Category Archives: Home Automation

The Invisible Hand: Replication

What makes the masses adopt a new technology? I don’t think it’s because it saves them time.

When I was at StackOverflow Dev Days last year, Joel Spolsky gave a keynote that touched on the topics of why people use technology. Specifically he talked about why the masses use it. I think as geeks we sometimes can’t see how “normal people” see technology. Back in the 90’s I couldn’t understand why anyone would buy a Mac over a PC. As a 30-something father with different priorities, I’m starting to “get it”.

Joel referred to a book by Richard Dawkins called The Selfish Gene. It says that genes aren’t the method by which we reproduce, but rather: we are the method by which genes reproduce. They created us because it’s a workable method to make more copies of themselves.

Joel asks us to imagine a 20 year old college student sitting in her dorm room, trying to install Firefox. Why is she installing Firefox? So that she can use Facebook. Why does she want to use Facebook? So she can communicate with her friends and know where they’re going to be, possibly when they’ll be going to the bar. And why does she want to go to the bar? Most likely there’s a strong primal urge to “hook up” with someone.

People buy iPhones for the sexiness. Business people want a BlackBerry for business, but why are they in business? Why do business people want to be successful?

It doesn’t really matter how you try to spin this. Once you get outside the early adopters of technology who are doing it because they’re “not normal”, the “normal” people use technology for much more fundamental reasons. The most powerful force that drives everything, including technology, is replication, and thus reproduction. Do you want proof?

Did you notice how replication was its own reward? Makes sense. Things that just replicate themselves will make more things that replicate themselves. Things that don’t replicate themselves will get eaten by those that do.

Now ask yourself, why hasn’t home automation taken off? Lights? Vacuums? They’re gadgets for a geeky minority. They really don’t help with the fundamental drive of the home, which is family. How does home automation help you raise better kids? How does it help you make them smarter, better, more successful? Does this home automation system appeal to the vast majority of “normal” people? I don’t think so. (I’ll give it some geek cred, though.)

If we answered those questions, we’d know how to make home automation for the masses.

On Time

I have to say that this newspaper article from 1992 predicted our future right on the money. I’m an “automation enthusiast”, so I’m all about the time saving device. Just for fun I entered “time saving device” into Google and clicked “I’m Feeling Lucky”. I was directed to this question:

If every year time saving devices are invented (i.e. computers, cell phones, email, etc…) then why do we still need a 40 hour work week?

As I’ve said before, this is another manifestation of the Jevons Paradox. If I wanted to hire someone to paint a building and I had to choose between someone with a bucket of paint and a paintbrush, or a guy with a power sprayer, the latter is undoubtedly more expensive per hour, but cheaper per square foot of wall. He’ll also have the job done faster. That means the demand for the guy with the sprayer is higher. His time saving device gives him more work and less time.

Saving Time is the Myth of Home Automation

In Industrial Automation, we never really talk about saving time. We talk about saving labor and saving money. We talk about increased productivity, efficiency, throughput and uptime. Time is a constant.

Yet at home we talk about time like it’s a variable. As if you could have more of it. What an odd concept when you think about it…

I’ve recently spent some time trying to think of a good time saving home automation device to create, and I’m convinced it’s a pointless activity. Would an automatic pet feeder save me time? Possibly, but you still have to refill it, the parts are likely to wear out, and it has to be cleaned regularly. It takes one of us less than 30 seconds to feed the dog every day. That’s about 3 hours per year. But if you spent 10 minutes a month cleaning it, that’s 2 hours a year right there, and how long are you going to spend fiddling with it when it finally breaks down? Even if there was no extra time, would you spend $100 to save 3 hours? It’s marginal, but doubtful.

Now where that pet feeder really shines is if you have a dog with a special need. It can feed your animal up to 8 times a day, so if your dog was diabetic, then you can start to see that it solves a difficult problem really effectively.

Would a robot vacuum save me time? I think you’ll find that it fails in the same way that the pet feeder fails: you have to clean out the vacuum bucket every time it cycles, and you have to take it apart to clean the brushes regularly. The batteries need replacing, and most reviews I’ve seen indicate that you still need to vacuum once every couple of weeks. It doesn’t save you time. It gives you the ability to vacuum more often.

Look at the three successful categories of home automation: HVAC, lighting, and audio/video. None of those are about saving you time. They’re all about improving the (perceived) quality of life. A new robot that folded your laundry for you wouldn’t be as successful as a closet that color co-ordinates your outfits for you. Everyone can fold laundry but not everyone can pick an outfit. There’s a market for the latter.


I got ahold of some Phidgets on the weekend. These are basically USB I/O devices for amateur robotics, but I’m looking at their use in the home automation space.

Phidgets Interface Kit 8/8/8
They have drivers for lots of operating systems, and APIs for almost any programming platform under the sun.

Getting the I/O connected and controlled from a .NET application was a breeze, including the Interface Kit 8/8/8 and the little R/C Servo Controller. That little servo could certainly move a damper in a heating duct, and they have lots of environmental sensors. The wheels have started turning…

Wearable Machine Vision in the Home

I recently watched the TED video about Pranav Mistry demonstrating his “Sixth Sense” technology, and my head is spinning with ideas about the future of home automation:

At first I was blown away by the potential of the Microsoft Surface technology. They keep talking about using it on a coffee table, but for some reason, I always envision my refrigerator door as a Surface, covered with digital photos from our photo album, digital post-it notes, to-do lists, etc.. Maybe even little spelling games that my daughter can play with on the bottom of it, just like she plays with magnets and letters now.

But the sixth sense technology fundamentally shifts those ideas. First of all is price. The Surface is $10,000 (that’s an expensive refrigerator, by any stretch of the imagination). Of course the price will come down, but the components in the Sixth Sense demo are off the shelf and only cost $300, plus he’s open-sourcing the software! There’s no reason you couldn’t combine the two ideas either. Just mount the Sixth Sense system statically over your coffee table or above your fridge and you’ll get an (albeit reduced performance) similar system for a fraction of the cost.

What else could Sixth Sense do in the home? Synchronize your paper calendar on the wall with your Google calendar? Automatically pause the TV when you get up to leave the room? How about when someone from a charity comes to your door asking for donations… could I hold up their information brochure in front of me and let it look up their score on Charity Navigator and project the score on the brochure for me?

The possibilities are impressive. What would you do with Sixth Sense?

ZigBee… Where are you?

Years ago I experimented with X10 in our old house. It was cheap and fun, but it was unreliable. Not long after, I heard about this great new technology called ZigBee that would form a wireless mesh network between all the devices in your house, and communications between modules would retry and reroute around problems. I was impressed! It seemed to good to be true!

Apparently it was. Here we are, 5 years later, and where is my X10 replacement? From what I can tell, the electric utilities are starting to deploy ZigBee (and our house in Ontario was just upgraded with a “smart meter” which most likely has ZigBee technology in it). Great, but I can’t seem to find a single off-the-shelf ZigBee home automation product. It’s been 5 years!

Is it time to forget about ZigBee for Home Automation? We’ve blanketed our houses in WiFi. It can’t be that hard to put an 802.11 chip in a wall socket. It looks like Control4‘s products do just that. Anyone know of any off-the-shelf WiFi enabled light switches?

Automating the Home, Failed

A couple of years ago we moved into a nice new home, and like most new homes it had a shiny new HRV.  I had never seen one before, and I was impressed by the idea that it exchanged stale inside air with fresh outside air but it conserves the energy you’ve already invested in heating or cooling the inside of your home.  I actually pulled the cover off to study how it worked, and pulled the cover off the furnace to see how it was hooked in.

The HRV draws air from the bathrooms, kitchen and laundry areas in the house (because they are your sources of moisture) and exhausts that air outside, but brings in an equal amount of air.  Rather than distributing the incoming air back into the house itself, the HRV dumps it into the furnace airflow, and sends a signal to the furnace to run whenever the HRV is on.

When we received the keys to our home, the builder instructed us to leave the HRV on at its lowest level 24 hours a day to prevent humidity, particularly at the beginning as the home is wet from construction and you need to let it dry out.  Makes sense.  After about a year though, I had this idea that running the furnace fan 24/7 at full speed just because the HRV was running at its lowest speed probably wasn’t the most energy efficient setup, particularly since the HRV itself is supposed to be an energy saving device.  After doing a bit of research, I discovered the manufacturer of our HRV made something called a Lifestyles Controller.  This is basically just like a programmable thermostat, but it controls your HRV.  You can program it to start and stop at different times of the day, operate in different modes and at different speeds depending on the need, etc.  Great!

HRV-ControllerMy odyssey started when I attempted to purchase this marvel of technology.  The manufacturer wouldn’t sell me one because I needed to go through an authorized distributor, and of course there was only one in my area.  I contacted them and they’d never heard of this device.  I gave them the part number and they had to get back to me.  When they called me back, they asked me why I wanted to buy it, and acted like this was a huge inconvenience for them (imagine, a customer calls you and wants to buy something).  That should have been my first clue of the dangers to come.  I insisted that I wanted to buy one, and yes, I’m quite capable of installing it myself, and yes, I understand it’s a special order item and there are no returns.  Did I mention it was expensive too?

When I went to pick it up at the distributor, they were very careful to tell me that I must unplug the HRV before installing this or else I could easily short out the power supply.  I don’t mean they told me this once or put a note on the package to remind me, but several people made it really clear not to do anything with it plugged in.  Makes sense.  I’m used to rewiring stuff and I always turn the power off.  Again, this was a sign, and I didn’t heed it.

I got the device home, unpacked it and set to work installing it making sure to unplug the HRV first.  The instructions were very simple and easy to understand.  I didn’t bother running wires through walls at this point; I just wired it up about 3 feet away from the HRV (my history in automation has taught me to avoid commitment).  When I finished wiring, I plugged the HRV back in, the lifestyles controller powered up, and… wouldn’t control the HRV.  I followed the instructions to the letter and just couldn’t get it to ever start the HRV even with the button that just manually starts the HRV on a timer.  I tried a couple of other ideas, like disconnecting the existing bathroom control pads, etc. (unplugging it every time!), but nothing seemed to work.  I dreaded the next obvious step.

I called the distributor.  “The lifestyles controller for my HRV doesn’t work.”

“Did you install it without unplugging the HRV?”

You can imagine the rest of that conversation.  Nothing surprising.  They asked me to call the manufacturer and talk to their tech support.  Again, “Did you install it without unplugging the HRV?”  Grrr.

The manufacturer told me I had to take it back to the distributor who would return it to them, which was quite funny since all three of us were located in the same city!  Anyway, here I am back in the distributor’s office, and the woman behind the counter takes a look at the device, bewildered, looks at my receipt and says, “This is a special order item.  There are no returns.”

“I don’t want to return it.  I just want one that works.”


They did send it back and lo and behold, there was nothing wrong with the device.

“Wait, what?!?”

“They tested it and there’s nothing wrong with it.  However, it’s only compatible with HRV firmwares after October 2006.  When did you purchase your HRV?”

“We got the house in September of 2006.”  At least that made sense.  Maybe we were getting somewhere.

“The manufacturer has offered to provide an upgraded controller board free of charge, but it’s not something you can install yourself.  We’ll have to come and install it, and our hourly rate is blah and there’s a minimum charge of blah.”  (I can’t remember the exact price, and I’d probably just get angry if I did.)

At that point I figured, if I’m paying a minimum charge anyway, why not have them come and install the whole thing, and get it put in the right spot, run the wires, etc.  Great.  Wait, it gets better.

Buddy comes to install the gadget.  He’s got the new controller board, and gets that installed pretty quickly, but when he asks me where I want the controller, I tell him I want it right beside the existing programmable thermostat, in the hall upstairs.  He takes a walk around, takes a look from the basement, turns to me and tells me he didn’t bring a ladder with him.  No problem, I say, I have a couple in the garage, and it’s not terribly surprising that he wouldn’t have a ladder anyway.  Wait, it gets better.

He also had to borrow my drill, and an electrical fish to get the wire through the wall.  Wait, it gets better.

“What gauge wire do you figure this needs?” he says.

You’re asking me?  I have to take a day off work to pay you hundreds of dollars to borrow my tools to install a product you sell and you’re asking me what gauge of wire you need?  Wait… it gets better.

“I didn’t bring any wire with me.”

“No problem,” I say.  “I’ve got a whole whack of telephone cable in the garage, and it’s at least the gauge of wire that the rest of the HRV communication uses, so it should be fine.”

So we set to work running the wire.  Just to put the icing on the cake, when we go to punch the hole in the drywall where the controller is going to be mounted, we discover there’s a plywood blocker just behind the drywall in that spot.  I grab the drill, put a spade bit in it, and drill an inch diameter hole through the plywood.  Then I discover there’s another wire back there… interesting.  I just drilled through it actually… I wonder what that belongs to.  It turns out that was the wire that goes to the glass break detector on the security system.  Had to fix that too, but that was my fault.

We got the whole thing installed and wow!  It worked!  Buddy gave me a discount for having to use my tools, and I was a happy geek, programming my HRV.

That is, until a few months later when I noticed the humidity in the house was through the roof.  The controller was still “on”, but it was obvious it had stopped controlling the HRV.  I’m not sure what caused it to fail, but thankfully it was still under warranty.  I got it replaced.  The one I got back works.  I’m holding my breath…

That’s my latest foray into home automation, and I’m not impressed.  In my job in industrial automation, I can actually install and program the industrial controllers myself, and when I talk to the distributors and manufacturers, nobody treats me like a moron.  Home automation is still in its infancy, so the only people doing this themselves are generally early adopters like myself: technical and geeky.  Treating us like this is completely counter-productive.  I hope some company, somewhere, steps up to the plate and starts working with us, not against us.