Amazon Echo

Posted by on Jun 28, 2017 in Hardware, Other Geeks

Amazon Echo

Any nerd who’s seen Star Trek knows that no one bothers to use a keyboard (despite being all over the Enterprise anyway) when they want to send an email or correspond with sexy single Klingons in their area. As technology has moved forward into the 24th century, the preferred method of human-computer interface is shouting into thin air and totally expecting something to come of it.

Here in the backwaters of the 21st century, we’re still pecking out text messages on our tiny smartphones like cavepeople. We can’t even send dick pics without some manual intervention (allusion intentional). The use of voice commands isn’t quite there yet for controlling our devices, but things do seem to be trending in that direction. We can commune with Siri or settle in with OK Google or interact with Cortana, sadly without the sexy blue hologram. Our efforts sometimes pay off, but more often than not I expect that voice interaction with our tech is accidentally ordering 20 lobsters for shipment to Mozambique than it is setting a reminder to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home from work.

Amazon — all hail Amazon — continues to find ways to shoehorn itself into our lives with the Echo line of voice (and now video) enabled devices. Of course, Amazon — all hail Amazon — wants us to use their services for everything: to buy books, to buy clothing, toys, electronics, movies, music, and (in the three metro places where they offer it) groceries. It’s stupidly convenient to get a shipment from Amazon like it ain’t no thing: Prime shipping with One Click ordering means we might not even realize that we ordered something until it arrives on our doorstep. The Echo is Amazon’s — all hail Amazon — attempt to bring a little Star Trek into our lives.

The flagship Echo is a $180USD tower that comes with a built-in speaker, but for those on a budget there’s the Echo Dot, a smaller puck sized device sans speaker that can be had for as low as $35USD. These deco-enabled devices can sit on the sidelines until someone randomly says “Alexa” — one of the device’s activation words — too loudly, at which point the device springs to action in the way you wish your S.O. would: waiting patiently to listen to anything you want to tell it. You can tell the Echo to put a shopping item on a list, play songs from Pandora, Spotify, or (of course) Amazon Music, get a weather forecast, control your smart home, tell you a joke, or do something else enabled through one of the myriad of “skills” you can activate on your account like it was downloading from The Matrix.

Does that sound awesome to you? Possibly not. Unlike the 24th century where society has evolved to a point where voice interface is the prevalent and most convenient way to work with technology in their fast paced environment, we’re still not quite at the point where shouting at the aether is more efficient or more accurate than any other method we have at our disposal. I can OK Google a timer as quickly as I can get the Echo to start one. I can open an app on my phone and add an item to a shopping list as fast as I can by ordering the Echo to do the same. I can also play my songs from my tablet through my Bluetooth speakers just as easily as I could through the Echo, with the added bonus of being able to take the music with me as I move through the house or to plug in some earbuds if I want some privacy.

The Echo technology is getting there, though. This morning I found that the new “Drop In” functionality had been enabled on my devices (I have three Echo Dots, one on each floor of my house). This feature allows my family and me to use the Echo as an intercom system, a feature that was forehead-smackingly absent from the original product. At $35 each, it’s easy to buy multiple Dots for whenever and wherever you feel the need to talk to someone elsewhere in the house without shouting, and being able to talk to another Dot or Echo on your network seems like a feature worth the price of admission. I tried it out with my wife this morning, communicating from the kitchen to the bedroom, and aside from the acoustics reaching me through good old vibrating air a few seconds before the Dot transmitted the same, it worked flawlessly. Of course, this is only good for when you have multiple Echo devices throughout your home or want to use the smartphone app to remotely intercom with someone at home, or want to monitor what’s going on in your house or apartment through the new Echo Show, which is the realization of the dreams of many futurists from the 1990’s who wanted a viable video phone in their lifetime.

Like dick pics

The Echo is, at best, a magnetic notepad with tethered pen that you can stick to your fridge so you don’t have to root around in a junk drawer for the same when you need to make a list or leave a note, but at $35 it improves on that notepad in a technology-forward way for those who are into that. Considering we only have about a decade until Amazon — all hail Amazon — has at least five different vectors into each of our lives, I can only expect the technology to get better and possibly more useful. Right now, though, it’s a fun novelty that can be made to fit into a niche in our lives that gives us a “summer stock” vision of a Star Trek future.

 

Footnote: I know a lot of people are going to scrunch up their faces and wonder why I didn’t address things like privacy concerns or the possibility of cyber attacks turning the devices against us. I am not an analyst, despite the fact that I have a blog and write a whole lot of words without saying a damn thing worth noting. There are people who are much better at talking about these things than I am — take Mr. Koster’s post above as an example.

The Echo — and the Internet, and the things on the Internet — will always only be as safe as the infrastructure that supports them, and as secure as the people and business that support that infrastructure are willing and able to make them. As a consumer, my job isn’t to harden my node against any and all attacks, because there’s only so much I can do at what they refer to as “the last mile”; instead, I need to decide where to place my trust, if I am placing any trust at all, among those who control the lion’s share of pathways and services that are available to me. This is not a question of tech, but a question we all have to face, every day, as a species. Who we trust and how much we trust them has always been a part of the human condition. We need to trust our banks, our employers and employees, our neighbors, our families, and even total strangers. We need to decide who to trust with our money and our health and our futures every single day, tech or no tech. Technology is neutral; the Echo itself isn’t maliciously haunting you out of the box.

So it’s really up to the individual how far each of us wants to allow tech into our lives. We can arm ourselves with truth — not speculation, or even panicked what-if’s — and then…we have to decide who among those upstream of us deserve our trust. Considering Amazon knows as much about me as any other service I use these days, and chances are they know just about as much about you, then I think the Echo is about as safe as the PCs, consoles, tablets, and smartphones that we have come to rely on.

Read More »

Straight to Video 2: Video Harder

Posted by on May 31, 2017 in Glamour Shots, Other Geeks, Software, Video

I am currently suffering from long weekend withdrawal, as I enjoyed the normal weekend, a successful cookout on Memorial Day (despite the rain), and an additional “clean-up/mental health day” off on Tuesday. While I did get to spend some of my Tuesday cleaning up after the festivities on the previous day, I would have felt the day had been wasted if I wasn’t able to get some quality basement time.

Per my previous post on the subject, I have spent a good amount of time watching instructional videos on Udemy and am now at the point where I cannot simply sit by and do nothing but watch someone else do cool stuff. I upgraded my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription to the buffet plan, and over the weekend I installed After Effects. While I am positive that I haven’t yet gotten anywhere near knowing how to do all the best, most useful stuff according to the video series I’m watching, I have learned enough to get started.

My first stab was to animate “my logo” which I had created in a fit of inspiration, a discussion of which I’ll save for another day. Here’s the original logo:

My thought this time around was to have the runes around the edge rotate slowly, while the internal “Scopique” would sear itself into mid-air like some kind of magical script. Overall, things weren’t too difficult: the rotation of the runes was easy enough, and although the searing of the letters didn’t quite pan out, I delved into the pit of “special effects” and found a light-beam application that I added to the lettering.

The major roadblock I experienced with this was that After Effects is not Photoshop. Compare the original design (which I like) to the recreated version in the video (which is tolerable for a freshman effort) and you’ll notice the difference. The video version doesn’t have the same…I don’t know…visual complexity that the still does, and the static blue-and-red fire (which I really like) look kind of stupid as static imagery in a video. At any rate, I tried to recreate the logo exactly in After Effects, but wasn’t able to, so this is where it stands. I don’t know that I’ll use this video anywhere, but it was a good first try.

The original purpose of learning After Effects, as you might recall had you read the first post in this series, was to create the background crawl for any videos that I might decide to create when I’m sick with a debilitating fever and can’t make rational decisions. This was actually more difficult (for me) than one might think.

Originally I’d tried working with individual words in After Effects, lining them up, duplicating the line several times, and applying animation to each line such that they move in different directions at different speeds. Speed in animation is my mortal enemy, as is math in game development. Make the timeline too long and things move slowly; make it to short and things move way too fast, all compliments of the “frames per second” concept coupled with the rate at which you want the video to run (etc etc etc). I wanted this animation to loop so I didn’t have to worry about how long it’ll run, which meant that I needed it to be long enough to loop, but not so long that it takes 15 minutes for one rotation. And it had to loop back so it appeared seamless.

In the end, I made a line of text in Photoshop and saved it as an image and animated that because I thought it would keep the moving parts to a minimum. I also had to apply a “time warp” effect to each line to control the speed, since my timeline manipulation had proven rather fruitless and frustrating. Like my “Scopique” logo, the results are just barely north of acceptable.

Just a sample posted on Mixer.com as a test.

Finally, I wanted to create a “splash” screen for streaming. These are what people see on the stream channel before the stream goes live to show people that the stream is actually active and that they have time to hit the bathroom/pantry before the show starts.

For this project, I wanted to follow a “cybernetic” theme, so I looked up “cybernetic UI” on Google Images and found one that I kind of liked. For some reason, the motif of concentric, misshapen circles is a cybernetic trope, so I went with that. At first, I started working the design in Photoshop, but then pulled up short: Illustrator would be a lot better for this kind of thing, really, because I was noticing jaggies on some of my circles that Illustrator would nuke. I spent about 10 minutes with Illustrator before I realized I have absolutely no skill with Illustrator, so I forced myself to work with what I had in PS. I figured out how to import PS layers into After Effects, and after a few hours of cleaning up my design, got the circles into AE, centered, and animated. I then needed to create a sufficiently cyberpunk-esque background and managed to gin up something that would probably get a solid B- in an “Intro to Cyberpunk Art” class (I grade on a curve).

I threw in “LOADING…” and “Stream will be starting shortly” text in the final version (not represented here), and…that was all. I was hesitant to add too much to this video because the rotating circles are moving a bit faster than I’d like, and felt that additional animation on the screen would be like making conversation in a silent room simply because the silence was too much to bear.

Overall, I am moderately accepting of my initial efforts. While I managed to get real close to what I wanted to accomplish with each, none of the efforts are what I’d put into a portfolio if I were hell-bent on getting a job as a graphics animator some day. I still have about 200+ videos in my lecture series to watch, at which point I will have to re-watch the whole things and take notes on technique along with ideas on how it could be used beyond the specific tutorial examples being presented.

Read More »

The Elgato Streamdeck

Posted by on May 19, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Hardware, Other Geeks

Following on the heels of Wednesday’s post on the Elgato Streamdeck, I managed to get some time with it this Thursday and wanted to offer some initial impressions.

Nicely packaged: cradle, stand, and manual.

First, the device is solidly made. It’s basically a block with overly-glossy keys, none of which feels flimsy in the least. When not plugged in, it doesn’t look like much, but when it’s receiving power the keys are backlit with the Elgato logo spread out across the center buttons. The keys are nice and bright, but unfortunately not bright enough to overcome a harsh glare at certain angles, depending on where your local light sources are at. The deck itself can be removed from the desktop stand which may have some uses for enterprising modders out there. The stand itself, though, gets some props for innovation: it’s sporting a two-stage support system. The cradle portion lifts up on a front hinge, and you can extend either the back of the cradle to sit in the base for a more upright position or use two smaller side supports to raise the cradle up to a lesser angle, making it more keyboard-esque. However, the pins used to keep the supports in place are small and I can see them snapping off at some point in the future. I have found that in my setup, the more acute angle works best to avoid key glare, but also put the keys at an angle such that each key is slightly more difficult to see.

The removable deck and cradle

 

Setup was super easy: install the software (Windows 10 and Mac Whatever only) and plug in the device. Hopefully, you have a nearby USB port because the cable is shorter than what you’d expect from a lot of desktop peripherals and is non-detachable (i.e. can’t swap it with a longer cable).

I’m a software guy, and I love playing around with configuration software so the management utility for the Streamdeck might be one of the easiest I’ve used. The main window features 15 slots representing each of the buttons. On the right side, you have a series of commands that you can assign. Simply drag a command to a button, and you’re about 90% of the way done. Depending on the button, you’ll have some settings you can mess around with. For example, the OBS integration allows you to drag a “Scene” action. In the button properties, you select which Scene in your running copy of OBS you want that button to trigger. The updates are in real time, so as soon as you place the button in the software, it shows up on the physical device. You can also change the icon (some of which have lit and faded states to show which one is active among those it recognizes as being mutually exclusive, like OBS scenes) and layer mutli-line text on the button. I learned that Elgato has a quick key icon creator on their website if you have images but no Photoshop or graphics experience. Like the settings app, this is really easy to use and I had a lot of fun making icons that I needed.

Live updating with default config

Unfortunately, this is where my enthusiasm starts to wind down, but I need to remind you that I didn’t buy this device for its intended purpose of augmenting my live stream control. I bought it to send commands to my games — something that I couldn’t get to work anywhere often enough.

It seems that Elgato has designed the software to be extremely specific in what it does and how it operates. Since the company focuses on streaming technology, their software heavily favors streaming tasks. It has support for Elgato’s own streaming software, OBS, Twitch, and only a few other services like Twitter. For local hooks, there are media control commands, app and website launchers, and hot key broadcasters. Even then, OBS requires a plugin so that the Elgato command software can communicate with it when another app has focus.

For use with OBS

I was mainly focused on using the hotkeys. I tried Elite Dangerous because that’s a game where having access to a lot of keys is something that will enhance the experience. For testing, though, I only created a new button and assigned it the Hotkey “1”. In Elite, this opens the left-side control panel for mapping, local targets, etc. It works when docked so I knew it would be something that I could do without having to leave my current station. Unfortunately, the game refused to acknowledge the key press. I know that the key was working, however, because I could open the chat entry box and see a string of “1”s whenever I tapped the button on the Streamdeck. I tried full-screen window mode, and full-screen mode (since some games are picky about that kind of thing) but nothing changed. I even tried the 32bit non-Horizons enabled version to no avail.

Ideally, for use with Elite Dangerous, but with fewer assignments.

Figuring I’d try something else, I booted up Guild Wars 2 and rebound my “1” key to the “B” key which would open the RvRvR standings window. Again, no luck. Again, I tried adjusting the window mode and verified that the key was working by activating the chat box and hitting the button.

Since the Streamdeck is brand-spankin’ new at this point, and since Elgato doesn’t maintain a community forum, I had to descend into the depths of *shudder* Reddit to find the /r/elgatogaming subreddit. Thankfully there was a Streamdeck “megathread” where people were talking about it, and I saw at least two people claiming that they had done exactly what I was trying to do. I asked one poster if he/she did anything specific to get it to work, but haven’t seen any replies.

On a whim, I loaded up The Elder Scrolls Online to test with the original GW2 “B” key button, and amazingly, it worked. At this point, I don’t think I’d done anything differently between the GW2 test and the ESO test. At an earlier point, I suspected that there might be something running on my system that was hijacking the input from the Streamdeck software since I’d experienced something like this in the past with audio. I shut down anything that I thought might handle key input like Plays.tv, my Logitech keyboard and mouse software, and even Steam and it’s overlay, but the results had been the same. I read that the Streamdeck software should be run as Administrator in order to be able to send keys to another app, but that didn’t seem to help either.

As it stands, the Elgato Streamdeck is at the “confounding” level on the “love it or leave it” scale. I’m not going to say “disappointing” because I suspect that there’s something standing in the way of what I am doing and what I want it to do that may or may not have anything to do with the Streamdeck or software themselves. I can tell you, though, if I can get it to work then I’ll quickly upgrade my assessment to “spectacular” because it’s an excellent piece of hardware. If they release an SDK or expand their software beyond the narrow focus on streaming (which may never happen due to Elgato’s market segment), or if more apps adopted the input hooks for it (Hey, Discord!), then its value would skyrocket. I don’t know that I’d suggest that everyone go out and buy one and experience an input Nirvana because unless you’re a moderate to hardcore streamer or use apps like Photoshop that have a lot of keyboard shortcuts, it seems that the Streamdeck’s operations are limited and pretty “fragile” in that they’re easy to interrupt.

Read More »

Multiple Audio Stream Recording

Posted by on May 18, 2017 in Hardware, Other Geeks

Don’t let the title fool you: this is a topic I’ve been chasing for some time because it’s not as simple as it sounds. In fact, what I’m talking about here was only discovered by me due to random happenstance.

My goal has been to find a way to get myself and at least one other person to converse, to record that conversation, and then to split each person into their own audio track. You might recognize this as something relevant to podcasting, and you’d be right: that is the ultimate goal.

The problem, then, is that when talking about audio on a Windows PC, there’s the local user — the person on the mic who is controlling the recording software — and there is literally everyone else. Whether it’s using Skype or Discord or Teamspeak, Mumble, Ventrillo, or whatever, all of the rest of the participants are jumbled together into a single audio stream received by the person doing the recording.

In the worst case scenario, the remote participant(s) audio is merged with the local audio into a single track, meaning that when it comes time to edit, any cuts or filters are applied to everyone, no exceptions. That’s certainly passable, but really not optimal because having each person on his or her own track would allow for discreet person-by-person editing for volume, noise reduction, and dead-space filtering (et al).

So the other day I was trawling YouTube for videos on the Elgato Streamdeck setup when I came across a series by the silken-voiced EposVox who not only spoke about the Streamdeck, but also about OBS setup. In one video, he mentioned multiple audio sources which, if you’ve used OBS, is not something exciting. OBS allows for (at minimum) mic audio and desktop audio to be recorded alongside the video. While OBS is primarily used for streaming to Twitch/Beam/YouTube/etc., it can also be used to record local video and audio.

Now, I don’t know how some people do it. I suspect that a lof of folks might record video using OBS or something, muting the mic so that they can record their voice over using another app, like Audacity. That works to separate the video from the voice over but then requires the user to sync the voice with the video which can be unnerving if it’s even slightly out of sync. But thanks to EposVox, I know now that there’s a better way using OBS, an alternative audio output, a mic, and Audacity.

I’ll refer you to this video.

In a nutshell (if you skipped the video), OBS allows you to add additional audio inputs. You can then send each input to a different track, assuming you’re recording in anything other than FLV (so MOV, MKV, MP4, etc). What you get in the end is a file with multiple audio tracks, and depending on how you set it up, you might have a track with all audio, and then each input on a different track, or just each audio source on a different track. What you’re seeing is the same tech that allows DVDs to have different language tracks.

Of course, as you know, you can’t watch a DVD with several audio tracks playing at once, so it is with trying to get a hold of these multiple audio tracks. This threw me for a while because my video editing app doesn’t display all audio tracks, only the first one it encounters. Since I only want the audio anyway I learned that Audacity with the FFMPG codec can import the audio from a video file using the IMPORT > AUDIO option which allows me to then select the audio tracks from the file that I want to edit.

I ran some tests with the Esteemed Mindstrike as my guinea pig on the other side of Discord. For my set-up, I had OBS recording my Yeti mic for my voice, but I had to set Discord to output to the Yeti Headphone output. That my mic has it’s own audio output is the aforementioned happenstance, because otherwise, I’d need to go down the dark road of virtual audio cables to create a fake output and send Discord output to that. In OBS, I set up an audio source for the mic (which was already there), and an additional audio source for the Yei Headphone output. The benefit of this was that I could hook up the headset to the Yeti mic (duh) and listen and converse with Mindstrike like there was nothing weird going on. When OBS recorded, my mic audio recorded on one track, the Discord output on another, and had there been any desktop audio at the time, it would have recorded that on a third track (I turned off the multi-source channels for this test, just to be sure).

When I managed to get FFMPG installed with Audacity, I imported my test file audio and got this:

The top two waveforms are my mic, and the bottom two sourced from Discord. Magical! For an actual production run, I’d probably want to have OBS “downmix to mono” because there wouldn’t need to be a left and right channel for single-position voice; both the left and right output would simply source from the mono channel, leaving me with one waveform per track in Audacity, to keep things clean.

Now, the obvious problem is that in a multi-multi user situation — me at the desk, a bunch of people in a channel in Discord — I’m still only going to get two tracks: me, and everyone else. For my “intended purpose” though, this is exactly what I needed. I don’t know if it’s possible for apps like Discord to pick up, send, and deliver individual voices on individual tracks; I suspect that would be horribly bandwidth and CPU intensive, so, for now, I’m glad I stumbled across this, and that I have the hardware that just happens to support the exact situation that I wanted to enable.

Read More »

Cutting the Cord

Posted by on Apr 6, 2017 in Editorial, Featured, Hardware, Other Geeks

Cutting the Cord

Yes, it’s 2017, and I am just now getting around to seriously considering getting rid of cable.

Since we switched to Fi and reduced our cellular bill by 3/4* I’m feeling how good it is to make a change that returns money to me. Cellular was easy, as these services are an anti-consumer racket. What’s less easy for my household is wiggling out from under the thumb of Big Cable.

While providers like Comcast will tell us that we have options in our area — like satellite — the honest truth is that it’s not really an option. We have three technology minded people in our house, so we need fast, reliable internet access. I’m sure DSL has come a long way since I’ve used it almost 15 years ago, but it’s built on top of an aging infrastructure and can’t possibly match what we get from coax and fiber. We also really don’t need a home phone line. The bogeyman regarding home phones is that without a landline, we lose E-911 service, although I would hope I’d have the presence of mind in a crisis to do everything in my power to ensure that emergency services find me at an address I verbally provide to them. What has actually been impeding our investigation into cutting the cable has been TV, though.

My hobby is PC based; my wife’s hobby is TV based. Thankfully, I can get to any website using any internet connection, but getting the TV channels that my wife wants to watch isn’t so simple. Every network and broadcast concern seems to want to have their own walled garden (lookin’ at we, CBS!) for a fee. Considering how many channels we might want from an a la carte package and the sum of the prices of each walled garden, our spend would probably add up to as much or even more than what we might pay for cable right now.

Of course, there are services which bundle the channels that make themselves available for such bundling. Sling, Playstation VUE, and now YouTube TV provide a wide selection of familiar faces — but none of them offer everything. For example, local affiliate stations are going to be difficult to come by since these streaming services source from the national feeds. A few of these services offer tiers; the higher the tier, the more channels we get, but we might also end up paying more for a single channel we really want, in addition to getting 10 more channels we’ll never watch (for us, that would be the bazillionty sports channels that seem to be the foundation of all of these services). Since no single service offers everything we might want, the decision needs to be made: suffer without, or subscribe to multiple services?

Subscribing to different services means that we’re looking at platform availability. Most everything is available for Android, iOS, and PC, which is nice but is hardly a set-it-and-forget-it solution that competes with the eggs-in-one-basket cable box. The second best option is a device like the Roku or (*shudder*) Apple or Fire TV. A lot of the services are available through gaming consoles, but there’s a lot of overhead in navigating a console, and as much as I’d be thrilled to do so, I don’t think my wife will agree to buy another Playstation or Xbox for each of the TVs we need to broadcast to. Finally, a Chromecast would work in a lot of situations, but when all  you want to do is sit down and throw something on the TV, it’s not as convenient as a cable box when you need to bring out your phone, wait for it to connect, and then choose the supplier who has the content you want to watch.

So what’s the verdict so far? Apparently, PSVue seems to have the most channels we’re looking for, followed by YouTube TV. PSVue seems to work on Android, iOS, and PC, and of course, the Playstation, but also through the Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast. YTTV works through Android, iOS, and PC, but beyond that, it only seems to work through Chromecast for TV broadcasting. Hopefully, that will change over time.

Then there’s the gravy. A lot of the broadcast services offer cloud-based DVR which is great as it allows you to record whatever, whenever, and watch it whereever you can access the service. This mean that when traveling in the US, we can take a Chromecast or Roku stick with us and have our familiar TV with us even in different broadcast markets. YouTube TV even offers Netflix-like sub-accounts so I could keep my DVR and favorites apart from my wife’s or my daughter’s.

At this stage, I’ve only been collecting information and haven’t yet actually tried any of these services. YouTube and PSVue have free trials, so I might take them up on those offers to see if we can live a month using those services — assuming we can find devices which work on the TVs we have. The kicker will be getting the family to remember to pick up the specific remote for the specific device to access the specific package which has the specific channels we want to watch when we want to watch them. It’s this scatter-shot distribution that is the biggest hurdle for cutting the cord for me, personally because while we might be able to replicate our preferred lineup, we have to span several services and possibly several devices in order to find what it is that we want in order to do it.

 

* At least for my wife and I. We still have to pay for our daughter’s line which is on the legacy carrier, but once the in-laws move off our legacy plan, our monthly bill will still be drastically reduced.

Read More »

Revenge of the Automated Home – OSRAM Lightify

Posted by on Nov 7, 2016 in Hardware, Other Geeks

Revenge of the Automated Home – OSRAM Lightify

The Family was down at Lowes this weekend because we’re finally getting around to using the spare room upstairs, and by “using the spare room” I mean “remembering it exists and we really should clean it out and paint it and use it for something other than a random item graveyard.” The use in question: crafting room. My daughter is slowly (oh so slowly) getting her feet wet with cosplay and is looking for a permanent place for the sewing machine. My wife has a bunch of random craft things — jewelry making, Cricut paper cutting, et al. — which is ensconced in the basement, but I’m in the basement trying to realize my vision of turning it into a home theater, and last time I looked there was no “crafting nook” at the local cineplex. So the crafting stuff is going upstairs, once the spare room has been cleaned and painted. Hence the trip to Lowes; for paint.

While there, I snuck over to the lightbulb section because its time to come clean: I’m newly obsessed with LED bulbs. Now that they’ve come down in price I can seriously start looking at them. We have two outside the front door, and they burn like the noonday sun. I like it, but I think the neighbors object. Anyway, while ogling the bulbs, I noticed something called the OSRAM Lightify Smart Home RGBW Lighting Strips. 

lightify-flex-rgbw-1-55152d8bb892c

We’ve had a problem since we moved into this house: we’re the second owners, and the first owners who had it built cheaped out on pretty much everything. The owner fancied himself a handyman, and he finished the basement himself, added a three season porch on top of the raised porch (without drywalling, adding electrical, or staining the porch first), and started a fourth basement in the basement before they had to beat cheeks and find another home for some reason. Much to our chagrin, the kitchen has some really crappy lighting, especially around the counter area. The best case scenario would be to get some cannister lights installed in the ceiling, but I value my life and wouldn’t dare try such a feat myself, and we’re not financially flush enough to hire someone to do it. Seeing this lighting strip, however, ticked two boxes for me. One, they would work great under the cabinets and over the counter, and two…home automation!

See, back in our previous house, I wired the place up with X10 gear. And I mean wired: I replaced the light switches and power sockets with addressable X10 switches and power sockets, and I ran a server in the basement that I could access remotely (this was before smartphones, so be more impressed). This was great because I could turn the outside lights on if we’d forgotten to do so and weren’t home at night, and could turn the Christmas tree on and off before getting out of or after getting into bed. I felt like a god with the power over electricity in my house, although this was the era of X10 which, if you were alive and Internet-enabled back then, you remember as being some of the first and most prevalent ads ever to rock a popover browser window. The remote control was a square box with a lot of ungainly buttons, but it worked, and after many years without it in this house, I missed it. 

The RGBW lights worked like a champ. They’re nice and bright, and a single strip is long enough to cover one stretch of the counter where we do the most work. There was a problem, though: the set we bought wasn’t enough to use the “home automation” aspect of the toy tool. For that, we needed another piece of gear, the Hub. 

7935164_sd

This afternoon I snagged the hub-and-bulb kit because it was only $10 more than the hub alone, and a single bulb was actually $14. I raced home and plugged the hub into a wall socket — any wall socket — and downloaded the smartphone app to get the party started. 

This would actually turn out to be a party thrown by someone who’d never seen a party. First, the app wanted me to scan the QR code on the back of the hub because that registered the serial number of the device. Then I had to make an account. I got an error, but the account went through. I had to switch my phone’s network to the private network of the hub, and then use my phone as a handshake between the hub and my home network (“hub, this is network, network, this is hub”). This took a few tries because I have a wifi extender that I have apparently forgotten the password for, and then the hub and the network wouldn’t talk once I got the right wifi SSID set up. I called the app some bad names, and it decided to cooperate, so chalk one up for foul language. 

Next, before I could start lighting things up (literally), I had to upgrade the firmware on both the hub and the light strip. The strip itself has a small wifi receiver, but it’s invisible to everything except the official Lightify hub, and the hub said everyone needed some new clothes. Another nightmare involving a phone reboot, more harsh language, and some time spent on the Xbox later, I managed to get everything registered and ready to go. 

Where did this go, exactly, you might ask. Well, the light strip doesn’t have a switch. That’s OK because the point of this system is that it’s entirely modular. They sell switches that you can stick anywhere, so I could get a dedicated switch and put it next to the stove, for example, and control these lights. Right now, though, I can only turn the lights on and off from the smartphone. Not ideal, but not a deal breaker either. Although it’s not really useful for the kitchen, this lighting strip can modulate it’s color through the app. There’re several different built-in lighting schemes I can apply automatically, which got me thinking…but I’ll cover that later. The strip is dimmable, and when I turn it off it doesn’t just snap off; it dims itself to darkness. Pretty sexy! I can also set schedules, so I set the counter light to turn on at 5PM and turn off at 10PM, just in case we need it. It’s a small-watt user, so I don’t anticipate it being a massive energy hog. 

colorselection

The bulb ended up in a lamp in the basement, because why not? This also needed a firmware update, but is only dimmable and does not change color, although there are bulbs in this series that do. 

Overall, I give the idea an A+. The construction of the equipment also gets an A+. The software on the smartphone gets a resounding D because it’s a piece of crap. The fact that I got it working at all saved it from an F-. The good news is that these satellite items aren’t proprietary, and there are other “hubs” that I could get that would work just as well, and even better if the apps to control them are better. 

So, thinking about it at work today, I realized that now that I have this hammer of home automation lighting, everything in the house looks like a nail. I have Big Plans to work in the home theater area in the basement, and these strip lights are the perfect low-light, walkway style runner lights you see in more professional theaters. That they dim is a massive plus, as we can “dim the house lights” before the movies start. If I were into overkill, I could get the RGBW bulbs and put them around the house and when we have, say, a Christmas party, I could change things up to red and green and probably destroy retinas as a result. Maybe not such a good idea. But I could!

Read More »