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Who is Present?

Location tracking a presence/arrival sensing not lonely makes people connected but is an easy way to trigger automation…or at least it should be. There are a lot of options out there for this from the Samsung SmartThings Arrival Sensor, to services such as Life360 and even Connected Car devices like the Automatic AUT-350C Pro Gold 3G Connected Car Adapter, to built in presence in our Smart Home apps like Samsung SmartThings and Wink. These all have Pro’s and Con’s, in my experience there is no magic bullet answer for presence sensing and they all have a failure rate.

Let’s start with the “built in” presence detection in the SmartThings App. This is notoriously inaccurate, and I would not trust it to run any automations, but the functionality is there. You can even install the SmartThings app on your spouse and/or children’s phone’s and have them work at Presence sensors as well. I must give SmartThings a lot of credit for implementing this functionality because it can be used (if it were reliable) to truly automate automation. Wink also can geofence around your address and should be able to do the same as SmartThings but has no previsions for multiple family members which is a huge miss and for myself makes it unusable.

I love the idea of the Connected Car and there are a lot of players in that market but the shining example of what connected car should be in my opinion is the Automatic Pro. It is a little piece of hardware that plugs into your vehicles OBDII Port (all passenger vehicles in the United States from model year 1996 and newer have an OBDII port) that can do a lot of things and geolocating is just one small part. While Automatic cannot be directly tied into your home automation system it can be integrated using services like IFTTT and Stringify which is great assuming you are within the 5 years of included service or have paid for additional 3G service. In addition to geolocation you also get the added benefits of Trip Logging, Crash Alert, Live Vehicle Tracking and Vehicle Diagnostic Information which if you are looking for any of those features Automatic is the way to go.

Life360 is a great service and has both a free and premium plan. The free plan allows you to install the app on your family’s phone (they call them Circles) and allows you to set 2 locations. For Home Automation you only need one location so this will work. Life360 is a smart phone app so it does depend on your phone for location services which can sometimes not be the most accurate and will not work if say your phone battery is dead or even if your phone is in a low power mode. For the most part this is not an issue for me being a geek I need 24/7 access to my phone so keep it well charged but for my wife this has caused issues.

Currently I am using the SmartThings Arrival Sensors on my family’s key rings to trigger automations based off who is at home and/or who is not home. Being hardware based and having a ZigBee radio in them makes them accurate at determining presence. This sounds great for home automation needs but the big drawback to these is battery life. Because of the ZigBee radio in them that tried to ping the hub periodically batteries can run down quickly but using them with SmartThings I can easily monitor battery level and change as needed.

So, this might lead you to ask what am I using for presence detection and the answer to that is for the most part all the above (except for the Automatic Pro currently). Using SmartThings and Webcore I have built a system of checks and balances that checks the state of multiple sensors and triggers presence variable in Webcore to then trigger automations. I also use Life360 for more in-depth location tracking and to trigger notification on my home Televisions (using IFTTT and Comcast Labs).

Presence is a great gateway into true automation and should be used by everyone entering the automation space. Depending on your exact needs what you use for presence detection may vary but they should all get you to the same place. If using presence for things like locking door I highly recommend using a piece of hardware vs an app that is dependent on your phone. I also do not recommend using presence to disarm or unlock anything, right now there are too many issues around presence and for me it is not worth opening my home based on it.

What are you using for presence detection? More importantly what creative way have you come up with to use presence in your automation? Let me know in the comments below.

Deal Alert: Alexa Turns 3

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Its Alexa’s Birthday! To celebrate Amazon has a lot of deals going on. Now is a great time to get started with Alexa if you live under a rock and have not done so already.

Seem like now is a great time to start using Alexa. Already using Alexa? Let me know your favorite uses in the comments below.

Deal Alert: AEgooL Wi-Fi LED Strip Lights

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So the company behind the AEgooL Wi-Fi LED Strips reached out and offered readers a $30% discount on their products. If you have read my review you know I am a fan of these LED Strips so take advantage of the offer. You can purchase them using the below link and using promo code AEGOOL77
WIFI Smart Strip Light Kit, RGB Multicolor LED Lightstrip, 12V Music Dimmable String Light with Remote, 32.8Ft 600LEDs 5050, controlled via Android IOS APP Alexa Google Home IFTTT (Waterproof)

A Big Ol’ Pile O’ Hubs

The Smart Home can be a very confusing to get into. In my opinion there are just too many hubs and communication protocols. This confuses most people when they first start out (and even people who are already deep in it). There is so much uncertainty about which hub is needed for which devices. As an industry this needs to stop, home automation cannot thrive until it is easily accessible without the need to spend hours researching.  How is anyone supposed to walk into a store, see two hubs next to each other and decide (one that is going to shape the future of the “smart” home for them)?

Echo PLusI think some people will make this decision based on brand. There are two heavyweights with big brand names, Samsung SmartThings and Amazon Echo Plus. Now I have not used the Echo Plus but what I have learned through my research is out of the box it is only has a ZigBee radio which limits the number of devices it is directly compatible with anything that is not ZigBee (read any Z-Wave product or sensor) will need another hub and some type of API integration or an Alexa Skill. To me this is not very user friendly. Then you have Samsung with the Smartthings brand whichST Hub takes this a little further by having both a ZigBee and Z-Wave radio in it allowing it to directly connect to many products in the marketplace. Smartthings also has a big community that can write custom device handlers and “SmartApps” that only further Smartthing’s integrations. Now I am currently a Smartthings user and I can say if I had started my Smart Home journey with a Smartthings Hub that journey would have quickly ended.

The middleweight in the brand awareness category I would have to say is Lowes with its Iris Smart Hub. There is not a lot to be said about Iris however because frankly Lowes has no business in the hardware or connected home game. They have no clear displays for Iris in any of the stores I have been in and I have never been able to find someone there would could answer even any basic questions about Iris. Basically, what I am Wink Hubtrying to say about Iris is simple…DO NOT BUY IT!

Now that the “Name” Brands are covered that brings me to my next hub (and the one I started my Smart Home journey with) Wink Hub 2. While they do not have the big brand awareness (maybe that will change with its recent acquisition by i.am+) it is in my opinion the best bang for your buck hub available. Wink went the “kitchen sink” route meaning they included every radio they could get their hands on into this hub which give them direct compatibility with more products than anyone else. On top of ZigBee and Z-Wave they included the Lutron Clear Connect Radio, the Kidde Smoke/CO detector radio and Bluetooth LE (only in the Hub 2). For the first-time customers were really given the freedom to choose which products they wanted to incorporate into their systems.

In the end I have two recommendations. For people who are just starting out Wink will always be what I recommend. Hands down has the most compatibility and is the most user friendly. If you are someone who has been into Home Automation for a while and want to do more advanced automations I would recommend Smartthings as the community behind it really allows you to get creative and do some amazing things. WebCore which is a 3rd party SmartApp (and the topic of a future Blog Post) is so incredibly powerful the automations that you can do with it really are endless.

Other contenders in the Hub space are Fibaro, Vera Control, Logitech Harmony, Control4 and many, many more…

Which Hub to you use and why? Let me know in the comments below.

Next week I will discuss the next biggest factor…Apps

Product Review: AEgooL Wi-Fi LED Strip Lights

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Let’s talk about LED strip lights for a little bit I mean who does not like LED strip lights? The uses for them are endless, they are great for under-cabinet lighting, accent lighting around furniture mood lighting in the bedroom and even immersive lighting around a television. All of which are great features that can be utilized to create unbelievable layered lighting scenes. I have had experience with “connected” LED Strips from Phillips and Sylvania and some “non-connected” ones from Commercial Electric. They all pretty much do the same thing, mount in a discrete location and give you wireless control over brightness, hue and saturation.

Now today I am going to talk about the AEgool LED Strip Lights I received for review. These are a very aggressively priced option that is Wi-Fi connected and controllable using the included remote and/or Google Home or Amazon Alexa. The first thing I noticed when I received them was the packaging, it is very consumer friendly and not something I needed to struggle with to get open, simply tear the bag open across the indicated line and you’re ready to go. This is great because like most people when I get a new product I want to be up and running as quick as possible, so like a kid on Christmas morning I tore that package open right away.

Included in the kit I received:71y2vu5V0jL._SL1500_

  • The spool of LED Strip Lights
  • The Power Supply
  • The Wi-Fi Module
  • IR Remote
  • (2) 4-Pin Connectors for System Expansion

Looking at the strips I must admit I was a little skeptical at first because of how thin the strip was and how small the LED’s were, I mean compared to Phillips Hue Strips these things were tiny but that turned out to be a very good thing. Because of the size they were very easy to work with and bent around corners with easy. AS anyone who has worked with Philips Hue LightStrip Plus LED Smart Lights knows corners can be a challenge. What started out as a negative for when first looking at them made my life much easier during installation and coming from an installation background anything that makes installation easier is a huge plus in my book.

With everything installed it was time to get things up and running. App setup was a breeze using the Magic Home Smart App and Alexa Skill. Once connected to Wi-Fi control from Alexa was very fast and accurate. While I do wish these had integration with other smart home platforms like Wink Hub 2 or Samsung SmartThings Smart Home Hub they are still very usable with simple easy to use voice control. Later on, I discovered that Magic Home was compatible with Google Home as well and setup there was just as easy and things worked just as well as with Alexa.

Pro’s:

  • Cost
  • Flexibility
  • Customization (you can cut them to length and use the included 4-pin connectors to extend)
  • Simple Setup
  • IFTTT integration
  • Google Home Integration
  • Alexa Integration

Con’s:

  • Lack of compatibility with other third-party home automation platforms

There really is not a whole lot to dislike about these LED strips, if you are looking at an inexpensive entry into accent lighting I would highly recommend giving these a shot. The installation possibilities are endless and I would love to hear some of your own applications for LED Strip lights in the comments below.

 

The Start of AIY Projects

AIY Box

I was very excited when I first heard about the AIY Voice Kit and rushed all over to try and find issue number 57 of TheMagPi but had no luck finding one. A few months after this the release of the AIY Voice Kit at retail was announced and I quickly preordered on from my local (well not that local) MicroCenter. At the time of the preorder MicroCenter offered two options. You could order just the Voice Kit for $25 or get a bundle that included a Raspberry PI 3 Model B 1.2GHz 64-bit quad-core ARMv8 CPU, 1GB RAM and the Google AIY Voice Kit, for me that was a no brainer and I ordered the combo package. Fast forward a few months and my Kit was finally available for pick up and I am very excited!

For the price of this kit and the community that is behind the Raspberry Pi the possibilities are nearly endless for this kit. The kit gives you everything you need to get up and running (assuming you have a functioning Raspberry Pi).

Included with the kit are:materials

  • Voice HAT Accessory Board
  • Voice HAT Microphone Board
  • (2) Plastic Standoffs
  • 3” Speaker
  • Speaker Wire
  • Push Button
  • Button Cable
  • Daughter Board Cable
  • Cardboard Enclosure

This will certainly get an entry level tinkerer up and running and you will have a nice looking cardboard ert your SD Card that has the Voice Kit SD Image (you can download the SD Image from the AIY Projects Website), plug in a monitor, a keyboard and mouse and boot up the Pi. Once booted you can configure your Wi-Fi and test your audio.

This hardware combined with the Google Assistant API and the Google Cloud Platform should lead to some interesting development and I for one am excited. My vision for this is seamless integration of Google Assistant into my home. Using high quality materials and components we can build Assistant into the decor of a room, so you no longer have this weird shaped white thing sitting on a table. There is nothing to stop someone from building this into a nightstand in a bed room (which I think is going to be my first project) or into a smart mirror in a bathroom, the possibilities really are endless.

If you are excited about the AIY kit or have and projects planned or already in the works, please share them in the comments I would love to hear what people are thinking about doing. Stay tuned for updates on my own projects as we get moving along here at IoTRantbox sitting around in the end. I must admit I am not a fan of the cardboard enclosure or the supplied speaker but then again it is a starter kit meant to be easy accessible by anyone who wants to tinker, and I had never planned on using them for any finished projects.

Assembly is straight forward and if you get lost there is a handy instruction manual included which will walk you through everything from folding the box to inserting the components. I will say though that the enclosure is cardboard so do not expect the best fit and finish, but it will certainly work to get you going with assembly done you are ready to ins

Dumb “Features” of Smart Speakers

Dumb Alexa
I am a recent convert from Wink Hub 2 to Samsung SmartThings Smart Home Hub. This required me to set up a lot of automations and controls for a second time. While doing so I found a quirk in my Amazon Echo and Amazon Alexa which in my opinion really makes our beloved Alexa kind of dumb. I learned about a “Feature” (read: bug or huge design flaw) in the Alexa app that does not let you remove Smart Home Devices only disable them. Furthermore, even disabling the associated Alexa Skill does not remove the devices. So, for anyone else who god forbid might have the need to remove a Smart Home Device from Alexa, let’s talk about what you will experience and how it is done.

You would think the first thing you would do is go into the Alexa App on your smartphone and you would be wrong. Going into your device list on the Alexa app will show you that all you can do is “Disable” devices which keeps them linked and moves them to the bottom of your device list. Okay after that you would probably that if you removed the devices from the parent app (in my case Wink), you would simply just rediscover devices and Alexa would no longer find them in your Wink Account and remove them, this would also be wrong and have no effect. Okay those didn’t work so obviously removing the associated Alexa Skill will remove the devise, right? Wrong this will also have no effect. This lead me to a Google search which yielded a lot of results even some to Amazon Help pages which were also of zero help and just plain wrong. Frustrated at this point I used my phone a friend life line and came up with the answer.

The first thing you must do is go to https://alexa.amazon.com which Amazon does not appear to link to anywhere (at least that I could find) and log into your Alexa Account. Then from there you can click on Smart Home on the left and you will see all your connected devices and allow you to “Forget” them which will in turn remove them from Alexa. In this list you can see how the device is connected making it easy to remove ones that may have the same name as ones added via another Skill. When you click Forget next to the device you will be prompted to Confirm this and finally you will see a success notification at the top of the list.

With all your device removed you can go back into your Alexa App and refresh your devices to see your updated list! Why Amazon would remove the ability to “Forget” devices from the native Alexa App is beyond me. It makes no sense and is something I can only hope they will add back in the future. It is also probably worth mentioning that Google Home makes this process very easy. You simply unlink the account and it removes all devices which is how it should work and how Amazon support pages say it works with Alexa even though it does not.

“Manual” Home Automation

A little over a year ago my wife and I upgraded our townhouse to a single-family home. Our townhouse had a very basic automation system that consisted of a Schlage Z-Wave Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt and some X-10 switches giving us control of the lights from the bedroom and control of the door lock from our phones.

Well, the purchase of a new home gave me the motivation to do the automation system that I always wanted. I started researching before we had even sold our townhouse and acquiring products while temporarily living with my parents. During this I would our two things…1 there was a lot of products out there and 2 there is no one-stop source for information about them (both of these will be topics for future blog posts.

Eventually, I ended up choosing a Wink Hub as my starting point and got products that would supposedly play well with it (again this is a topic for a future blog post).

There were a few things that I knew I wanted to control. My door locks, my climate, and some lights. I knew I wanted to control access to my home and from experience knew I could not really go wrong with Schlage so I go 2 Schlage Z-Wave Connect Touchscreen Deadbolt and 1 Schlage Z-Wave Home Keypad Lever. To this day I still have all 3 of these in-place and they have been rock solid for me. Next, it was time to start working on Climate Control. Not know much about connected thermostats I decided to go with a brand I knew with the Honeywell TH9320WF5003 Wi-Fi Thermostat. Great, this gave me scheduling and control from the Honeywell App and from Wink…As long as I did not try to use both. For lighting, I had a fair amount of experience with Z-Wave so I picked up a couple Leviton Z-Wave dimmers and quickly got them installed and learned that I did not have any clue how to wire a multi-way circuit which leads to research and not I can wire 3 and 4-way circuits pretty much blindfolded.

Life was good at this point I could control a few lights and my thermostat and lock from my phone what more could I want…How about Automation that is actually Automatic? Controlling this from a smartphone is not automation, I still need to flip a switch only this time it was a digital one. Here I am with these expensive “Connected” devices and I feel like a caveman, this is what I call “Manual” Home Automation and this is not what I wanted. Automation should be smart, should learn what I want and do it for me or should be intuitive to control through voice. It is this desire for real automation that truly started the journey that I will be taking you through.

In the Beginning

I guess a good place to start is by explaining why am I doing this? Well, the answer to that is simple, I have a lot of passion for the Internet of Things and I am sure my family is sick of hearing about it. So that leads me here to share with all of you…Well right now there are none of you, so I am talking to myself, hopefully, that changes soon.

I am going to use this blog to talk about IoT and automation. I will take you through my own home automation journey from beginning to end…Well, how about from beginning to where I am currently because there is no end.

Over the coming days, weeks, months and years stay tuned to find out my thoughts on the current state of IoT and my thoughts on different platforms and products.

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