I consider myself an early adopter when it comes to technology but one of the most challenging things I’ve managed to adopt has been the concept of the automated home.
The main reason for this has been that many of the early pieces of equipment didn’t really work together. In this article I will share my experience with various technologies that form part of the automated home and introduce some technologies that are bringing it all together.
No automated home is complete without having 24x7, 365 day access to what’s going on in your house from anywhere in the world.
Several years ago I came across a brand of wireless camera called FOSCAM on ebay. It was cheap, Wi-Fi connected and was able to remotely rotate through almost a full 360 degrees of motion across both axis. For about sixty dollars you could get one delivered within a few weeks. After having a play with the first one, I ordered a full set of five which I was able to deploy through the house and front and back garden. With the pan and tilt capability I was actually able to cover most of the house with just six cameras.
To pull all of the camera feeds together and to get access over the web I used some PC software called Blue Iris. It’s about $65USD and is relatively easy to configure. Once it is set up your hard drive can record a certain amount of rolling footage as well as having the capability of emailing you when a motion alert is triggered. The motion alert trigger is quite functional as you can also trigger other actions or run other programs. While the setup was pretty complex I was able to trigger lights to come on with one exterior camera and a speaker to play the sound of a loud dog barking when one of the interior cameras triggered.
There is definitely a level of peace of mind when you are on holidays and have full access to what’s going on in your house. Blue Iris also has a mobile app which makes connectivity and control really easy from your phone.
Lights and Switches
One of the easiest and most useful things you can do to automate your home is install some internet enabled switches. While you could spend money on installing an actual smart light switch, the best option is to go with something like the Belkin WeMo Switch which allows you to plug in your existing lamps. Switches like the Belkin WeMo cost about $70AUD and can be set up from an app on your home computer which will then connect it to your home Wi-Fi. Once that’s done you can use the app to directly control the switch or perform more advanced functions using third party integrations.
The first and most useful thing for me was the app’s timer which basically allows you to trigger on sunset. For our home we have it set up to turn on in the key living area when the sun sets and turn off at 10:30pm. This means that no matter what time of year it is the light comes on automatically when it becomes dark.
Also because the WeMo switch just plugs into a standard appliance slot it can turn any 'dumb' appliance into a smart appliance as long as it has an 'on' switch. Other examples of this are heaters, fans, slow cookers, rice cookers or coffee machines to name a few.
While controlling lights and appliances from your phone is quite gimmicky, using a third party service like IFTTT can really give you heaps of functional flexibility which I will talk about in a later section of this article.
Smart Climate Control
In many countries smart climate control is mostly about warming the house to a particular temperature. These locations would have cold winters and heating required just to keep the pipes running. In Australia though the majority of cities would be more concerned with cooling and probably less centrally controlled cooling or heating. It is for these reasons that smart home thermostats like Google’s Nest have not been released in Australia.
However, for people in the market for a new air conditioner, the good news is that there are smart options for little to no price difference over regular air conditioners. After a recent home renovation we decided to go out and buy new airconditioners and when we compared what was on offer we went for the Samsung WiFi enabled models as they had added features with no additional cost. Having young children and living on the Gold Coast we are often concerned that our youngest was getting too hot in bed. With the Samsung App on our phone we were able to both monitor the temperature in their room and turn on the airconditioner if we thought it was getting too hot. When you connect up your airconditioners you can also access them from outside the house so coming home from work/school on a hot day we could turn the airconditioner on before we arrived.
Audio and Video
The perfect interface to the automated home is voice and audio recognition which has come a long way since the early days of Dragon Dictation. If you want to command your automated home, a virtual audio assistant such as Google Home or Amazon Alexa is an absolute must. Both of these devices are smart speakers with a microphone that can accurately pick up your voice. They both respond to a basic initial prompt like “OK Google” or “Alexa” which brings them to life and primes them to obey your command. Common things might be to “Play my favourite play list on Spotify” or “Play the latest Cold Play album”. They both provide decent audio quality but can connect to your more expensive hi-fi equipment with either a cable (Alexa) or a Chromecast (Google Home).
The list of potential things they can do is most impressive. While Alexa has a small repertoire of base functions and questions you can a ask it like, news, weather, traffic, timers, unit conversion etc, you can add a massive amount of 'skills' to do far more, like read you a recipe or explain how to make a martini. The only catch is you have to know the skill you need to use. For example “Alexa, ask Bartender how to mix a Pina Colada”. While the only recently released Google Home does not yet cover as much as Alexa with her skills, it is far more intuitive and able to answer basic questions like “What is the distance to Mars?” or “What time does the sun set today?”
These same digital assistants are also great at helping to organise your life. Both platforms can tell you your schedule, add items to your to-do or shopping list, set reminders, timers and more.
Beyond these types of questions though both devices can integrate with your automated home devices to provide voice control. You could for example say, “Ok Google, turn on the fan” and it would automatically turn on the WeMo switched that was labelled 'fan'. The same goes for most of the above mentioned devices including switches and air conditioners. Both of these platforms are evolving quickly and the list of integrations is growing every day. I recently bought a chromecast for our kids play room TV and found I could ask “Ok Google, play the jolly phonics song video on the kids play room TV”. This then triggered the chrome cast to output to the TV’s HDMI socket, thus turning it on and playing the requested video on YouTube.
The key for an automated home to be useful is that everything works together in harmony. One essential ingredient for this is a service such as IFTTT (If This Then That) which connects to hundreds of services and products together via the web. The concept of IFTTT is that you can find or create an applet to do useful things. For example if I search for applets that use the WeMo switch there is an applet already created by a user that will turn on a switch at home when my phone’s GPS registers that I have arrived.
Similarly you could have your air conditioner turn off when you leave the office. There are thousands of automations that people have created on IFTTT but creating your own is relatively simple. You chose the product or service that triggers the action and then choose the action you want to complete. For those of you who have not yet played with IFTTT on the web or with their mobile app, I can highly recommend it – even without a smart home. Everyday actions like saving a photo from your phone to drop box or posting an update on Facebook can be automated with ease.
The pieces are really starting to come together and I think the tipping point is the new digital virtual assistants like Google Home and Alexa. I believe we are not too many years away from entering our home and being able to talk to the house to not only control every electron device but help you organise your life and give you instant access to information through natural language questions. The Amazon Alexa speaker already has smaller cheaper speakers that are spatially aware can be deployed in multiple rooms across the house.
All the products mentioned above are available in Australia with the exception of Amazon Alexa and Google Home. While you can buy both in the US and bring them back you would have to use a VPN to make Amazon think you are in Australia. Google Home on the other hand will work out of the box as long as you change your phone’s language to American English.
I hope you enjoy becoming automated in your home.
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