Category Archives: Home Automation

Smarten up the Garage Door with SkyLink at CES 2018



Converting a house into a smart home shouldn’t mean replacing every electrical device for a new smart model. A cheaper and greener way is to add smart features in with wireless accessories. A good example here is SkyLink Nova which adds smart capabilities to automatic garage doors at relatively low cost. Don and Frank take a closer look at SkyLink Nova and its accompanying ecosystem.

The SkyLink Nova is wired into an existing garage door opener using the standard connections used for the interior open/close button. Once connected up, the Nova can be remotely controlled with the SkyLink smartphone app (iOS and Android). Nova is also compatible with If This Then That (IFTTT) platform and Alexa so the garage door can be opened (or closed) by talking to an Echo.

The Nova itself looks like an LED light fixture and works as a smart home hub too, communicating with up to 100 smart devices. In addition, it can detect sirens from smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in the house. When one of those is heard, Nova will automatically open your garage door to aid in ventilation in the case of an emergency.

SkyLink‘s Nova will be on sale in the spring for under US$100.

Don Baine is the Gadget Professor and gives lectures at TheGadgetProfessor.com.

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Fibaro Doubles Up With HomeKit at CES 2018



Fibaro are one of the bigger names in smart homes with a wide range of products from simple light switches to complex controllers. Originally based around Z-wave, their accessories now work with Apple HomeKit, and integrate with other systems like Philips Hue. Allante and Rich take a quick spin through some of Fibaro’s new products.

First up is a smart power plug with a USB charging port and a coloured LED which changes colour according to the amount of power being drawn through the socket. Although the colour-changing is fun, the measured power can be used within a smart home to initiate other actions or send a warning. Should the iron have been on for a hour?

Next is the big The Button which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a big red button, though it does come in seven different colour. Press it and stuff happens. What happens is configurable by the user – turn on the lights, sound an alarm, play music.

All the products are on sale now, priced between US$49 and $59.

Allante Sparks is a video producer at PLuGHiTz Live Special Events.

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SkyLink Brings the Garage into the Smart Home at CES 2018



Remote controlled garage doors haven’t been particularly secure in the past and many people have disabled the feature because of the risk of break-ins to their homes through the garage. Todd and Frank discuss the problem and look at SkyLink Nova, a retrofit WiFi door opener.

The SkyLink Nova is wired into an existing garage door opener using the standard connections used for the interior open/close button. Once connected up, the Nova can be remotely controlled with the SkyLink smartphone app (iOS and Android). Nova is also compatible with If This Then That (IFTTT) platform and Alexa so the garage door can be opened (or closed) by talking to an Echo.

The Nova itself looks like an LED light fixture and works as a smart home hub too, communicating with up to 100 smart devices. In addition, it can detect sirens from smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in the house. When one of those is heard, Nova will automatically open your garage door to aid in ventilation in the case of an emergency. (I can see how this might help with CO poisoning but surely opening the door during a fire could make things worse?)

SkyLink‘s Nova will be on sale in the spring for under US$100.

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

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Flic Gets Smarter with Flic Hub at CES 2018



Flic‘s smart Bluetooth buttons will be familiar to GNC readers as I reviewed them back in 2017. To be honest, the buttons aren’t that smart but it’s the clever smartphone software that does all the cool stuff. Consequently, if the Flic button is out of range of the owner’s smartphone, it’s somewhat useless. Fortunately Flic recognised this and announced an Indiegogo campaign for a Flic Hub that would take away the reliance on a nearby smartphone. Todd clicks with Elin to find out what’s new at Flic.

The new Flic Hub removes the need for a nearby smartphone in a home or office environment and lets Flic smart buttons integrate more closely with other automation and process management systems. Flic is looking to grow in the enterprise with customers focusing in the safety and hospitality industries.

The Hub can communicate with more Flic buttons so in theory, there could be hundreds of buttons in a location, and the integrity of the overall system is improved without dependence on the smartphone vendors. This creates a more reliable and dependable platform that enterprise customers are looking for, taking Flic beyond smart buttons.

The Flic Hub is expected to go on-sale shortly.

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

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Need a Housesitter? Ask Kevin at CES 2018



It’s a sad statistic that around half of us in the Europe and US will experience a break-in or burglary during our lifetime and unfortunately, I’m one of those. Most burglaries are over in less than five minutes and by the time the police turn up, the criminals are long gone. Smart homes and security alarms only go so far and what you really want is to deter the burglars from breaking in at all. You need a housesitter and Mitipi have one called Kevin. Todd thought Kevin was a minion

Kevin is the first IoT device to simulate the presence of people in a room by emitting light, shadow effects, and sound, meaning burglars will think someone’s home, and won’t want to break in for fear of being confronted or even caught.

Kevin is extremely easy to use. Place the device in a main room with a window, say, the living room. Once set up, Kevin can be controlled via the buttons on the box, or through the companion app. To pretend someone is home, Kevin uses a smart logic that considers multiple factors such as location, language, weather and home type to produce a realistic simulation with light, sound and shadows.

Kevin is currently on Kickstarter and the best pledge is SFr249, which is around GB£190 or US$270. Delivery is expected in December 2018.

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

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Immersive Entertainment with Philips Hue at CES 2018



At CES 2018, Philips Lighting have announced the latest evolution of the Hue ecosystem which brings immersive interaction between entertainment – gaming, movies and music – and Hue lighting. Simplistically, Hue can colour the room around you to complement the action in the game. Sweet!

Following a free, over-the-air software update, Philips Hue customers with colour-capable lights and a Philips Hue v2 bridge can enjoy truly immersive home entertainment experiences. The new software, created as a result of pilots (Sharknardo!), insights and feedback gained from leading companies in the entertainment industry, synchronizes Philips Hue lights perfectly with gaming, movie and music content. Razer, the world’s leading lifestyle brand for gamers, is the first partner to go live.

Accompanying the new Hue Entertainment functionality, Philips Lighting will introduce Hue Sync, an application that will run on any Windows 10 or macOS High Sierra-based computer, in Q2 2018. Philips Hue Sync creates immediate, immersive light scripts for any game, movie or music played on the computer, so consumers can enjoy the content they are playing, watching or listening to even more. I have to say that sounds pretty cool but I hope they bring out a version that can work with DVRs like Sky Q or Tivo and media streamers such as the Roku or Fire TV.

Finally, In summer 2018, Philips Lighting will take the Hue experience outside the home with the debut of an outdoor line. This new line of products will let consumers get more out of their exterior lighting by allowing them to personalise their ambience for any moment outside, whether simply relaxing with family or entertaining friends. It will also increase their peace of mind when arriving home or while away.

Keep an eye on meethue.com for further Hue updates.


nCube Modular Smart Home Hub at CES 2018



There’s not a great deal of variation in smart home systems and most are based on a central control unit which communicates with sensors and devices. There’s usually some third party integrations thrown in too and something in the cloud. Frankly, it’s a bit dull and all a bit samey. Consequently, it’s great to see some innovation from nCube which has announced a new modular smart home hub platform.

The nCube system consists of four modules that can be stacked and connected together to meet the needs of the particular smart home. There are four modules, starting with a base module, which can then be enhanced with security, storage and voice layers.

The nCube Base is a full redesign on the existing nCube hub which is no longer Raspberry Pi based, but has a fully customised board embedding Z-Wave, Zigbee, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.  The base can support both Wi-Fi connection to the home network and simultaneously allow Wi-Fi smart home devices to connect to the nCube base. This means that the base can be located in the optimal position for control of Z-wave and Zigbee devices, rather than the closest network point. For those who prefer wired connections, there are four LAN ports too.

The Security module provides mobile network back-up and battery back-up for approximately 12 hours.  This means the whole nCube platform continues to function in the event of either or both a power failure and internet connection failure. nCube have always valued local processing of events so it’s good to see this continuing.

The storage layer provides 1TB SSD storage for home security camera footage recording for consumers that are wary of cloud storage.  Optionally, the user may opt-in on an ad hoc basis to cloud storage accessing recordings when a security incident has occurred.

The voice layer provides voice control such as the existing Alexa integration. I’m not sure what this exactly means at this point….is it full Alexa or is it only “Alex for nCube control”. We’ll have to see.

With all modules being optional, the consumer can choose exactly what they want from their smart home hub instead of being forced into buying modules they don’t need, though pricing wasn’t mentioned.

The development of local storage, battery and internet back-up and the continued ability for the nCube hub to run entirely local (no logic runs on the nCube cloud) demonstrates nCube’s continued commitment and leadership in privacy and security in the smart home industry.

In addition, nCube is launching a range of branded smart home devices in recognition that consumers expect smart home providers to provide packages of pre-connected devices as well as supporting as many other brand products as possible.  The new range of nCube products include a colour-changing LED bulb, smart plug, door/window sensor, motion sensor, water sensor, light switch range and nCube multi-socket PowerBar. Oddly, while one of the modules is a storage module for home security cameras, there’s no mention of the cameras.

All products will be available for UK, EU and North American markets sometime in February. No pricing yet.

If you are at CES, nCube is at the Sands Hall A-D, booth 40118. Call in.


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…)