity into the device itself. But would a company want to build a connected device that helps their customers limit consumption of the product? Maleh admits he doesn’t know. For now, he’s just enjoying helping his friend stay away from the real thing.