Idiot & Cheapskate’s Guide to Automating Your House (DIY SmartHome Hubs Controlled via Phone)

When I was a kid, I had this vision for my home that included automated everything — from lighting to blinds. Until last night, it was theoretical. Now I can turn off lamps from various rooms… from an Android or iPhone, even when I’m not in the house. It’s a start. And this morning when I got to work, I had the joy of toggling the lights from my phone to freak out WifeofNalts.

Let me warn you that we’re in an odd point of home-automation maturity. We’re moving beyond the era where it was reserved for the wealthy or techno elite. But it’s definitely not ready for prime time, and requires more patience and experimentation than I’d like… but such is the cost of being an early adopter, right?

My entry into “Smart Home Land” set me back only about $125: just $50 for a Wink hub (less if you buy it with add-ons) and about $75 for a bunch of GE Link lightbulbs (get the six pack). And I’ve got a plan for growing into additional functionality like remote monitors, appliance device on/off, security/alarms and broader control of lighting without doing the nightly sweep of 50 light switches. I can’t yet spring for the Nest, which is the connected thermostat that is the best-selling in its class. Honeywell and Lux fell asleep at the wheel.

Let me cut to wide shot and tell you about your options to entering “Smart Home Land.” Home automation was once reserved to the elite and wealthy, and required a special contractor and installation. Now you can pick up a hub and some $50-$150 add-ons and do-it-yourself quickly. I’m not going to get into the really nerdy hacks, but there are plenty of forums that can teach you to customize these beyond what the manufacturers specify or even offer.

There are too many options and a shake-down is looming. There’s Belkin Wemo, Phillips Hue, Quirky Wink, GE Link, Staples Connect, Harmony, Insteon, Lutron, Revolv, Smart Things. Overwhelmed yet? Here’s a review of some of them if you want to get into the weeds.

Let’s cut to your basic entry options, and then I’ll tell you why I started with the cheap, flawed but Swiss Army Knife option called Wink… note that I’m favoring options that don’t require ugly remotes or special displays. We’ll use our iPhones and Androids, thank you very much.

Which smart-home system offers the best flexibility at the best price?
Which smart-home system offers the best flexibility at the best price?
  1. Belkin has a Wemo switch that is a best-seller on Amazon and an easy place to dabble since it’s only $40. It uses your wifi and allows you to control any appliance via your Android/iPhone (just plug appliance into the Wemo, and the Wemo into your outlet. You can add on lots of additional options via Amazon or Home Depot. And if you’re all about lighting, you can get a Belkin Wemo starter kit for $85 that comes with a little hub and two lights… nice dorm room gift for that college techno kid. But I don’t see Wemo as a serious player.
  2. Then there are the lighting-specific solutions: Phillips answer to lighting customization: the Phillips Hue, which comes with a ton of different lighting options. The starter kit will set you back $188 and the individual lights get pretty expensive. Phillips Hue is generally cost-prohibitive except for those elite wealthy who might as well higher a contractor. But Home Depot has a decent spread of expensive lights so I imagine Phillips will be a formidable player. For those without excessive cash, the GE Links are better (you can also get these at Home Depot).
  3. There are a few other hubs that I didn’t look at closely. A cool-looking Revolv smart-home automation system (now part of Nest, the Google thermostat). Haven’t seen Revolv as a player yet. There’s Staples Connect (with Linksys), which is decent player and one that will likely survive the consolidation because Linksys and Staples are serious individual players. And the Smart Things Starter kit, which seems fairly comprehensive and has the best Amazon ratings… but is $300.
  4. And there are loads of home security devices, but I’m not writing about those.
  5. And the winner/wiener is… Wink hub despite some seriously negative reviews (including my own). Setup is torture (40 minutes of trial/error), but adding GE Link bulbs was as easy as screwing in bulbs and naming them. I can’t speak yet to the pain/joy of adding things beyond GE Link bulbs, but that alone made it worth the trivial entry cost of $50.

 

wink compatible products
Wink’s interface allows you to connect with a bunch of devices from other manufacturers

Wink is the buggy but poor-man’s Switzerland of all these home automation standards and devices. It has built-in support for Bluetooth LE, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Lutron ClearConnect, and Kidde. It also handles Phillips Hue (with some limitations) and works like a breeze with GE Link bulbs. I also like that Wink is a product of Quirky/GE, which gives inventors a chance to manufacturer ideas.

Once you have a hub and suffer through setup, you can add all kinds of things: alarms (Kidde/Nest), blinds (Bali/Lutron/ZWave), cameras (Dropcam), weird things from Quirky, garage doors (Chamberlain and Quirky/GE), heating and cooling (Honeywell, Nest, Zwave, Quirky/GE), lawn/patio, kitchen, door and window locks, and general appliances via a power plug that accommodates two different plugs that can be controlled separately (the other two are just plain extension plugs). Warning- that power plug got absolutely hosed on Amazon comments and it’s clearly flawed.

We’re still a few years before this stuff becomes more mainstream, but it’s nice that it’s become somewhat affordable and I like that you can experiment with different components to see what’s worthwhile.

Have you tried any of these? Would love your experience and “watch outs.”

Four Alternatives to Sonos Music: Stream Your Music to Speakers

Can’t afford a Sonos? Here are some cheaper DIY options and hacks. Stream your music via your existing speakers/stereo via a Beep, Rocki or a low-cost tablet.

connect phone to stereo system to play and stream music wifi bluetooth

So your phone is holding  your music collection and access to your online radio stations. And you have boom boxes, speakers and old amplifiers sitting around… depreciating. How do you connect them via Bluetooth or Wifi so you can stream your music in full sound?

Sonos sounds great, but aren't cheap. Especially if all you want is to activate your exiting stereo.
Sonos sounds great, but aren’t cheap. Especially if all you want is to activate your exiting stereo.

If you’re an audiophile with excess cash, the Sonos Play 1 is a $199 Wifi amplified speaker that is easy to use, sounds great, and fairly portable. I have one of them and the $299 Sonos Play 2 , and they come with an iPhone/Android app that allows me to stream Pandora or my saved music from my phone or laptop. SONOS does have a way you can connect to your existing speaker/amp, but it’s even more expensive than the one with the speaker (it’c called a SONOS connect). Note that you need one $44 SONOS bridge for to get started, and that Bose is also catching up with the Soundtouch.

So what if you don’t want to spring for a new amplified speaker? What if all you want is the ability to connect your phone to your existing stereo system? Here are four less expensive options.

  1. The real poor-man’s solution is my do-it-yourself speaker kit. But you’ll have to live with the frustrating range limits of Bluetooth. And some of the Wifi options are not that much more expensive.
  2. beep wifi speaker aluminum ashtrayAlternatively, you can wait for a Beep , which is a retro-looking metallic device that will connect your existing speakers to your digital music. Beep, created by some Google alumni, says it makes all your speakers wireless, but it doesn’t have an amplifier. But if you have good speakers without an amp, here’s an $18 amp that sounds like it should cost $100.  Beep is not available yet, but the pre-orders are $99. No shipping date announced on site (at least that I could find). Here’s a Cnet review.
  3. rocki speakerThe Rocki is very similar to the Beep, but also not yet available. Personally I like the Beep’s look better. To me the Rocki looks a bit cheap, although one critic says the Beep looks like an aluminum ashtray from bowling alleys, turned upside down. Touche.
  4. And here’s a clever Wifi audio hack. Buy a crappy tablet (like this iView Cyberpad at NewEgg)  and connect it to your existing stereo system via its headphone jack. This would also work if you have an old iPhone. But I don’t believe you can control it via your existing phone.

Here’s an article that also shows you how to stream tunes via an AppleTV or Miracast if you’re an Android user.

Is Online-Video Catching Up to TV?

It's getting harder to make a case that TV still reigns.

Brightroll published its annual report about video advertising, and here are some highlights via TechCrunch.

This information jives with Forrester’s prediction that online-ad spending will overtake TV in 2016. And eMarketer’s statement that online-video is the fastest-growing portion in digital advertising.

Highlights:

  • The Brightroll data comes from a survey of advertisers about how they’re approaching online video and what their budget plans are for the coming 12 months.
  • 64 percent said they believe that online video advertising is equally or more effective than the ads that show up on TV. That’s a big deal.
  • Why is online-video rivaling TV?  Because 70 percent of Internet users watch video online, meaning scale/reach is now possible.
  • Most respondents see online video as more effective than both display and social media. That’s notable given the market’s increasing obsession with mobile and social-media ads.
  • 30 percent of respondents said they expect online video to grow faster than any other type of advertising. That’s actually oddly conservative. Remember eMarketer estimates that US online video ad spending will grow by a compound annual rate of 38% in a five-year span ending in 2015, making this by far the fastest-rising category of online spending. Do the other 70% feel otherwise?
  • Performance metrics continues to confound media buyers. About 70 percent said that they needed a more clear ROI and success metrics to justify increasing spend on online video. And about a third want more info about the impact their online video buys have on offline purchasing. TV has had more time to develop metrics and prove results.

As any new media emerges, there’s a dance between the evangelists and skeptics. We saw it when the web arrived. We saw it at the dawn of display. We saw it with paid search (which the survey suggests is still the favorite of advertisers). Now we’re seeing it with the ongoing debates about the merits to TV and online-video.

But now it’s hard to deny online-video and praise TV has the bedrock of branding. With apologies to Mark Cuban (who is still a skeptic of online-video). It’s time to recognize that both TV and online-video have a powerful role in advertising and marketing, and that’s why most media-buyers are savvy enough to plan, buy and measure TV and online video together (eMarketer).

Remember what Nalts has been saying for many years, kids. Eventually we won’t have terms like “TV” and online-video. We’ll just view video as a channel or media manifestation whether it occurs on a computer, mobile device, HDTV, pad or those new fangled cathode ray tubes.

Tablet Viewing is 30% Higher Than Desktop (and more stats on online-video viewing by device)

I just discovered a report published late last year on video trends observed in the 3rd quarter 2011 (ending Sept. 30). It seems we watch 30% more video when on an iPad (versus desktop). Ooyala, a service provider to media companies, tracks a mess of activity and provides some nice signals in this report (see PDF). The company defines “conversion” as the percent of videos viewed against those displayed. I’d estimate these to be rather small (low single digits) on YouTube. But the publisher sites seem to be doing much better, with 40% to 60%. Game players take the lead with 60% which is remarkable, but probably a function of fewer content choices.

I really like this visual of the complete rate by form factor. It confirms what we’ve been saying about our tolerance for longer form when on devices beyond desktop.

Our complete rate varies fairly significant by device

P.S. Here’s some cheese.

Do you Hunker for a Chunk of Cheese?

Interview With Al, YouTube’s Algorithm Monster

We at WillVideoforFood were honored to be granted the first interview with Al, YouTube’s Algorithm Monster. Al makes critical determinations about what videos get seen, which subscribers see what content, what videos are placed as “related video,” and what videos are “spotlighted” throughout the site. He recently took many amateur creators down to 25% of the views they had this summer, effectively dropping their income by the same amount.

Al, YouTube's Algorithm owner, is seen here in his San Bruno Apartment where he has been sad and depressed.

WVFF: How are you, Al?

AL: Al scared and not happy. Very sad.

WVFF: Why?

AL: Al made changes for YouTube bosses to make people stay on YouTube longer. It work. YouTube visits increase in duration by .0005%.  But Al accidentally punished amateurs. Now amateurs upset with Al. They come to Al’s swamp with torches.

WVFF: Can’t you change them back?

Al: Al no make backward changes only forward. Evolve not devolve.

WVFF: So how about a forward change that keeps independent content creators steady on their views.

Al: Why Al do that?

WVFF: I don’t know. It seems it would keep independent creators motivated and loyal, and ensure that YouTube has content that can’t be seen on TV or other places.

Al: YouTube masters told me professional content more important. We go professional. No more cats and vloggers. We go “2 and a Half Men.” Me do what told.

WVFF: Al. Do you honestly think YouTube is poised to compete with networks and cable companies? That’s waging war, and it’s not what people want via online video yet.

Al: Al sad. Eyes leaking.

WVFF: Why, Al?

Al: Because you right. But masters at YouTube tell Al what to do. Al get blamed. They hurt Al.

WVFF: Sometimes, Al, you’ve got to show uncommon courage… doing what you know is right, not what people are asking you to do.

Al: Al feel better now. Al make it fair for amateur creators again. Al not want video creators sad like Al.

WVFF: Thanks for your time, Al. Just one final question.

Al: Yes, Nalts.

WVFF: How do you make changes to the algorthym while you’re in this swamp?

Al: Al only do interviews, poop, and sleep in swamp. Al walk to YouTube campus and bathe. Then Al make program changes.

Yahoo Video Out-YouTubes YouTube

Yahoo Video: Better aggregation of my kinda video

The latest version of Yahoo Video arguably out-YouTubes YouTube itself. There are just two problems with Yahoo Video, using this Butterfinger Comedy section as an example. First, I’m not a fan of auto-roll videos (especially the jabba the hut neck dude, which hits too close to home). Second, YouTube is still better at customizing videos based on my preference.

Otherwise I’d give Yahoo Video a like and thumb’s up for finding good content. Clearly a number of people are curating content, and Yahoo Screen is very 3.0ish… looks like it’s making that critical leap from web to TV.

Now let’s identify what we need from online video:

  1. Ability to toggle between short and long form content (for different types of sessions).
  2. Toss to TV… allow longer videos to be saved, and automatically cued on TV.
  3. Better predictive recommendations.
  4. We like current, so current videos should get primacy (and they don’t sufficiently on YouTube or Yahoo).
  5. More intuitive user experience tools
  6. Less clutter
  7. Separation between vloggers/amateurs and pro content
  8. Integration with social network (YouTube should have done more of this with Google Plus launch)
Yahoo Screen
I’ve always wondered why Yahoo, who is more about content, slept through the online-video revolution… snubbing amateur content. Now it seems to be taking a more YouTube approach. The trick, however, is that out-YouTubing YouTube doesn’t mean customers will flock. Yahoo needs to create a Yahoo edge that takes online-video to 2012-2015. What’s it gonna be, Yahoooooooo?
Hey I just realized Yahoo Video called me a year or so ago to discuss a program like YouTube Partners, and then dropped the ball. Bastahds.
YouTube: Better at recommendations still (but it has more data on us)

 

Anonymous Targets Facebook on Guy Fawkes Day; Skimps on Text-to-Speech Technology.

It seems Anonymous has targeted Facebook on “Guy Fawkes” day (November 5, 2011), but still not invested in any better text-to-speech technology or graphics. Hey, guys. Here’s a site you can turn text into speech free. Sure it’ll have a commercial behind it, but maybe you can convince them to sponsor you.

The video below is a report, and the actual Anonymous video appears below…

Anonymous Founder at Headquarters. Vows to Take Facebook Down on November 5 Using His 1970 Voice-to-Speech Software and His 56K Modem.

TV is the New Internet

Well it seems things are fine in TV Land. A recent study shows that TV ads beat the web in creating engagement (specifically by 38 gagillian times).

Charles Trippy's a Liar: Internet Didn't Kill Television

And a previous study shows we don’t miss the ads we skip. Good news, media buyers! Get those bucks back on television.

 

Next week: Print is alive!

YouTube 5.0 Begins

Netflix is watching “GOOG” and its potential use YouTube to stream longer form content. See WSJ blog. And read about YouTube’s move to live streaming ala Ustream and Blogtv.

I’d say the concern is significant, and this marks the fifth phase of YouTube…

Phase 1: Pirate Sharing (2004-2006)
Phase 2: Amateurs & Community (2005-2009)
Phase 3: Video Search Platform (2009-2011)
Phase 4: Mainstream and Semipro Content Aggregator and producer (2010-2012)
Phase 5: Live Programming and Video Anywhere (2010-2013)

These phases aren’t precise in their beginning and end, and each builds on another. So technically there’s still plenty of pirated content, but far less and harder to find. And amateur hour isn’t quite over, but YouTube’s emphasis is on music, web series and professional content.

YouTube has not touched long-form content significantly (check the latest comScore data to see that Hulu and Netflix dominates when you rank websites and platforms based on view duration). Also find some important comparison graphics to see what’s at stake for the ustreams and others.

But since YouTube, like Google, is the “first stop” for most people searching for video content, it has a natural advantage to be the default 3-4 screen streaming media player.

This 5th stage, of course, takes GOOG and YouTube into unchartered territory that requires:
-Device dominance: plus for Android, but Apple still leads and Google TV is far from the new OS for televisions or web devices.
-Equity on search: can you be both a neutral video search engine and a content owner? Given difficulties licensing pro content, YouTube appears to be stepping up original content: example Next New Network purchase, and more recent news about investments in custom content).
-Better deals with production studios and networks (to overcome the barriers that cable and telcom are forging). But in the meanwhile it appears that YouTube’s focus is on broadening distribution as a platform and as a network for smaller producers.

What do you think? Is YouTube the MySpace of our time, or will it be the dominant platform and search engine for any/all video? Off the latter, what’s it need to do to maintain relevance?

Online Video (2010 in sad pictures)

Wowzer how about the peaks and valleys of online video in the past year. I had a peek at Alexa.com to see how some of the smaller independent online-video sites are holding up. Not too well based on traffic. A caveat: Alexa does not capture visitors precisely, or count the embedded views. So these pictures may tell a sadder story than reality.

Still, it’s clear that the top online video properties are mostly established players not independents (below is Nielsen chart from last year). Hulu, YouTube and Facebook are well-backed startups or owned by large companies, and the rest are established media brands (MSN, Fox, CNN, ESPN, MLB).

The lesson learned from the flat or declining charts below? While there are plenty of places to benefit economically from the convergence of computers and television, the odds are not good for creating a profitable independent destination even if it’s supported by advertising. If you have a desire to create a video community, you’d be wise to use OPP (other people’s programming) and stick to the curating and community.

  • Revver (first site to share advertising revenue with creators). Revver, like YouTube, was designed not as a website but as a publisher/creator platform. It was perhaps too early to the space. YouTube and Facebook show that what matters most in a new industry is to get critical mass and leadership position. Profit comes later.

  • Veoh, now part of Qlipso, a social-content sharing company… down from earlier in 2010.

  • Metacafe seems to be returning to its low from last spring. It appears to be morphing into a shell for Hulu.

  • Blip.tv is holding its own… and most of its views are probably embedded elsewhere so not represented here.

  • FunnyOrDie isn’t trending significantly, but continues to be mercurial in traffic. One moment flooded with traffic for a new celebrity video, and otherwise mostly forgotten. Fortunately it seems well sponsored with entertainment advertisers, rather than paltry network ads.

  • Vimeo, with its focus on a creative and artistic community, is one of the few independent online-video sites doing quite well at attracting traffic.

To end on a sad note, “hyped Internet television startup” Joost is “spinning off” as an advertising network. So if you’re trying to make money in the online-video space, you’d better get a cool haircut and some teenage fans.