Saturday, October 10, 2015

Amazon Echo + Insteon Hub = Jarvis

I have had an Amazon echo since the beta and have really enjoyed it but the one thing I was hoping for more than anything was integration with my Insteon home control system. As of last weekend I got my wish and after some simple setup I basically spent the rest of the weekend flexing my inner (there is definitely no outer) Tony Stark.

Although the step is pretty simple and Smarthome has done a great job, there are a couple of tips on how to get the most from it.

The Echo requires that you have the latest version of the Insteon Hub (2245-222)

I had to upgrade to the new hub but they have an upgrade discount right now. If you don't have an existing hub you can skip ahead. If you do, then you will need to manually add all your devices top the new one as there is no way to transfer the setup from your old hub. However it only took me an evening to set it up the same.

TIP: Add the new Hub to your existing account. It is not obvious but you need to go to Settings->House Management->Add a House in the App. Do this before you plug it in as it will ask you to scan the label on the bottom of the hub. Then you should have them both running in parallel with two phones or tablets, each one set to a different house again by using Settings->House Management in each app. You can now go alphabetically device by device on each app side by side and add devices by ID from the comfort of your couch and you don't need to walk all round the house pressing set buttons. Only exception are sensors which require you to put them in link mode and cannot be added by ID. Remember to replicate all your alert settings and schedules too.

TIP: You may want to take the opportunity of renaming your devices during this process as this will make the Echo's job simpler when it comes to controlling them with your voice. Fro example, if you have "kitchen lights" and "kitchen cabinet lights" then Alexa says she has multiple device matches as they sound similar. Changing it to "kitchen spots" and "kitchen cabinets" seems to have solved the issue for me so far.

TIP: At some point you will want to turn off your old hub. Make sure you have set all of your apps to point to the new hub otherwise the app gets stuck looking for the old hub and won't let you pick the new one. I have yet to work out how to delete it from the App and make the new one the default.

You are also going to need an Amazon Echo

It is now a simple job of adding your Hub to the Echo's list of connected devices. A quick scan and it finds all your devices, though it can only control lights and plug modules right now so no setting the thermostat or asking if there are any doors or windows open. Hopefully that is in the works. You will want to have it forget all the devices it cannot control as that will improve the issue with name conflict when controlling it. However if you do that, the next time you need to scan the hub, maybe because you changed a device name or added a new one, it will find them all again so you may want to hold off until it is all stable.

Unfortunately the echo cannot read scenes from the hub but you can setup groups in the Echo app and then use those to control multiple devices. Cannot begin to explain how cool it is to say "Alexa, turn on Deck Evening" and see the lights come on, yard lights, fountain, etc. It is nothing you couldn't do with a single key press before but somehow it is way cooler and more impressive to just say it, and definitely quicker than opening an app or walking over to a keypad. My favorite scene I have created so far is Whole House. With a single request you can turn off everything!

Does it work perfectly? Not quite yet. Sometimes it says it cannot control certain devices or they are not responding. That can cause a scene like the Whole House one to fail and that can be frustrating. Clearly voice control is the future but it is also available here and now.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Quick Solution to Some HTPC and Macmini display issues

Last weekend I took the brave, some may say reckless step, of updating my Plex based home theater macmini to Mountain Lion. The last few releases of Plex had introduced significant stuttering for me on HD content and I was forced to watch it outside of the Plex media Client. Not an option for the rest of my family.

I had been following the various threads on the Plex Forums diligently and there seemed to be a growing group of people who were getting much better performance and being able to play even higher definition video than I could previously on exactly the same mini as mine.

So I took the plunge and upgraded. At first everything was great. Instantly the problem was resolved and I had perfectly flawless HD playback at 1080p.

It wasn't until the next day when I get a text from my wife. The macmini is displaying only snow. What should they do?

I may have fixed my Plex issues but Mountain Lion had regressed its display support and was no longer doing proper EDID synching after the display was switched.

I was faced with 2 options. Downgrade and live with the HD playback issues or wait till Apple addressed in a Mountain Lion update. The latter option may not happen for weeks, months or even at all.

That is when I was pointed to an expensive but foolproof solution. The Gefen HDMI Detective Plus. It literally took my 2 minutes to install and never even needed the power supply to be attached. It basically stores the EDID information and pretends to be your device, in this case my macmini, after switching. It worked immediately and as a plus it improved the switching time.

$89 it was a little expensive but one thing that swung it for me was that we would occasionally have the no signal/snow issue even on the previous Mac OS versions and although it was easily fixed by switching to another source and back again, it was more than my family or friends should have to deal with. For that reason alone is was an easy purchase. I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Create Not Consume

I have been pushing a personal philosophy recently which it turns out after much googling is not all that original, which is a good thing.

Whether we realize it or not we are raising a generation of consumers, kids who prefer to consume what others have produced and create nothing new themselves. In some cases we know it is bad and try to have them maintain a balance. Television, movies, video games can all be incredible education tools and I am a big proponent of them. In some cases we irrationally place higher value on older technology. Reading is unquestionably good for us and most people don't read enough. But being proud of your child because they read all day, every day, is also misplaced. Playing sports is also essential but lets not confuse that with being creative. Lets face it, we all know balance is good.

Unfortunately many parents focus on balance between different means of consuming. Creating needs to be a part of that same healthy balance. We were forced to create more as kids as we had less to consume. I had to write my own video games or at least type them in from a magazine and then debug and fix them due to printing and typing mistakes. I made things in the garage. I played in a band. I made models. I painted. I created.

The harsh reality is that one day your kids will have to pick a career path and hopefully get a job. You get paid to create, you pay to consume.

Summer is a great opportunity to start encouraging your kids to create, especially with the trend in California to continually shorten the school year. Add to that the fact that every smartphone is now a serious content creation tool.

  • Write don't just Read
  • Compose don't just Listen
  • Film don't just Watch
  • Coach don't just Play
A few ideas to get you started. Most of these reference Mac or iOS apps but similar apps are available for other platforms:
           ....or simply just take some pictures the old fashioned way

And don't just think this only applies to your kids. Even Facebook can be used for creation and not just consumption.You are never too old to learn something new. Remember, an imagination is a terrible thing to waste.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What Siri wants to be when she grows up.....

The blogosphere has been heaping praise on Siri with most of the coverage going to the humorous responses built into the AI engine. All very interesting but none of it gets to the heart of why Siri is there in the first place. Some people in the media seem to spend every waking hour trying to predict what Apple might do next and where they might go. Interestingly in hindsight most things seem pretty obvious. Features are added for a bigger purpose and it takes us all a while to see what that might be.

In the case of Siri I think we are seeing a real glimpse into the future of iOS. Firstly and most obviously Siri provides voice control. It does it first where it is most needed, a phone. It is a touch device that we have a very real need to use when we cannot touch it or even see it. But there are other devices that fit into that category too. Most critically the ones that are not or will ever be touch screen enabled. The Mac mini and the MacBook (or more simply desktops and laptops) for example. Or how about the most rumored of all devices, the TV. more on that later.

Siri is also a close relative of the Star Trek computer. Ask her a question and she tries to get you the answer. We have had  the ugly stepsister for quite a long time. It is called Google search. That company in Mountain View has built an advertising business around that ability but its weakness is the front end. Android has Voice Actions but how many late night talk shows did you see cover that?

This brings me back to TV and something Google already knows. TV is no longer about live broadcast networks. The TV is the thing that hangs on my wall. It is capable of showing many kinds of media, TV being just one of them. When we say we love TV we don't mean the physical device, we mean the content and that content now includes youtube, streaming video, games, apps, photos and everything else that needs a screen.
That amount of content faces serious discovery problems and so for next generation TV, search is the killer feature.

All this then suggests that to revolutionize TV will require access to any kind of content with simple voice control from any device, not just that big screen in your living room. Siri has a little bit of growing up to do but the potential is clear.

As an aside, most predictions for Apple's TV play seem to focus on how it will integrate cable, broadcast TV, and physical disks. Simply it won't and it has no need to. Have you checked the App Store recently?

Monday, May 16, 2011


How the Tech Giant Wants to "Androidify" Your Home | Wall Street Daily

Google announces Android@Home framework for home automation

As a huge fan of home automation and smart homes I was excited by Googles announcement last week of Android@Home. The potential is huge and with all the proliferation of different standards in this space we have all been waiting for someone big to step in. Android is perfect for this space, especially with it's roots in Java and Linux. Java took a few runs at bringing together devices (remember JXTA and Jini?) but Sun lacked the industry presence and relied on slow standards processes. Google with Android can simply target this space and standardize later.

I for one am very excited to see how this develops. With Android being an open platform I would ideally love to see a small home automation server in a box that allows me to mix and match Insteon, ZigBee, Z-Wave, RFID, new devices based on Google owns standards, and anything else you care to think of.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The CEA Tech Enthusiast Member of the Week

The CEA Tech Enthusiast Member of the Week

I got named CEA Tech Enthusiast of the week and somehow missed it. Very cool.

The Demise Of Social Media And The Return Of Mass Media

The Demise Of Social Media And The Return Of Mass Media

Interesting article on the failed promise of social media. There is a major change here and I am not sure i agree with the author. Old media was about getting all your news from a single source, maybe a couple. You read a specific newspaper, watched a certain evening news show. Those Mass media outlets had you as a captive customer. What has changed is that they are still the sources but we are all getting a little bit from each of them, the bits they are better at. Social Media plays the part of the editor and aggregator. I am much more interested in knowing what my network think is interesting news than what the editor of the new york times thinks I should be looking at. This is all goodness as the mass media outlets are forced to work a little bit harder for our attention. And the promise of social media itself is not completely dead. I read a lot of material from individual writers and bloggers who are not part of the mass media outlets. But to say that the majority of our media was going to come to us that way was always far fetched.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting Started With Insteon and Home Automation

I already loved the htguys and their excellent HDTV and Home Theater Podcast, but it recently only got better when they finally got the Insteon and home automation bug. It reminded me that I have not shared any starter tips or blogged my current setup for quite some time.

I got into Insteon seriously back in 2006. Since then I have slowly added more and more devices and now have most of my home automated:

7 x KeypadLincs (8 button)
10 x SwitchLincs (Relays for the Fans and Dimmers for the lights)
8 x LampLincs
1 x Garage door sensor
1 x USB IR emitter for Home Theater control

When I started I was a windows guy and so used a PC as my main controller running PowerHome ( The software is great, great community support and very stable. Since then I have gone all Apple and will probably eventually switch to Indigo.

You don't need a computer for Insteon to work. You can link switches and modules, even your thermostat, to each other and all works great. The big value of a computer software based controller is that it records all the links you make and allows you to make links and write them to the devices. This is a huge timesaver especially when a device fails or needs resetting. You can simply rewrite it from the computer. If you don't want a computer on all the time then you can just buy the PLC controller and download some things such as timers to it directly and it will run them when the computer is off.

At one point I added a 7" touch screen controller which I documented here.

Unfortunately the screen broke and so I was forced to rethink. About the same time the iPhone and iPod Touch came out and made portable touch screens cheap. I decided to move to the iPhone for my music remote control and started to try and retarget my home automation to it too.

To do this on a pc or mac can be a lot of work involving screen design, etc.

Then just last week I bought the 2412N Controller module and its simplicity blew me away. It is not as flexible as a pc but it instantly gave me access to all my lights and thermostat from my iPhone or any browser and from anywhere in the world. Huge spouse approval factor. We can turn up the AC on the way home and it is cool by the time we get there. Go this route and you don't even need a computer.

Here are a few tips on things that I found out as I went along:

(1) Insteon communication is incredibly reliable. Unlike X-10 you get close to 100% response rate. However its big enemies are UPSs, Computers and Receivers. They suck the signal out the line and reduce the effectiveness, in some cases killing it completely. The result is a dead zone within your house. The solution is simple. You can buy filters, similar to the Insteon modules, called FilterLincs, that you plug between the offending devices and the power socket. As they go up to 10 amps you can put a bunch of devices on a single filter. If you are worried about blowing it you can use a Kill-a-watt to measure the current drawn by your devices or UPS when on.

(2) Smarthome does regular specials and sales. Often worth waiting for these. I have also gotten a few things via their auction site at a good discount.

(3) If you want to get serious with a computer software controller then you will need a spare insteon device to use as a trigger device (Indigo may work without this). Keypad buttons have to be linked to something to generate a trigger. You can then listen for these events on the computer and act on them. For instance I have a button that tells the computer the house is vacant. A cheap Lamplinc is great and you can use it for all your keypad triggers.

(4) You will keep finding new things to control. Powered speakers are great for control from a keypad. Holiday lights too. My favorite, my PC pings a couple of websites every 30 minutes such as google and if it cannot get a response it reboots the router. I also have a button that lights up every tuesday to remind me to take out the trash. I also have halogen closet lights that I don't want to be left on by accident. When they are turned on the computer sets up a turn off command for 10 minutes later.

(5) The Keypads used to come with clear buttons that you could print out custom labels for. They replaced these with solid white ones which cannot be customized. They want you to buy custom etched ones but until your system is stable you won't know what they should say and if you leave them as A,B,C etc your family will hate you. However you can still order the clear button kit for just under $6. I also use the color change kit to make them all soft blue and the red ones are perfect for alert buttons such as Garage Door Open or Take Out The Garbage.

(6) By default your switches and lamplincs will just turn the lights on and off. Change the ramp rate and you will get a nice gradual dim up and down. Surprising what a difference this makes and people really notice. Plus you can easily override when needed by double tapping the switch.

If you are just starting out then I recommend getting one of the Insteon starter kits initially. Many of them come with the RemoteLinc remote control but personally I don't use mine, find it a little ugly and it eats batteries even when it is not used. An iPhone or universal remote make a much better control.

My only warning? Once you start you won't be able to stop and this could prove to be an expensive hobby........