Building an automated home with z-wave in 2014

Ah home automation – what an overworked subject. It’s been hot (or not) for 20 years …

Truth is home automation needs to be shelved as a meaningless buzzword encompassing way too many ideas.

As we just bought a new home, I was faced with the challenge of dealing with rewiring it so it matches today’s electrical standards (which is a very versatile concept). Fact is wiring a home is a nightmare. You need to figure out early one which switch connects to which plug and engrave it deeply into you house stone walls… as a consequence it VERY expensive (~ 100>150€ per  switch) and totally inflexible.

My initial approach was too remove all switches from the wall and just use phones and remotes – but Stephanie used a veto and let’s face it – switches are a needed convenience.

I spent a huge amount of time researching technologies to support the objectives : no wires, flexibility. To those objectives I had to add security / redundancy since I could not allow a downtime of weeks should the home go down and should I need to repair it . Yes – the concept of a home going down is a bit scary.

54700_HR_1

The first technology I really liked was Chacon’s DI-O. Direct communication between switches and plugs, no central point of faliure in the architecture… only massive drawback: about 2s lag between the flip of the switch until the light toggles …

83-260

 

After an in-depth market study I naturally landed on z-wave as the most promising technology. Plenty vendors (although you need to watch out about the z-wave frequency – typically EU devices are incompatible with US devices), plenty devices… There isn’t any nice module such as Chacon’s for the wall switches, but since Stephanie didn’t want tech-looking switches I ended up hacking a KFOB2 to connect it to simple brass push-buttons ready to install.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 22.17.02

On the power-side, fibaro micro-modules are pretty awesome: small and sleek they do an amazing job. They also have support for some cool sensors – such are pH, K and more for salted water aquariums (another side request for the new home :D).

As for the logics side, since z-wave requires a central controller, I spent a lot of time prototyping solutions… the best consumer solution in my opinion is Smartthings: cheap, efficient,  beautiful… but unavailable in EU (remember the incompatibility between EU and US z-wave thing? ). another weird thing is that it’s currently network-dependant. Alex, Smartthings CEO says they’re going to make it offline ready but in the meantime it’s scary to think that a net outage would break home (let’s face it in consumer Internet, outages are a reality).

top_hc2

Second best is Fibaro’s but the only viable option supporting proper scripting is the Home Center 2 (lite has no lua capabilities) retailing at 600€ … which would kind of break the point of getting an ROI option. Moreover I was concerned about potential hardware failures… and how tough it would get to find another working box in 5 years when this happens.

I was feeling more comfortable with raspberry pi solutions where I could bake a backup pi for 50$ and keep it around in case of failures. After testing all solutions I ended up liking Domoticz most.  While far from perfect, it’s having a very active community and fast paced iterations which I’m confident will enable me to reach my goals. Great web ui, great Android app Dromotica.

Next step: actually putting the whole thing in the home around q4 :) Bottom line: I’l be saving with this solution around 60€/switch and I’ll get way better flexibility – and a cool shutdown button and the door to turn off all lights before I leave home :)

100512_panic_button_light_switch_2

 

 

Leave a Comment

Is Google Glass dead !?

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 16.03.25

I’ve been a glass explorer for 6 months now. I often get asked “what is Glass good for?” Let’s face it: there is no good answer to that question.

Glass is obviously a platform to explore wearable and hands-free computing. From that prospective the platform is mostly up to the challenge.
After 6 months in the field the platform is falling short of killer apps that would justify wearing glasses rather that pulling out a phone

Turn-by-turn direction is probably the only app that really gets advantage of the platform, since wether your driving or walking pulling out your phone to check the next turn is a nuisance.
Beyond that use case, I’m pretty much clueless … I was dreaming at a facial recognition software that would pull out cards on the people I meet (or just memorize when we met with speech to text of our conversation) but that’s forbidden by the ToS.
I was dreaming about interactive lego building instructions ( or any other repair/build instructables) as to keep the hands free int the process, but the usability of such attempts remains rough.

After 6 months, the question remains: did we lack imagination, is the platform (mostly the screen definition and little battery life) limiting (I don’t think so) or is this whole augmented vision thing simply not for the consumer ?

I still think that the platform has a lot of potential, its initial position as a “notification” device was totally wrong in my opinion: the google wear watch will be more fit for that purpose. But the lack of ideas / innovations on the platform is worrying. Here’s the biggest list of glass apps I could find – not really compelling.

Finally, last but not least, the lack of firmware updates along with the bad quality of the latest firmware (reboots, sluggishness) are not helping its case…

The only sure thing about glass is that in the US it’s the best ice breaker ever. Doesn’t work so well in France though!

Leave a Comment

SEO, how you have changed !

I had lately a couple discussions which made me realize there are loads of misconceptions about SEO.

SEO used to be magic. Some guys with a magic wand would be able to boos your ratings to Google top result list by tweaking a few tags here in there in your pages. Some dark wizards pretending to wield such powers still roam the web but let’s face it : they have largely become extinct – or at least have evolved as provider of best practices to improve your site as SEO technology has evolved to behave manly instead of being a simple easy-to-trick algorithm.

I’ll try to get a few points straight – and if you have specific questions please let me know:

1. What is SEO

My definition of SEO varies greatly from what it used to be: SEO is the art of making sure a human can easily navigate your site contextually and discover it all.

This means that your site’s backbone will enable a user to reach leaves answering specific questions by narrowing progressively the field of research.

“Easy navigation” also means making sure your content is easy to read and understand in a glimpse.

2. I’ve been stuffing keywords and paying for backlinks to get my SEO up – am I a fool ?

Well…. basically yes. Those techniques have become largely counter-productive.

Traditionally, the SEO “techniques” would incorporate the following elements:

  • keyword stuffing
  • link exchanges

But those techniques have become largely inefficient. If you want proof, check out what happened to Rap Genius a couple months ago: they got banned from Google! And indeed their link exchange technics were pure SEO Spam.

But back-links from high-reputation sites will help your ranking – so where’s the line will you ask ?

3. You must think of Google as a human

Google is special – it’s  the key source of organic traffic for many – and unlike Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others he actually understands your HTML content from an end-user prospective. The other sites will look at tags and will not try to “understand” the content – hence you can easily fool them with keywords that have nothing to do with your page’s content and push them into doing the social actions you intend (i.e. share a cat picture from a very serious blog post when liking it).

But Google understands native language. It doesn’t really handles properly javascript and CSS yet, so you can still get some flexibility regarding how the content marked within your HTML page actually shows up to users, but he DOES understand your words.

If you follow simple HTML structure rules, and use the HTML tags properly (<title>, <h1><h2><h3>…) then Google will be able to understand what this page is about and it will make its way at the right spot in the search results.

If you focus on making sure that a user will easily be able from your homepage to discover the whole site by recursively following links within your site, you can be sure Google will be able to properly index the site. Even the sitemap is getting “deprecated” – a site without a sitemap will get indexed just as well.

4. So what matters?

The best way to do SEO is to focus on the site usability and on its content, making sure that each page has its own url and can be easily found within the site.

Backlinks matters, but beware of spamming backlinks or sophistically created links (with plenty keywords stuffed in your link tags…). Don’t think of it as pagerank, this ok it as third parties giving “trust” to your resources – google understands and appreciates that.

What matters most from my experience is how original and dynamic your content is. If your content is user generated and will be commented / edited by users regularly, Google will LOVE it and come check it back often. This is typically whi Wikipedia has so high rankings : heaps of backlinks get high trust and very dynamic content scores additional points.

5.  Are there any tools I should use ?

The best tool is Google Webmaster: it will help you assess wether Google bot can access and parse your site easily.

Leave a Comment

2 weeks in #Glass

IMG_20131208_162548

It’s been 2 weeks since I got into the Google #glass explorer program – and I’ve tried to wear those tangerine 2.0 glasses as much as I could ever since I got a hold on them.

ksso-yamauba.jpgFirstly: why did I get them ?

You may have missed that side of my personal history but I did work on a virtual reality project called VR-WEAR some 5 years+ ago. While the project which was very much like the Occulus rift but pre-kickstarter did not get funded at that time (just after the supbrime crisis was not the best time to go bold in France) immersive and augmented technologies have been my passion for a long time.

Then, as an early adopter and entrepreneur it was kind of my duty to be on the first wagon of that new Google trip to try and find out if there’s any business that could be built on top of this platform (short answer : obviously yes!)

Glass is an experiment, and should be treated as such. No one knows yet when/if it’s ever going to go mainstream. But it’s definitely full of promises. I won’t tell you about the unboxing experience (you can read that in plenty other places) or the fitting experience @ Google’s San Francisco dowtown offices (which is pretty awesome – thanks Svetlana  for your patience!) – Instead I’ll focus on what glass is and isn’t.

Glass isn’t an immersion device. The whole philosophy of glass is augmenting your vision, not replacing it. The initial SDK only allowed you to insert “cards” on your glass in a timely manner. While this sounds limited, this is really the spirit of the device: being there but letting you forget about it.

Glass is handless (almost). This is really one of the biggest change in computer interaction imho – trying to run everything through voice commands. It still has its limitations but I can promise that in a below freezing day being able to map your route while keeping your hands warm is a bliss (I actually did this)

Glass sucks up your phone battery. Since it’s tethered to your phone through bluetooth 4, Glass will notably kill your battery life (and my Nexus 4′s was already barely making it through the day – now I get to travel with an extra external battery pack – oh joy !)

Glass is dates and free beers – and every social interactions takes longer. If you’re looking to connect with people – just hang around in a meetup wearing glass you’ll be the center of attention – and if you dare go shopping with them expect any social interaction to start with “Hey wassup with your glasses ? ” . Also meeting other explorers is awesome!

 

Glass is the tip of the iceberg. Basically any augmented reality idea that has been popping for 30 years (since the early Terminator movie) now gets a sleek platform to be tried on. While using a phone for AR and holding it in front of you has always seemed a bit awkward to me glasses just makes it more natural.

As you can tell I’m pretty excited about it and I have tons of idea for cool stuff around this tech – not sure I’ll find the time to test them all but I can’t wait to see glassed fitted into a scuba mask !

Leave a Comment

Introducing the Fartbot

This was a little challenge the kid and I wanted to beat: building a fartbot. Contrary to its name it’s not farting (I can feel your disappointment) – it’ll end up being a mobile-phone controlled gloomy ghost making mist and awkward sounds.

We just managed step 1: making a bluetooth controlled moving platform – which ended up being pretty easy (thanks to the pile of tutorials out there, and awesome embedded platforms such as Arduino). We set up a build log on fartbot.co, so feel free to build yours too and let us know how it goes !

Leave a Comment

M-Commerce for the masses is about mobile web

mcommerce12

Every e-commerce website wants an app. But let’s face it: apps don’t do everything.

Phones are getting crammed  with apps that get forgotten and never get fired up again. Going mobile is a necessity though: look at all the m-commerce business giants such as ebay, etsy or others are getting. But those who’ve been in business through the infancy of m-commerce have now all reached the same conclusion, and Ebay’s VP of marketing says it all:

“eBay is not m-commerce or e-commerce, it’s commerce period,” says eBay Europe VP of marketing,
Read more

Apps do make sense in case you need extra features that can’t be met through usual channels : notification, advanced device interactions, better integrated UX …. But you have to keep in mind that most of the times, when thinking m-commerce, people will see their mobile as an extension of the web and will alway follow a similar path:

  1. Google
  2. Website
  3. Cart & checkout

And bringing a user from the web to a mobile app without resetting the flow is currently a challenge – and actually pretty useless in my opinion. A streamlined mobile web process is far more efficient, with a UX built to fit the mobile constraints (bigger fonts, less content and on-screen gadgets, no flash… ) it’s just as realistic to convert a visitor into a customer as it is on the web.

Bottom line: if’ you’re doing e-commerce, work on responsive design or at least a mobile version of your design, it’s the real key to enabling m-commerce – it’s cheaper and more efficient than building yet another mobile catalogue that no-one will end up using.

Leave a Comment

The potential of Google Glass vs the reality

20120627_Google_I-O_Project_Glass_001_610x459

The Next Web last week felt like a google glass meetup. All the tech hippies where there showcasing the latest toy from Google.

Let’s face it – this toy rox. Augmented reality has been in our minds for decades. And while head up displays have been around for a while, no one has ever managed to produce a device that got as close as google glass to becoming mass market. But they are not there yet. Set aside the price point which I’m sure will drop significantly since the bill of material is 150USD tops ( I haven’t checked the price of microdisplays in a while).

Yet as usually the challenge is not about the device, it’s about the services it will enable. I took a long close look at the Glass SDK and was pretty puzzled by how close the Glass ecosystem can be. Basically the interactions are limited to inserting “timeline” events that will display on glass and that can be bound to user’s location updates (every 10 mins or so). This sounds awesome but also very limited. I would like to be able to enrich Glass’s dictionary of voice commands to script stuff I often do online, I would like to be able to use the camera to read 1D or 2D codes and display ad1-hoc information or even better scan heads and listen to voice fingerprints to pull out the vcard and notes I have on someone … but all that can’t happen with such limited access to the system.

At this point I’m glad I didn’t throw away 1500USD on glass – set aside the brag factor I feel they’re plain useless – but I really do hope google will provide the tools to bring the device to the next stage and that it will hence be ready to bring value to the masses.

Leave a Comment

Why we need Google Reader

Google Reader

Regular folks won’t even notice this or – worse – won’t even have a clue about what it’s all about.

Today Google announced the End Of Life of google reader who’s been around 2005. For the regular folks reading me (are there any? :) ) Reader was a tool to syndicate all your favorite RSS feeds and manage your reading lists. The core feature from my prospective was the ability to keep track of what had been read and what had not.

It had dozens frontends aside from its own web which I rarely used, my favorites being Reeder on ios/mac and Newsrob on Android which helped me to scroll through a mass of info (several hundreds news a day in eclectic categories such as tech, venture, gadgets, drones, scuba…) and hand pick at fast pace the ones that seemed relevant to *me*.

There have been plenty of hyped products such as Flipboard or Pulse trying to reinvent the way we consume news feeds by creating a nice looking dynamic magazine. In my opinion, while those products did reach their goal in terms of design and experience it’s a complete failure in terms of posts-per-minute you can process. There’s no better tool than then user’s brain to pick  what’s relevant for him and the only way to streamline the process is to display efficiently the data he needs to decide wether he want or not to actually read a given post.

I do realize that my way of consuming news (few hundred feeds generating ~ 500 posts a day to scroll through) may be old-school but there’s no alternative solution. Twitter has ended up being a 140character dump where you can’t hope to follow all the activity, facebook is less aggressive in terms of amount of data shown but then you miss way to much stuf…

Anyway time to look for alternatives… but I guess I’ll just have to follow the existing app ecosystem and hope they’ll adjust before Reader reaches EOL… So long Google Reader !

Leave a Comment

There’s no mobile or PC – only apps.

wpid-Mobile-PC-Apps-pic600.jpg

I remember the days when thinking mobile was a real exercise where you needed to totally rethink your product so it can still being value to your users while surviving the limitations of the mobile itself:

* ridiculously small screen
* hectic Internet access
* buttons and T9 text input
* j2me or WML as sole way to display contents

Building something reasonably useful on those platforms was a real challenge while flash and HTML were already rocking the place on the desktop world.

But let’s face it, phones those days have nothing but the name in common with those dinosaurs from 10 years ago – and a few days before the MWC starts it’s time to look back and reflect on the next evolutions of the online ecosystem.

I’ll start by sharing a few bets that I’m strongly believing in:

Mobile and desktop are not 2 different platforms anymore

* while desktop has become pretty distant to native apps as it has been embracing the cloud and SAAS over the past 5 years – and while during that time the mobile has been going the exact opposing way embracing apps – I believe HTML5 is on the verge of maturity delivering a real convergent experience on any platform disregarding its aspect-ratio, available input methods or size and portability. HTML5 apps with local storage shared on the cloud between devices (as it is being added to the new versions of Chrome) will be transforming SAAS apps into rich applications running on your local virtual machine (WebKit) and leveraging on the cloud to be executed. Google is heading this way, Adobe is heading this way (after Nitobi’s acquisition ) … That was even Apple’s Jobs bet before he realized the technology wasn’t ready yet.

* Apps features will depend on the screen size / aspect ratio: not the platform. Responsive design is leapfrogging every day. While today’s implementations are mostly heavy hacks, new approaches at layout definitions are redefining the way we design the apps UX based on mandatory and optional content to show depending on the case. Mobile and desktops both face the same fragmentation challenge, and anyway the frontier between platforms is becoming more fuzzy every day.

* Mobile ads are actually wrongly labelled : they should be called in-app ads as they enable you to display rotating ads within a dynamic application which is not dependent of the reloading of pages to update its contents. And likewise geo-tagetting which seems to be only bound to mobile nowadays is also being very relevant on the desktop (although maybe a bit less precise as not relying on a GPS).

All those elements lead me to think that if you’re lucky enough to start building a service today, this is your chance to make it right from the very start. Think multi-screens, think offline and asynchronous, think MVC on the client side, think API on the backend, and build one app to serve all platforms but include the support of various rendering modes to support the various screens you’re targeting.

Leave a Comment

Android: why it’s not only for the geeks anymore

I’ve been an iPhone users since day 1 (literally). I’ve owned all google flagship devices since the very first one (I still miss the G1′s keyboard).

And yet – I never told anyone to buy Android. Android is brilliant, it’s Linux, it’s open, it’s easy to hack, to toy with, it has everything a geek may want, including a compiler to build your java apps straight on the device, gazillion of hooks letting apps replace stock functionalities and hence a potential far beyond iOS.

But apps on Android sucked. App developers were focused on iOS, making amazing experiences, and Android was getting the “good enough” treatment. Multiple screen sizes, a rough google play store with a complicated check out process and a poor country coverage where too much for the companies to invest on this platform as much as deserved.

Zendesk iOS

Zendesk Android



But it seems like 2012 was the year when everything turned around for Android. Incredible devices along with a more mature Android native experience got incredible powerhouses in the hand of more and more people. With a retail price less than half of the iPhones’ Android phones sure have a lot to offer (and Apple sure makes a nice margin by overpricing their phones). And after cooking and stabilizing their iOS apps, companies turned to Android and massively improved their existing apps. I recently moved back to Android, and all the apps I used to love on iOS not only are available on Android but actually do look better and are more feature-full through deeper OS integration.

Dropbox

Chessbase

Banking



So yes, if you want a new smartphone, it’s time to move to Android, it’s cheaper and better. (get a nexus 4 !)

As for the tablet, Apple built with the Newsstand something that has no Android equivalent. I love reading all the scuba magazines that get released anywhere in the world straight from it – and I’m only waiting that Google provides something equivalent to move to a Nexus 10 or nexus 7 tablet

 

Leave a Comment