Category Archives: Home Automation

Flic-ked into Action



Flic is a battery-powered Bluetooth push button that can be stuck to a flat surface or clipped to clothing. What makes it really flexible and smart is the accompanying Flic app that elevates Flic from a dumb button to a smart accessory integration with over 100 services, applications and functions. The outer packaging claims that inside is the “World’s Smartest Button” so let’s take a closer look.

The Flic button comes in a small box which opens up to reveal the button with the clip underneath. The Flic comes in four colours; black, white, cyan and lime. I’m kind of disappointed there’s no red one. A one-off Flic costs US$34.99 / GB£29.99 but the price drops quickly when buying in bulk. A pack of eight at $179.99 gives a unit cost of $22.50.

Flic is covered in a soft silicon rubber and needs a firm push down for a satisfying click – you won’t accidentally press it just by grazing the surface. There is a red LED behind the top surface of the button and it glows through the writing when required. The back of the Flic button unscrews to both change the battery and switch out the flat back for the clip version.

To get going with the Flic button, download the Flic app from the app store of your choice and fire it up. Because of the flexibility of Flic, you have to accept a long list of permissions. On first run, you’ll need to sign-up for a Flic account but once that’s squared away, you get a some advice and guidance on Flics and Tasks. We’ll come back to Tasks in a minute.

You then need to pair your Flic button with the Flic app and give it a name. It’s all very straightforward and the app walks you through the process. Once that’s done, you’re ready to automate your world.

Keeping it simple, a Flic button can be set to initiate one or more Actions. One Flic can run three up to different Actions; on click, double click or click’n’hold. An Action might be “Play Spotify” or “Take a picture”. You can also chain the Actions, so “Play Spotify” can be followed by “Set volume to 11”.

 

There’s a huge range of actions – at time of writing there were over a 100 gathered in seven categories; Phone Control, Lifestyle, Communication, Music, Home Automation, Fun and Tools. Some of the actions will require configuration before they can be used, e.g. connecting to Philips Hue, and many of the actions offer options, for example, is the front or rear camera to be used?

 

Tasks are a bundles of Actions which allow you to test the Actions without actually having to assign it to a button. It’s handy because otherwise you’d need a button for testing, and if you’ve stuck the only button you have to a surface, it could be inconvenient…think of Tasks being a virtual button.

As a practical example of Flic use, I used the Flic button to manage my smartphone while driving and it works really well. Here’s how…in the car I use my phone for two things; podcasts and navigation. I setup the Flic button so that a single Flic press launched Pocket Casts, set the volume and pressed play, and that a double press started Google Maps. The Flic is stuck on the dashboard close to hand and now I can switch between the two apps without even touching the phone. Handy.

Returning to the hardware, there are two kinds of Flic button, Flic and Flic Single. The standard Flic button works with all aspects of the complemantary app but Flic Single works with only one area such as music or lighting. The name of each Flic Single gives a clue to its area of expertise, with Flic Lights, Flic Music, Flic Selfie, Flic Find and Flic Location, and there’s a stylised logo illustrating use. The Single buttons are a good bit cheaper at US$19.99 / GB£19.99 but are only available in white.

Having played with the Flic button for a couple of weeks, I’ve had a few a few thoughts….

First, these need to cost less. At $35 / £30, they’re pricey enough for rubber blobs, especially if you are buying one or two at a time. Flics are competing with other controllers – compare them with the Philips Hue Dimmer switch at $25. Yes, it only works with Philips Hue, but it’s much more stylish.

Next, there needs to be a Bluetooth-enabled smartphone or tablet nearby for the Flic to work. It’s really the mobile device that’s doing the hard work, so a button on its own is useless. Let’s say I have Flics at home to turn on some lights. If I go out and take my smartphone with me, the Flics don’t do anything until I get back.

Now Flic spotted this too, and they ran an Indiegogo campaign over the summer for a Bluetooth hub that takes the place of the mobile device. A Flic hub certainly goes a long way to addressing the issue and as a bonus, it can handle way more buttons than the phone can.

Overall, there’s no doubt that Flic buttons and the Flic app have a multitude of uses and it’s very much a case of figuring out where to best use it. For me, the best uses I found were around personal configuration. The Flic in the car, the Flic on my desk. Places that were only about me and I’d have my phone with me.

Thanks to Shortcut Labs for providing the Flic for review.


The Smart nCube Home



The smart home marketplace is growing rapidly at the moment with new entrants on an almost daily basis. The original “one-trick ponies” like Hue, Nest, Hive and Ring are expanding their single USP feature into a portfolio of smart devices, and well-known electronics companies like Belkin and Panasonic are setting up shop too. Most of these big names sell their own branded accessories creating a small ecosystem and a straightforward user experience. Once familiar with the smart home space, it’s easy to spot that the branded accessories are often rebadged OEM items from specialists.

Underneath the big names, there is a veritable housing development of home automation hubs, including Fibaro, Cozify and nCube, each with their own speciality. Finnish Cozify has more radios than most and works with devices using 433 MHz, whereas Polish outfit Fibaro excel at the user interface with dedicated touchpads and visual controls.

British outfit nCube are notable for three things. First, the hub is blue which makes a change from the usual white; second, they only make the the hub and connect to other manufacturer’s sensors and systems; third, all local processing is done on the nCube hub, ensuring privacy and retaining personal information at home. It also means that it’s not a big problem if the internet connection goes down. Yes, interfaces to other cloud-based systems won’t work, but other activities will continue as normal, e.g. turning on a power socket at a certain time.

As nCube Home doesn’t make anything other than the hub, they connect to a wide variety of other people’s gear, with support for over 120 devices. For Z-Wave gear, nCube works with Everspring, Popp, Fibaro, TKB, Philio, Danfoss and Aeotec, covering heating, lighting, sensing, switching and alarms. As expected, nCube integrates with other home automation systems such as Hue, Nest, LIFX, Sonos and Belkin. Amazon’s Alexa now has an nCube skill, so you can talk to nCube via Echo and Echo Dot.

Done right, this is a great opportunity for an open system giving more choice to the consumer.

As expected, nCube have an app for iOS and Android, bringing together all the devices and controls into a single convenient home. “Cubes” is their term for automation, which could be a command like, “At 7am turn the bedside light on and play music at 20% volume.” Security features can be built in Cubes too, “If water’s detected under the sink, send a text message.”

Originally a Kickstarter project, nCube Home is based around the Raspberry Pi. I interviewed nCube back in 2016 at the Wearable Technology Show and the hub was just about to come to market. You can listen to the interview on Geek News Central.

The nCube Home can be purchased from nCube for GB£149.


Verv Shows Where Your Energy Goes



London-based firm Green Running have launched Verv, a home energy assistant that uses AI technology to automatically figure out which appliances are running and how much they’re costing. It’s clever stuff and they’ve got 6 patents to prove it.

The UK’s smart meter programme has taken a bit of hammering in the press recently with The Register covering the debacle along with a healthy dose of cynicism. In agreement, Peter Davies, CEO & Founder of Green Running points out, “Smart Meters are being rolled out across homes but they simply don’t provide enough detail to tell the consumer what is actually costing them money. They just provide a total cost of your electricity usage. We are able to sample data at extremely high frequencies enabling us to read the ‘energy signature’ of individual electrical appliances. This means we can show the user in real time how much their appliances are costing them, in addition to an array of other functions such as alerting them if an appliance is deteriorating or if they’ve left something on.

Being able to tell which appliances are electricity is handy, especially if it reveals when an older unit is consuming too much power either through slow failure or that newer models consume far less.

Verv doesn’t need to be installed by an electrician – there’s no fiddling with electricity here. Simply, there’s three parts. A Verv hub, a sensor clamp that goes round the main power cable, and an app for both iOS and Android. The only snag I can see from the installation video, is the hub needs a power socket near the meter.

Verv is electricity supplier neutral too and it doesn’t matter who supplies the power. In fact, it’s probably a good way to check that the supplier is billing correctly as 60% of consumers don’t understand their utility bills.

Integration with Amazon Alexa is touted on the web site though there’s no detail at present on what features might be supported in the skill. There’s also no mention of an interface to any smart home gear, such as Samsung SmartThings, but I would imagine that’s on the priority list as Verv’s competitor, Smappee, is already there. IFTTT would be good too but it’s early days.

Verv is currently open for pre-orders at GB£249 with delivery expected in the autumn (the website says October, the press release says November…)


How Good Is Your Air? Foobot Knows



While air is all around us, colourless and odourless, we often seek a semi-mythical fresh air; at the seaside, in a spring meadow, after rain on a summer’s day, on crisp winter morning. We all have our favourite. On the other hand, bad air can be difficulty to identify too. Unless there’s mould on the wall or the smell of fresh paint, many pollutants are invisible too.

Around 5 million people in the UK suffer from various levels of asthma and for people with this condition, air quality can be an important factor in their quality of life. This was a reality for Jacques Touillon, whose son suffered from asthma. Back in 2014, he started a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for an indoor air quality monitor called Foobot (formerly Alima) and now the Foobot is available for sale in North America, Europe and Australia. Let’s take a look.

The Foobot is a semi-cylindrical gadget a little taller than a smart phone (17 cm), with what looks like an air vent on top. It’s not dissimilar to an Amazon Echo, only a little shorter. Unlike the Echo, the Foobot has sophisticated sensors to measure gases and chemicals in the air, glowing blue when air quality is good and orange when poor. In particular, the Foobot measures:

  • VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds, which are toxic gases like ammonia and formaldehyde
  • PM2.5s – Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres, like dust, pollen and pet dander
  • Carbon Monoxide, which can be deadly as it binds irreversibly with the haemoglobin in the blood
  • Humidity. High humidity can lead to damp and low humidity is an irritation
  • Temperature

As a smart device, the Foobot integrates with other smart home solutions, from Google Nest to Amazon Echo, and with the help of IFTTT, Foobot can also connect to over 120 home appliances, including Hive, the connected thermostat from British Gas. Of course, there’s a complementary smartphone app for iOS and Android that shows both real-time and historical information.

Powered by a USB charger, the Foobot connects via wifi and the setup procedure is very straightforward, using the clever trick of turning the Foobot upside down to initiate the start up procedure. The app then gets the wifi connection established, owner’s account set up, timezone confirmed, room location set, Celsius v Fahrenheit chosen. All exactly what you’d expect from an indoor air quality monitor.

What you might not expect is that the Foobot takes about a week to calibrate the sensors and settle down. Until this happens, there are warnings about the inaccuracy of the readings and some app features like notifications and alerts are unavailable until the bedding in period is complete.

Although light on the detail, the Foobot does colour itself to express air quality based on the GPI – the Global Pollution Index. Information on how it’s calculated is a little sparse though apparently it’s “a weighted compound of the different pollutants measured by Foobot“. Smaller is better, so less than 25 is great, 25-50 is good, 50-75 is fair and 75+ is poor (just move out). The Foobot will glow blue for great and good, and orange for a GPI over 50. The length of the lights is an indicator for how good or bad the GPI is.

The Foobot glows lilac if you disturb it by rocking or tapping it. The smartphone app will register and notify on the disturbance too. They’re called “knock knock” notifications and Foobot suggests they could be used to tell a parent that a child is home safe.

The really juicy stuff is in the smartphone app which is a free download from the relevant app store. To start with, the colour of the app will mimic the Foobot but more detail on the level of Particulate Matter, Volatile Compounds and Carbon Dioxide is available.  Humidity and Temperature are shown too. A couple of different views present the information in varying levels of detail.

 

Swiping up from the bottom shows historical information and swiping left or right moves between the measures. The information is presented by minutes, hours, days or weeks.

  

The Foobot app supports notifications and if any threshold is breached, sends the app a notfication. Notifications can be individually controlled but the thresholds seem fixed. Here in Northern Ireland it’s fairly damp much of time so the default 60% humidity threshold meant that I got lots of notifications. I turned it off.

Along with the notification, Foobot asks for clarification on what you think might have caused the peak and offers the choice of things like cleaning and cooking. One curious option is “olfactive decorator” which I think translates to “smelly paint”.

What surprised me was how much air quality was affected by people being around. The graph on the right shows a day where there was no-one home between 9-5 and we got an early night. During the day and night, the GPI drops to less than ten when there’s no-one about, but jumps up as soon as someone’s home.

The Foobot app has a couple of other settings. The intensity of the LEDs can be adjusted and the LEDs can be put on a timer so that if the Foobot is in, say, a bedroom, they can be timed to go off at night.

As a smart device, the Foobot can be integrated with other smart home systems to do clever things. There is official integration with Alexa but at the moment it’s limited to asking Foobot for an air quality summary (GPI), and turning the Foobot’s lights on or off. You can’t get specifics of temperature, humidity, VOC or particulates.  On the other hand, you can unofficially integrate Foobot with Samsung SmartThings to get this information – see left. There’s integration too with Nest and Lux thermostats from within the Foobot app: I don’t have either of those so couldn’t test further. At a higher level, there’s integration with IFTTT so there’s plenty of options there too. If air quality poor, turn up the ventilation….

What improvements would I like? Two things come to mind….one, for the alert thresholds to be adjustable to allow for damp countries and, second, for there to be a specific detection and alert for carbon monoxide (CO) with the option of alerting multiple people should it be sensed. CO is a dangerous poisonous gas produced by burning gas, wood, propane, charcoal or other fuel that kills people in their sleep. I have a gas-burning stove in my home so I’m always conscious of this risk (yes, I have a CO-detector).

Overall, the Foobot does what it sets out to do – it measures indoor air quality – and if you do have a family member who suffers from a condition affected by air quality I think the Foobot is money well spent. I’ve had the Foobot operational in my home for about two months over the summer and I can already see trends associated with weather and indoor activity such as cooking (or burning!). If you are then able to match trends to symptoms, you are well on the way to better managing the medical condition.

Other scenarios might be if you lived near a busy road or a factory, and were concerned about pollution, or even to keep an eye on an elderly relative without going for the complexity of a whole smart home. The relative could “knock knock” every now and then, and you could make sure he or she is warm enough and not skimping on the heating. Just a thought…

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the VOC and particulate figures, but the humidity and temperature measurements were very similar to the values recorded by other smart sensors. Further, the general trends appeared to be correct – people in the room, vacuuming, opening windows, cooking – all impacted as expected on the measurements, so broadly I believe the figures are correct.

The Foobot is available direct from their website priced at US$199 and EU€199. The Foobot is on Amazon.co.uk too for GB£179.

Thanks to Foobot for supplying the unit for review. There’s an unboxing and review video below.


How Fresh is Your Air?



I’m lucky enough to live in a small commuter village here in Northern Ireland. If I look out my window, I can see cows munching the grass in a neighbouring field. Many people aren’t this fortunate, and live close to major roads with higher levels of pollution. I think we’re all aware of the increase in asthma and allergies in the past few decades too, and around 5 million people in the UK suffer from various levels of asthma.

And unless fumes are pouring out of an exhaust, most air pollution is invisible to the eye and odourless to the nose. It’s very difficult for us to assess how bad the air quality is in our own homes, even subjectively. For a more objective view the Foobot smart indoor air quality monitor can assess the indoor air and pass the data to its complementary app.

The Foobot is a semi-cylindrical gadget a little taller than a smart phone (17 cm), with what looks like an air vent on top. At first glance it could be mistaken for a smart home hub, but the Foobot has sophisticated sensors to measure gases and chemicals in the air. The Foobot glows blue when air quality is good and turns orange if it becomes poor. In particular, the Foobot measures:

  • VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds, which are toxic gases like ammonia and formaldehyde
  • PM2.5s – Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres, like dust, pollen and pet dander
  • Carbon Monoxide, which can be deadly as it binds irreversibly with the haemoglobin in the blood
  • Humidity. High humidity can lead to damp and low humidity is an irritation
  • Temperature

The Foobot can also assess carbon dioxide, but this is derived from other figures – there’s no CO2 sensor. Full specs on the Foobot are here.

As a smart device, the Foobot integrates with other smart home solutions, from Google Nest to Amazon Echo, and with the help of IFTTT, Foobot can also connect to over 120 home appliances, including Hive, the connected thermostat from British Gas. Simplistically, if Foobot detects that the room air quality is becoming poor, then an extractor fan or air conditioner can be turned on to refresh the air. The Foobot itself connects via WiFi and the Foobot app is available for both iOS and Android.

The Foobot is manufactured by AirBoxLab, a Luxembourg-based startup founded by CEO Jacques Touillon, whose son suffered from asthma. Back in 2014 it was an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, formerly called Alima.

I think the Foobot is a good idea, especially if you do have family members who suffer from conditions that respond to air quality. The saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”. The Foobot can provide that measurement to help manage the local environment, and hopefully provide relief to sufferers.

The Foobot is available now in US, Canada, Europe and Australia, priced at US$199, GB£170, €199.


LIFX White Bayonet Bulb Sale



GNC readers from the UK and Ireland may be interested in LIFX’s sale on second generation white bayonet bulbs (LIFX White 800). There’s a saving of US$7.50 per bulb so you can get four bulbs for just under US$90. Although the prices are in dollars, the bulbs ship from the Netherlands so there should be no additional duties to pay.

Unlike most smart bulbs, these lamps use WiFi connectivity rather than Z-wave or Zigbee, so there’s no need for additional controllers and it’s an easy way in to smart lighting with fittings (B22) to suit UK and Irish residents. LIFX works with other smart systems such as SmartThings, Nest and Alexa. I reviewed the colour version of the bulb for GNC last year so check out my report for more info.

Apparently the stock is going fast!


Philips Brings Candles to Hue



In news that will delight Hue and smart home owners everywhere, Philips has announced Hue Candle bulbs in two variants, one in white ambiance and the other white and colour ambiance. Philips say that the new shape means Hue bulbs can be installed in over 80% of lights commonly used round the world.

The new bulbs will be equivalent to 40W at full brightness and come in the B39 form factor for lamps with B14 (SES) sockets. The white bulb will consume 6W and output 470 lm @ 4000K. The colour one consumes more at 6.5W but light output is similar.

The candle has been one of the most requested products by Philips Hue customers. We’ve spent time ensuring it is of the highest quality and available in both white ambiance and white and colour ambiance. It is an important next step to ensure seamless integration in all rooms, giving you the freedom to personalize lighting throughout your home,” says Sridhar Kumaraswamy, Business Leader Connected Home Systems at Philips Lighting.

As Hue already integrates with other smart home systems like Samsung SmartThings and controllers like Amazon’s Alexa, the new candle bulbs can be seamlessly added to an existing Hue set.

The new Philips Hue Candle will be available in Europe by the end of April and later this year in North America, priced from EUR 34.95 (that’ll be the white ambiance bulb, I would imagine).


Get the Zzzzs in with Witti at CES



Witti are reasonably well-known for their Beddi collection of stylish bedside clocks and lights which both help the sleeper doze off and wake them gently in the morning. Expanding their product portfolio, Witti is introducing Sleepi and Todd finds out from Alfred what it can offer snoozers.

Sleepi is a sleep monitoring system, comprising of a bedside light and clock, a sleep tracker that goes under the mattress and the obligatory smartphone app. The app tracks sleep and wakefulness, providing a report in the morning. What makes Sleepi different is that it works with smart homes to figure out what interrupted the sleep, e.g. the room was too hot, and then adjust the temperature automatically. That’s smart.

A Kickstarter launch is planned for Sleepi, with shipping towards the end of 2017. Expected retail price around US$149.

Todd Cochrane is the host of the twice-weekly Geek News Central Podcast at GeekNewsCentral.com.

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Craft Beer at Home with iGulu at CES



Fancy a beer? Me too, but I’ve never brewed my own, though his might change with the iGulu automated home brewing system. Todd looks for some refreshment in the hot halls of tech.

Winning a CES Innovation Honoree award, the iGulu machine brews a beer from ingredients to fresh beverage in anything from seven days to a couple of weeks, depending the receipe. Everything is done in the iGulu, from initial mixing and mashing to the fermentation and pour, with sensors ensuring that the final product is perfect. There are receipes for everything from lagers to stouts and the process can be tweaked via the iGulu app to suit personal taste. There’s a small screen to control and check on progress of the brew. I’m feeling thirsty….

The iGulu is available for pre-order via Indiegogo starting from US$550, with an expected final retail price of US$800.

Todd Cochrane is the host of the twice-weekly Geek News Central Podcast at GeekNewsCentral.com.

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Switchflip Switches Sockets at CES



You might think that a switch flip is a skateboard move but in this case Switchflip lets you control new power outlets from a wall switch with no extra wiring. Todd gets a demo from Ryan on maximising those hard-to-reach sockets.

Currently seeking funding via Indiegogo, the Switchflip works like this….let’s say you have a power socket that is controlled by a wall switch but you’d prefer that the wall switch worked with another socket (or sockets) on the other side of the room. So you plug the Switchflip transmitter into the original switched socket and a Switchflip receiver into the socket(s) further away. Now when you switch the wall switch all sockets come on (or go off).

The Switchflip uses its own wireless connection so there’s no Bluetooth or WiFi connectivity to mess around with. It’s plug’n’play, or as Switchflip says, “Simple is smart”. Range is up to 100ft, depending construction.

The crowdfunding is going well, with the Switchflip currently over 200% funded with a month to go. There are still a few Early Bird Specials to available, and US$35 will get a transmitter and a receiver. Delivery is expected in October 2017.

Todd Cochrane is the host of the twice-weekly Geek News Central Podcast at GeekNewsCentral.com.

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