Tip o’ the Week #258 – The Network of Your Stuff

As buzzwords go, 2014 has been a big year for the “Internet of Things”, or IoT. A term coined 15 years ago by a specialist in RFID, it was later refined in a paper as referring to a world where machines can share information (perhaps about themselves) with each other, to better manage the environment we live in. Let’s hope the sharing and acting doesn’t become too autonomous. Who knows where that would all lead?

The IoT industry (such as it is) comprises largely of companies making gadgets (sensors, controllers, chips that could be embedded into other devices etc), companies selling means of connectivity (like 3G or short-range wireless) and companies selling software solutions to either manage the whole shebang or to do something with the inevitable mass of data that results from it.

Analysts breathlessly predict gargantuan volumes of data (Zettabytes, man!), billions of things, worth trillions of dollars. And everyone’s trying to be seen to be taking part, and to brand the whole area with their take on it (Cisco keeps gamely plugging away, talking up “IoE” or Internet of Everything, Microsoft came out with the Internet of Your Things, though that term may have been put to bed…). There was even a recent event called the Internet of Good Things. Nothing to do with FYC.

Make it real, take it home

While we wait for IoT to realign the stars (or did you see the ISS on Christmas Eve?- #ItsSantasSleigh), we could start with a bit of home automation that is arguably bleeding into IoT, and it’s not ridiculously expensive. Here’s just one example of a fairly simple system, though no doubt readers will email in with recommendations of their fave gadgets. The reason for choosing the kit that follows was largely that this stuff has a reputation for being either expensive or unreliable, or both, and these choices are relatively cheap and cheerful. And won’t be a cause for an argument over Christmas if and when they stop working…

clip_image001First, you need a box

In order to do anything truly IoT-like, you’re going to need a box (a hub, if you will) that will talk to your things and then corral their data onto the internet. Your average smart sensor isn’t going to have the compute power or connectivity to talk TCP/IP to an internet endpoint, and if it does, that’s why it’ll be 3 times the price of every other one: just look at Belkin’s WeMo. No, what you need is something like Swedish company Telldus’ “TellStick Net”: £70 from your favourite Danish IKEA-like electrical store. Oh, sadly, it appears Tellstick isn’t officially available in the US. Too bad. Maybe it’s karma for all the apps and deals that are US-only…

The Tellstick Net talks to devices which use the ISM band at 433Mhz to communicate with each other; it’s a relatively short-range but low-power radio, and it’s pretty cheap. You may have devices which use this band already (wireless doorbells and the like) though you might not be able to automate much of what they do.

clip_image002It’s cold outside

One useful thing you could do with your new box, is rig the house and garden up with temperature and humidity sensors – indoors is probably OK, but if you have a garage or a loft, you might want to know that it’s not getting too cold or too damp. And it’s very handy to know exactly how cold it is outdoors, too. A multitude of different sensors are available that talk to the Tellstick box, such as this one (£10).

As a programming task (after you’ve done your Hour of Code, of course), you could rig up some software to keep a log of temperature in your area over time, and maybe cross reference it with a feed of weather forecasts. Here’s a starter for ten. Or just set up tellmon.net to do the logging for you.


clip_image004Remote Power

Do you have any devices where the power socket is out of reach? Like Christmas Tree lights (plug behind the tree?), or exterior lights that run from the garage? Well here’s a simple solution that can also be controlled by the Tellstick – you can switch them on and off discretely, see the current status and even schedule them to come on and off at set times.

clip_image005As with temperature sensors, there are loads of power switches which are compatiblelike these (£15), which even come with a button-operated remote so you can switch them on and off without resorting to using a computing device.

The principal means of setting up Telldus Live (the cloud service which underpins the Tellstick Net device) is through your browser (try it out with username demo@telldus.com and demodemo as password), or you can use their free app for Android or iOS devices.

clip_image007There is a 3rd party app called SmartHome for Windows Phone and Windows 8, which is nicer and more featured, but does require you shelling out a quid.

The observant will spot that the Fence sensor >> reckons it’s 71 degC outside… clearly a faulty device…

Other systems are available

Of course, there are hundreds of other means to doing home automation – there are proprietary, generally reliable (but expensive) things like Crestron or Control4, that could generally mean retrofitting a good bit of kit to your house, but may also do audio and video distribution, lighting control etc.

There are systems to do lights, like Philips’ Hue (great if you want to spend £50 on a light bulb), heating controllers like the Googly NEST or BG’s Hive, to other more entry-level systems like LightwaveRF, which is more expensive than the simple 433Mhz varieties, though offers more capability and is more attainable if you want to get into things gradually, when compared to the more professional type installations.

With Telldus Live, you could have the base system, 5 temperature sensors and 6 power devices all up and running for £150. Not cheap, but in the world of gadgets, that’s not too shabby.

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