Thoughts on the state of home automation

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Forgive me for pontificating and recollecting like an old man for a while. I’ll be 40 next month, so I’m practicing.

Let’s start in the late 90s. My landlord had informed me that he sold the property I was renting, and I had a few weeks to move out. I’m still not sure that was legal, but my parents had moved out of state but kept the house where I spent my teens, and now I was renting their furnished basement while they were gone.

I lived with Aditi in that house for the first few years we were married. She put up with a lot of my early home automation experimentation (grudgingly). All of the light switches became X10 switches. I installed (poorly-mounted) speaker systems in the bathroom, kitchen, and living rooms, running wires from the SoundBlaster card in my PC in the utility room. An AMP jukebox and voice synthesis app let the house start providing multi-room audio, and even talking to us.

I added remotes around the house. Alarm clocks that could also turn lights on and off. Slow-wake sunrises with the bedroom lights. The TV remote could control the TV, my homemade DVR, and lighting scenes. I hacked a couple of Audreys with WiFi adapters and LCARS menus (handcrafted in Flash) to for touch-screen control of everything, and mounted them in the stairwell and the hall to the bedroom.

Back then, I was always the first one in the bathroom in the morning, so it was easy to have a morning automation routine that was just for me. It would only trigger once during the day, and only between 5 and 6am. The bathroom light shined directly into the bedroom, so a door close sensor would trigger the ramp up of the bathroom and kitchen lights, start the coffee maker, and then proceed to read me the weather and my appointments for the day in a hushed tone.

In a time when most people considered voice control the stuff of sci-fi, I rigged the house’s late 80s intercom system up to my PC running a voice accessiblity program and Homeseer to control all of my X10 switches. It didn’t work terribly well, but I could instruct the computer to “turn on the lights in the living room” as long as I’d left the intercom in “listen” mode (or walked across the room to press the “talk” button that was 3’ from the light switch).

Eventually I got my own house. The electrical system was noisy, and X10 (which communicates mostly over power lines) stopped working as well. Over time I upgraded my system to Insteon, and when I switched to Mac in 2000, I started using Indigo. The hardware interfaces for Insteon also controlled X10 devices, so everything kept working together.

Just like with my Homeseer setup, I could program complex criteria and sequences for my home in Indigo. I could have multiple lights respond to a single switch, and respond differently based on variables.

I could have motion detectors that were smart enough to keep each other active when only one was seeing motion at a time, or trigger different events based on the order that the hallway motion sensors were triggered (so lights can follow you).

I could have open/close sensors on doors. I could have moisture and light sensors trigger anything I wanted to.

I could connect anything I wanted to.

And I could hack anything I wanted to. I took a beam sensor from a grocery store door, originally intended for counting foot traffic, and turned it into a laser trip wire that controlled software variables in the system. That made directional motion sensing way easier. I hacked a Radio Shack mailbox light sensor to announce when the mail had run, waiting until I got home if the house was empty. I combined a series of motion sensors, open/close sensors, and the beengone utility I wrote to determine if I was in my office, routing notifications (and summons from the wife) to blink(1)s and Powermates if I was there.

Then Siri came along, and what I wanted more than anything was to tell her to do some of this stuff for me. Good voice recognition and response means infinitely more possibilities than any switch available. Being able to turn on the deck lights from my watch was an amazing prospect.

When I started, X10 was it. By now, protocols had become disparate and proprietary, and sticking with X10, Insteon, and Z-wave meant no HomeKit compatibility. I’ve since hacked my way around that with homebridge, and it’s been working well. Even though my lights are a combination of various protocols and manufacturers, I can control them from bed with a “Hey Siri,” and turn off the basement lights from the living room by talking to my watch like freaking Dick Tracy.

Over the last year I’ve been adding Hue bulbs, switches, and motion sensors. They’re amazingly responsive and reliable, and I can control them with both Siri and Alexa, though initially not with Indigo. If I didn’t want to use the more limited capabilities of the Home app on my iPhone, I couldn’t really can’t make them talk to each other or control them via a central, scripted platform.

When I started adding Alexa devices to the mix, I ran into more issues with tying it all together. Then I discovered a homebridge plugin that broadcasts the whole system to Alexa as well. I also discovered that there’s a plugin for Indigo itself that provides 2-way integration with Hue products, and one that integrates Alexa right in (without needing homebridge). So now I can incorporate all of these newer products into my scripting and control system.

In addition to being able to control all of my devices, scenes, and routines via both Siri and Alexa, I can also easily integrate things like Flic buttons, thanks to Indigo’s REST API. This means I can have a button under my desk that toggles lights (and absolutely does not close or lock any doors automatically). The API also means that services like IFTTT can provide some glue that would otherwise be overly complex to engineer.

I can use the latest devices, and still have a system where a wall switch determines whether it’s daytime, and executes a different function than it would at night. I can have an open/close trigger on the bathroom door that triggers different routines based on the time of day. I just need to get RFID or BTLE identification working so that I can control actions based on who is triggering them.

I get some of the best voice control I could reasonably ask for (more with Alexa than with Siri), and the best of scriptable automation. Automation hardware is becoming more affordable, though the protocols are becoming more and more fragmented. I’m quite thankful for HomeKit in this area. Manufacturers can have all the proprietary protocols they want, and as long as everything publishes to HomeKit, it all works together. (Same with other home automation protocols, as long as manufacturer’s publish to them.) It is annoying to have to buy a different hub for every protocol, but it’s not as though any serious home automation enthusiast expected minimal hardware to be part of the equation.

While I’d still love to see HomeKit itself becomes more scriptable — allowing full control over all of the devices it recognizes with complex interactions between switches, sensors, and devices — I can’t imagine programming it all on any mobile device. Which, of course, means Apple isn’t going to be interested in developing it. So Indigo gets to fill in the gaps.

I love the idea of the Apple TV or the HomePod as a central brain. For a while there it seemed like the coolest stuff was only going to work when a specific iOS device was around to interface everything. Eventually I might not even have to have an always-on Mac mini processing everything. Honestly, the hardware options (within the Apple ecosphere and outside of it) are getting really good, and the Home app itself isn’t bad. Most of HomeKit’s target audience isn’t going to feel constrained by it. Only the sci-fi-loving nerds who probably have the skills to do it anyway are going to feel the need to build desktop apps and controllers.

I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve never been more excited about the possibilities.

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