How to Build Your Own ‘Internet of Things’ – Part I

FBT Takes a Look at Remote-Controlling the World

By Jonathan Spira on 1 May 2014
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If you haven’t come across the term “Internet of Things,” don’t worry. You will.

The term refers to taking everyday objects, such as light bulbs or door locks, and giving them network connectivity through which they can be controlled.  But it doesn’t stop there – companies are actively developing standards and platforms that enable users to turn on and off lights, unlock doors, close shades, play music, and more – all from a single app.  In aggregate, these capabilities may best be described as a home automation network.

Today, there are numerous wireless protocols that facilitate one device talking to another, including Insteon, Zigbee, and Z-Wave. Some companies use proprietary protocols and a few use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but those are far less common in home automation networks.

One can find aspects of home automation in some of the world’s best hotels (just look for the complicated keypad where it’s nearly impossible to decipher how to turn the room lights on and off) and increasingly in people’s homes, as numerous companies as wide-ranging as Philips (lighting) and Lutron (window shades and electrical switches) make their devices addressable via the Internet of Things.

I’ve always been interested in this aspect of technology as it applies to everyday life, and I am currently installing a variety of products in my home to see how well they work together.  But first, let me explain my fascination with the topic.


My first exposure to early home automation networks came at my parents’ home.  Perhaps inspired by Jack Lemmon’s bachelor pad, as depicted in the 1963 movie “Under the Yum Yum Tree,” my father hired an electrical engineer to build a hard-wired version of the ultimate, for that era, automated living quarters.  Using a backlit control panel resembling an airliner’s cockpit overhead installation (approximately 18 square inches and replete with toggle switches, pushbuttons, and indicator lights), it was possible to turn lights on and off, dim them, open and close drapes (the largest wall had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a Japanese garden and the Long Island Sound), rotate the roof-mounted television aerial, control slide shows and movies, and operate a projection television. And all this was in the early 1970s.

Another set of buttons would cause six-foot high speakers to emerge from behind California redwood walls, and yet another would turn on the Lumia.  The Lumia was kinetic art by the well-known artist Earl Reiback. The piece itself had the name Infinity Plus One.  It is best described as an electrically-powered kinetic art light show that presents varying and (according to Reiback) never repeating color light patterns using rear projection onto a 36”x48” screen, all in a self-contained device.

Other advanced features in the house that we might today take for granted included a mail delivery alert that activated an LED indicator by the front entrance once mail was delivered, which made it unnecessary to open the front door to check on mail. Another was motion sensitive outdoor lights that greeted visitors and gave the impression of an occupied house, even when no one was at home.

In 1978, when BSR and Pico introduced the X10 home automation system, which worked by sending commands across AC power lines to individually addressable devices, this system was added to the house as well, using the BSR timer to turn lights on and off within the home at both specified and random times. The BSR system also offered a remote control that could be used over a telephone line, presaging how we use a smartphone today.


So far, I have gathered three of the leading home automation hubs from Revolv, SmartThings, and Staples (yes, the office supplies company), along with addressable products from Lutron (shades), Philips (the Hue lighting products), and Sonos (home audio).

In the coming months, I will be reporting on each of these, but it’s important to note that the different hubs cannot control the same devices as these hubs are not interchangeable and the types of devices that they control varies somewhat. For optimum results it is important to prioritize on the devices to be controlled and plan accordingly.

In addition, tensions are building between device makers and hub manufacturers as the latter are integrating some devices without the benefit of official support from the device manufacturer (recent examples that have come to light include Dropcam and Nest), leading to at least one complaint that user names and passwords are not being stored “securely.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)



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