Bloomberg | Aug 20, 2016, 02.38 PM IST

Latch’s apartment-focused digital locks are designed to simplify building access–and enhance landlords’ surveillance abilities. It’s August 10, and Luke Schoenfelder and Thomas Meyerhoffer are in a three unit apartment building on Manhattan’s East 33rd Street awaiting a flood of deliveries. First an order from UberRUSH comes in, then one from Amazon Prime Now. Someone suggests calling out for wings.

No one worries about retrieving the packages from the lobby: The point is to make sure all the delivery guys can operate the front door’s digital lock. This is the first public demonstration by Latch, the smart-lock company the men started three years ago. Before they place each order, they use the Latch app to generate a seven-digit code granting temporary access to the front door.

They paste the codes into the delivery instructions. When the deliverymen show up, a touchscreen on the lock grants them access for 10 seconds while an embedded camera takes their photos. (Software also logs the visit for building owners.) In the end, all the deliverymen figure it out with ease. Many people have operated some kind of electronic lock in a hotel room or college dorm, and a handful of startups pitch individual homeowners on locks that can be opened with codes or phones.

Latch, whose hardware can open a door with a numeric code, a phone’s Bluetooth connection, or a traditional metal key, is targeting city landlords whose concerns about building access are more complex than they used to be. The company’s pitch is based on a couple of Silicon Valley’s favourite things: design and data.

The design falls to Meyerhoffer, a star at Apple in the 1990s who went on to make experimental surfboards and commemorative glasses for Coca-Cola. He tapped into Apple’s minimalist aesthetic for the lock’s design.

The plain zinc surface sports a circular black plastic touchscreen across the top— designed to resemble an “unblinking eye,” according to Meyerhoffer. The word “Latch” appears in small, capital letters just above the keyhole. “It’s a simple product, because it’s replacing a simple product,” he says. The sales pitch emphasises big buildings’ traffic problems.

Along with the growing raft of delivery services that apartment dwellers now rely on, guests, dog walkers, nannies, maids and others need varying levels of access. Latch promises to help landlords simplify those issues and monitor the facilities. Among Schoenfelder’s examples: “Do people use the gym? Do people use study rooms? What does the package room look like?”

Of course, where a landlord sees a neat opportunity for data collection, a resident might see a threat of constant surveillance. Schoenfelder says residents have some control—they can have building management turn off the camera in the Latch lock on their units—but using the cameras and codes to enforce building rules, such as limits on guests or bans on Airbnb rentals, is a selling point.

“Being able to monitor and manage all the guests that are at a building, we think, could potentially give landlords and regulators a lot more comfort,” he says, before acknowledging the minefield he’s stepping into: “It’s something we tread lightly on.”

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