Home automation, the integrated house, control at your fingertips. In any modern house, you will find a plethora of ‘things’ that can be turned on and off, adjusted, set to a timer or other setting, or even to simulate a pattern. The first and second generation families of these concepts – from early 80’s kit to modern 00’s stuff – worked standalone, detached from any sort of computer network, with it’s own unique way of working, instruction set and operational syntax.
Modern Family had a great take on this, with the family Dunphy struggling with Phil’s desire for swish kit, culminating in the TV being almost inaccessible without it’s own Modern Family Remote Control.
Amazon, Google, Apple, and a range of smaller players have all been working on the Home Automation concept for some years, trying to build a framework and ecosystem for manufacturers to hook into and use, in an effort to sell more stuff. If you’re in the USA, the range and integration is becoming wide, but in the rest of the world development is still…. fragmented. In recent years, the concept of the universal control panel that users can tap away at on a screen is evolving into a voice-driven interface, with the big 3 all offering or developing voice gateways. Amazon Alexa leads in the voice control space, while Apple is only starting to approach using SIRI to offer something even remotely competitive by promising to open up their voice service with the launch of iOS12 in September this year.
It’s fair to say Apple has lagged way behind in the area of Home Automation, taking a very long time to even enter the market. It was first made available in iOS8 – 2014 – but struggled with adoption by vendors for several years, and only really started to hit it’s stride with iOS11 in 2017. The framework – a specification of how to connect, communicate, offer controls to users, move between profiles devices in a family and so on – has slowly grown in capability, and promised (as Apple always does) to simplify the use of gadgets with a common control set, in the background security, and their famous ‘it just works’ style of design.
For some part anyway. Indeed as of writing (8 hours ago), Apple appears to have dropped support for the current range of electronic doorbell/cams, notably the Ring range, which is a shame:
Last year, I was given the change to use and play with the D-Link OMNA 180, a homekit compatible security camera that promised to make things easy for the end user…. mainly because of my affinity for Apple kit (D-Link added Android support in September).
Homekit can operate standalone from your mobile, and connects to your kit when it’s on your local network. The OMNA connects to your home wifi network, and setup is via the OMNA app which also deposits it into your HOME app profile.
Within Apple’s Home app, you can get a live feed of what camera can see – it has a fish-eye lens that works really well with adequate light (ie Dawn to dusk is pretty good), and can save short 30-second clips to a micro-SD card (720p @ 15fps). Motion detection triggers recording, and it’s it possible to set a retrigger delay of up to 5 mins. A 4x4 grid allows you to fine-tune the trigger points in the camera’s view. You can also turn the LED off so the camera is not that visible at night, and night vision sends infrafred illumination to better record in dark, although I found this mode to be very hit and miss (supposedly up to 5m impact range). The device gets hot in continuous operation, with the top of the unit (the case is metal) acting as passive heat transfer.
The unit survived being in the window in the Wellington 2017/18 heatwave, so I’m quite impressed.
Ok, so the reason for being – integration with Apple’s framework. Manually checking settings while you’re in the house is one thing, the real flexibility is when you are out of the house and want to stay in touch with ‘the house’.
For this, you need a hub of some sort that can act both as gateway and gatekeeper – and in Apples case, the device called in to service is a 4th and 5th generation Apple TV (or, an iPad capable of running iOS11). Using Apple TV is clever – it’s another device sale for Apple, but it’s also a unit that can do other things than just acting as a gateway consuming internet and power. Key for enabling this chain to ‘just work’ together is using the same iCloud account to register… two-factor authentication must also be enabled, which is good security practise but can also be a bit of work to activate and get going.
Once this is setup, you are able to use the Apple Home app to log in to the device… which allows for live view, live listen and if you’re that way wired, live voice (imagine being able to yell down the phone and have it broadcast via the Camera’s internal speaker). The microphone is very sensitive, and the speaker has punch for such a small device.
I can confirm I’ve been able to access the device while out of the house from a range of locations, so this aspect definetly works.
Of course, one person accessing a device is one thing, but what about the more common scenario of a family? This is where the wider framework slots in with Apple’s “Family Sharing” structure… up to 6 iCloud identities can be part of a Family structure (one family group, not multiple). If the members are part of your family, then it’s possible to invite them to access the Home group. It works very well, but is definetly a very Apple way of doing things.
In the clouds
In September, as part of adding Android support, D-Link added the ability to use an email address to connect to the device and via it ‘from the cloud’ if youre out and about… which kinda renders the above Homekit approach a little moot but also smells big time of the old ‘lash and dash’ approach to service. Registering an email address as the sole connection point and tunnelling back up the connection to provide Homekit-like function sounds like a classic poor security example of what many such devices used in the last few years. In that time we’ve seen large scale mass hacks, credentials stolen, peoples machines pwned… the list goes on.
Of course there is no discussion on the d-link website about android security, or the overall security of the above approach. It definetly works, but I have no confidence at all that my home network is safe at all, and above all that is the most critical piece all the big boys are chasing – CONFIDENCE. “TRUST US” say the facebooks and amazons of this world, and the simple point is I certainly don’t.
So… Homekit and the camera. The OMNA180 is an interesting first start, but I would not have paid $395 for it when it first came out (it’s now down to $249, and I still wouldn’t buy it). Homekit looks promising, especially once Siri is better integrated and opened to the developer community, but from here it’s Apple’s ability to court manufacturers in the way Amazon has with Alexa to build skill or instruction sets for their kit to use. I like the concept of smart technology that uses the WIFI network to hook everything together back to one point that also can do other useful things… less boxes, less powerplugs and less cabling all round.
But above all, what I look for is the confidence that whoever is selling me their vision appears to be genuinely looking out for the security of my home, my network and me. That means TRUST & CONFIDENCE… which only Apple is at least pointing in the right direction.
Other related posts:
Television, (re)enhanced: the Samsung QLED range
Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi
iOS6. Why the noise?