Thoughts: Internet of Things

Much of the IoT hype is really just the final arrival of the promised connected devices – something that was being touted as imminent while I was at Wind River, but which really needed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to come of age first. Today, connected devices are everywhere. Even cars are connected.

Now we live in a world where devices can be connected to a home or office network without requiring cabling. And we can wear lightweight devices that can take advantage of the more powerful computer in our pockets (aka a smartphone) for Internet connectivity using just low power Bluetooth connections. In some cases, even permanent devices, like smart door locks, can be battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to a local "bridge" device.

In addition to that always on connectivity, these devices needed simpler controls. Whether touch screens that can adapt, or, more recently, voice control, without more natural controls, many IoT devices would be too complex.

Finally, the arrival of meaningful AI is helping make many of these devices at least seem smarter, and be easier to interact with. Often with natural language, or by having the device simply observe & learn.

Continue reading

Automation is not Laziness

It occurred to me recently that when I have been doing things around the house that automate something, those activities have often been branded as me being lazy.

The Roomba

The Roomba was the first example of this, though at the time I just ignored the labeling. Having a device that can trundle around cleaning the floors for me without my needing to be pushing it is great. The argument was made that the Roomba was not as effective, nor as fast, as the Dyson in the closet. But that argument is false. On paper, the Roomba clearly does not have the suction power of the Dyson, but it can do the job unattended, meaning the floors are vacuumed more often than they would be with the Dyson. As for the speed, while it does take much longer for the Roomba to complete the job, it doesn’t expend any of my time at all. That makes it infinitely faster from my perspective.

Is it lazy though to push vacuuming onto a robot? I don’t think so. Especially not if I am spending the time I would have spent pushing the Dyson around doing something more valuable. It also impacts the overall quality of life for the family; one less chore that needs to be delegated.

The Dishwasher

Another one the household appliances that was seemingly tagged as making people lazy was the humble dishwasher (though, oddly, I have not heard the same complaint about the washing machine in our laundry room). For me, the dishwasher not only saves my time, it also typically does a better job at getting things clean, and saves on water. Once again, it can run when I am doing other things around the house, or it gives me some time to spend with the kids rather than standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes.

Alexa

Just before Thanksgiving, I finally bit the bullet and upgraded the Insteon hub here in the house to the newer version that can integrate with Amazon’s fantastic Alexa gadget (something we’ve had in the house for a long time now and been using for music, weather, news, shopping lists and more). In addition to the Insteon lights, I hooked up the Nest and August integrations, so Alexa could control the house lights, the thermostats and our front door lock (she will only check the status or lock the door though, not unlock it).

My kids were hooked on the light control immediately, and our five year old has been showing everybody who visits Alexa’s newest trick. But is it laziness to ask Alexa to turn a light on or off rather than getting up and walking to the switch? Or to have her adjust the temperature on the thermostat instead on getting up and adjusting it manually? Of course, in both cases I could also just pull out the phone and use that, and in the case of the Nest, I can even make the change from my watch. I imagine those are also considered “lazy” options.

Is voice control ever useful? Sure! in the month or so we’ve had it, I’ve already used it a few times when I’ve had my hands full and needed a light turned on or off. I don’t think that is laziness; I see it more as improving efficiency.

Oddly, even though controlling the lights or thermostats remotely is laziness, I noticed that controlling the TV without getting up was not considered to be lazy. I wonder if the TV remote control was branded as laziness when it was first introduced?

Smarthome

Right now, I have the basic elements of a smart home, but I don’t think the home is really that smart. Sure, the August can tell the Nest when I go out. The Nest smoke detectors can tell the Nest thermostats when there is a carbon monoxide issue or a fire (and have the heating shut off). The thermostats also tell the smoke detectors when we are out so they can run self-tests without disturbing us.

But I am looking for more. I’d like the August to turn on the lights inside when I unlock the door at night. Or if the Roomba could disable the motion sensors on our home alarm system while it was cleaning, and re-enable them once it was done (so I could schedule the vacuuming to run while we are out without it resulting in the police breaking the door down to check for intruders).

Luckily, for this there are more and more options coming online, connecting the various APIs for each service. All I need now is some time to set them all up. And to keep replacing components in the home with ones that have APIs. I’d love to have our home Wi-Fi router be able to report when certain devices come and go, or trigger other activities based on who is at home, or who is arriving home. Our Apple Extreme cannot do this, but perhaps the next router I buy will have that capability (or something else I can connect to the house will).

Presence (for the future)

The next step I suspect will be to add beacon sensors in certain rooms so the house “knows” which room I am in based on either my phone, or my watch or some other wearable device that I choose to register as synonymous with me being present. Would it be lazy to have the kitchen lights automatically come on, and perhaps have a coffee start brewing when I come down at 6:30am to make lunch for our pre-schooler? Maybe Alexa would even know I walked in and greet me, or start my flash news briefing or a review of my calendar automatically too.

None of this is actually that new. I attended a lecture talking about “smart” badges probably 20+ years ago in the UK. But the age of Bluetooth wearables and smartphones makes a special badge unnecessary. And services like IFTTT make all of the interconnects simple too. We live in exciting times, as long as you think beyond automation being lazy of course!

When Cloud Based IoT Dies

Update November 7, 2016:

It looks like the Lono cloud service is back online. This was not a normal outage however as their domain completely disappeared from DNS. The bigger question of what they will be doing to ensure that the device works locally, even when the cloud is unavailable still deserves an answer (and I filed a support ticket this evening asking both about the outage & about plans for graceful degradation of service should the cloud component fail again).


A while ago now I backed a project on Kickstarter that was creating a more modern sprinkler controller. That actually wasn’t hard to imagine since the user interface of the one our home’s builder attached to wall consisted of a rotating switch, some buttons and an LCD display which could handle numbers & a few other preset things. Like something from the 1980s.

That project was Lono, and, like most Kickstarters, it delivered late & somewhat incomplete. But the hardware looked good, was dead simple to install & seemed to work. The software less so. Over time, things improved a bit though.  I could access the controller, via the iPhone app, from anywhere. Scheduling was added, as was weather and a few other features. I don’t think I saw the truly smart scheduling that was promised, but it was delivering what I needed. Until today.

Cloud Dependency

Today, the Lono died. Well. More specifically, the cloud service behind the Lono died. Now the attractive black & green box on the wall of my garage is essentially useless. Obviously, that is frustrating because I can no longer control my sprinklers, even from home when my phone & the Lono are on the same network. But it frustrates me on another level too. These IoT devices are clearly more powerful when connected to the cloud, but they should not be designed to be dependent on that cloud to do anything. 

There is absolutely no reason why the Lono, discovering it could no longer reach its cloud based control center, couldn’t have dropped back to a LAN only mode. Whether the outage is caused by the company failing (which seems to be the case here), or other things (maybe an ISP failing, or being temporarily offline), there really is no excuse for these things to stop working based on their last known settings & reverting to more local control.

Kickstarter 

I’ve backed a number of different things on Kickstarter & Indiegogo. Typically, while they may have received firmware updates etc, only a couple were really dependent on a cloud based service & only Lono has failed. It does make me think I will be more wary of cloud backed IoT projects in future. Perhaps such projects will need to explain their plans for this scenario. At the very least, it would be good to see they’ve considered this & have some level of “disconnected” functionality baked in.

If they want to truly impress me, they should have hardware design, firmware & app software in an escrow service, with public (or at least customer) release triggered on company failure. Then, maybe, the community could rally around and perhaps continue support for these devices. 

Smarthome; Forgetful Inhabitant

Red Flashing LightA few weeks back I forgot to close the garage door. Not when we were leaving the house, but when we were already at home. A long time ago I upgraded lots of our house to have Insteon switches and sensors. The garage door has a switch/sensor combo on it so that I can both open & close the door from anywhere with Internet connectivity, and also see the current status on my phone. I also have it send me push notifications when the door opens or closes. When we leave the house, I am now trained to expect the closed message on my Pebble, and if I don’t get it, check.

We did that because I can’t count the number of times I was asked whether the door was closed when we were half a mile from the house, and we had to turn around and go back to check. But, when we’re at home, I don’t pay as much attention to the notifications. Hence the garage was left open one night (and my wife’s car, which was unlocked, was rifled through as were some boxes on a shelf near the open door – nothing was taken though, so I guess we don’t have anything valuable out there, or they were disturbed).

My Solution?

Since the garage door announces over the Insteon system when it opens and closes, my solution was simple: get a giant red flashing light (the one shown above) and an Insteon On/Off module to switch it on and off. Place this in the kitchen and “connect” the on/off switch to the garage door sensor via the Insteon network. Now, all the time the garage door is open, the red light flashes in the kitchen. As soon as the door closes, it goes off.

Smart home saves forgetful owner (again).