Foobot, First Take: A flexible and useful air quality monitor

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Poor air quality is clearly bad for our health, and both forward-looking city governments and campaigning organisations are working to find ways to improve it. But most of what happens in this area takes place outdoors. Air quality inside a building, be it a home or an office, can be worse than outside -- because of inferior air circulation, for example.

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Foobot stands 172mm tall 71mm deep and weighs 475g. It's powered by an AC adapter and a 2m USB cable. Connectivity is over 802.11b/g/n wi-fi.

Image: Foobot

So, we're starting to see a rash of indoor air quality monitors hit the market. I recently looked at the £89.99 (€99.99) Netatmo Healthy Home Coach. Next up is the Foobot, which costs €199 (around £176).

Foobot has an interesting provenance. It came about because its inventor wanted to help ease his child's asthma. So it doesn't come out of a stable of other connected devices. Instead it stands alone, although it will connect with other kit like Nest and Amazon Echo, and via IFTTT.

Foobot does more than just tell you if it's warm and give an indication of humidity. It also measures particulate matter (PM 2.5) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

PM 2.5s are particles too small to be seen with the naked eye, but which include dust, fly ash, dust mites, and particles from aerosols. On its website, Foobot says these can cause "asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease etc."

VOCs are toxic chemicals that can be dangerous even at low concentrations and have short- and long-term adverse health effects. In the home or office these could include paints and coatings, glues in furnitures, sprays and so on.

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The unit is arguably a bit on the large side at about 17cm high, 8cm wide, and 6.5cm deep. Its white casing is broken by a blue all-around glow that will turn orange if conditions get bad. The Foobot requires mains power, and so, like other similar devices, there are restrictions on where it can be placed. The provided 2m cable is reasonably generous, though.

Setup is pretty straightforward. It involves plugging the device into a power source, downloading an iOS or Android app, creating an account, and then inverting the unit itself to initiate pairing. Onscreen instructions walk you through handing over your wi-fi password. It's nice and straightforward, and quickly completed. Multiple devices can be connected to a single app, each one appropriately named by the user -- to indicate its location, for example.

The blue or orange glow around Foobot's casing is a simple on-board indicator of air conditions, but it's the app that delivers the granular detail. It takes recordings every five minutes and can also take readings on demand.

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Readings for particulate matter, volatile compounds and carbon dioxide are combined into an indoor Global Index. You also get an outdoor index for your location, based on crowdsourced information.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

A central number in the main information wheel is called the Global Index and gives an overall weighted reading calculated from VOC, PM, and CO2 scores. More detailed information for each of these three is accessible by tapping their numbers, and this includes access to historic information and tips on reducing readings. There's even a crowdsourced Global Index score for outdoor conditions, so users can compare their own localised readings with more general, broadly local, conditions.

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Left: detail on particulate matter. Right: setting up tags can help you learn how various activities affect air quality.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The app uses World Health Organisation thresholds as the standard against which it rates measurements. It provides charts that show how recordings change over time. Users can create tags that help them understand if particular activities -- such as cooking or cleaning activities -- increase recordings and the device can send alerts if thresholds are breached.

There is a lot of detail in the information provided, and the ability to allow users to identify causes of heightened readings could prove very useful. Arguably, then, Foobot is one of the more flexible and useful devices of its type.

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