Last week Google announced a skein of new products intended to wrap your home in google’s intelligent information interfaces. They are calling their new voice interface cloud system “Assistant”. I guess we’re calling this category of product a “Smart Speaker”.

Google launched the Home alongside a WiFi Router for your home. Their router creates a mesh network if you have multiple units in your home. The convenience of not having to run ethernet cables to multiple access points sounds very compelling. We’ve seen a similar product this year form eero. I’ve been curious to try out a mesh router or a cabled multi-access point setup.

New Google Chrome 4K - Seems pretty nice. But Amazon has a new FireTV Stick too. 4K doesn’t sound compelling to me right now, especially in light of Comcast’s new Terabyte data caps rolling out next month.

That’s a very nice market niche your created there, Amazon. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it. -Google

Home

  • Google play Music - smart assistant finds music for you.
    • what about aux out?
    • what about controlling the Chromecast? - Yes it does this. That’s an excellent feature, one that Alexa needs soon!
  • What about push notifications? Nothing so far. And no API either. Amazon is able to pair up their AWS cloud platform with the Alexa API to great effect. Can Google do the same?
  • My Day - is a really compelling personal assistant feature. I want to try it. The first thing we ask for in the morning is “Alexa what’s the weather today?” and sometimes “what’s on my calendar today?”
  • Controlling smarthome devices… not a lot here yet.
    • nest
    • smartthings
    • hue
    • IFTTT
  • Starting a netflix show… with your voice, yes please!
  • Show photos from google photos on your living room TV - and specify an event, person or time range, ✔ that’s good stuff Google. Killer feature.
  • Only $129 - and changeable colors.

OK, there’s a lot to like here. Competition is good. But Amazon has a pretty good head start here. We shall see if they hold on to it. It’s not like Amazon is resting on their laurels though. They announce new features and integrations with Alexa every single week. And Alexa has built up some good word of mouth marketing.

  •  → Written by: Tim

Now that I’m a proud homeowner I have the opportunity to choose home automation solutions. I’ve said in the past that it’s too soon to do extensive home automation because the technology is so young… but it’s hard to take my own advice.

I’ve purchased two WeMo switches and a collection of Wireless Sensor Tags. These products have pleasantly surprised me. I’ve heard mixed reviews of SmartThings, and I was preparing myself to build all my sensors on a RaspberryPi or something similar, but then I saw how simple those Tags seemed to be. I have not been disappointed.

The water sensors seem to be reasonable priced, especially since they have both capacitive and resistive sensors, as well as Temperature sensors. The batteries should last 3-4 years. I bought the 5 pack, because I’m super paranoid about water leaks after some of my experiences and the shared horror stories of my friends.

The “open door” detector that lets me know (quietly) if the boys leave their room in the middle of the night was really easy to set up as well. I have that sensor doing double duty, it kicks on a space-heater through a WeMo insight switch when their room gets colder than a preset range. This way I can keep their room warmer at night than the rest of the house.

They have a very usable mobile app, but what I’m really surprised by is the power of their web based “Kumo App“.

App Interface My web browser speaks to me when events happen!

They actually offer a web-based IDE for their JavaScript-like automation scripting language. The documentation could use some more help, but I was able to create a simple custom script in a few minutes. Anyway, I’ve done DIY security systems before, and these tags are way better than I expected. The addition of a nice hosted scripting environment is icing on the cake. Not to mention they allow you to configure webhooks for integrating with other custom systems. They even allow you to configure calls to web-services on your local network. They also offer some nice out of the box integrations with a few other popular products, like WeMo, Nest, Dropcam, and Honeywell Lyric. Then there’s IFTTT support, which – while slow – is still useful for integrating with a much wider array of home automation products and services.

So, I have a lot of thoughts and plans for the future, but for my simple use cases right now I’m very happy. Eventually my home will have be full of all kinds of sensors like a space-ship!

Homeboy recipe

I received a Homeboy Camera last week. This little device is really neat, it’s a battery powered wifi security camera. Supposedly the batteries will last a month. It does energy efficient motion detection. The hardware and the iOS app are good. The setup experience went pretty smoothly, and the little magnetic mount is cool I was able to put this on an outside wall without running any wires. I think the $150 price is pretty good for what it does. And, I have a few neat ideas of how to use it.

One of those ideas was to trigger a recording using the Amazon Echo voice assistant.

I love using my Amazon Echo for a long time, I was excited when they added IFTTT support, but was a little dissapointed with the events that the Echo can trigger by default. I don’t want to remember that when I ask for Alexa for my todo list it will send my wife a text message. Now the Alexa SDK is available and I have started building some more powerful custom actions.

I can now say “Alexa, tell security camera to record a video” and 5-10 seconds later I have a push notification on my phone with a link to a video from my front door.

Here’s how I set that up.

IFTTT

Sign up for IFTTT. Configure the Homeboy Channel, and the Maker channel, as well as the either the SMS Text channel or the PushBullet channel.

Create a new recipe connecting the Maker channel to Homeboy, here’s mine. Remember the event name you chose.

Then create a recipe notifying you whenever a new video is ready from Homeboy, here’s mine.

Now you need to dive into the code.

If you’re not comfortable editing some code files, then this will be a challenge, but it should all be possible even for power users who can’t code.

Follow the instructions on https://github.com/sirtimbly/alexaHomeboy. First you will have to download that source code repository to your computer.

There are a lot of little detailed steps in there, but persevere! Eventually you will have this Node program running in the Amazon Cloud and relaying requests from your Echo to the IFTTT trigger you set up earlier.

There are so many possibilities with sending different events to IFTTT and triggering actions on almost anything that integrates there. It’s really amazing to think about. I also have barely scratched the surface of what the Alexa Skills Kit can do. I’m excited about this platform.

backup illustration

I found two options that seem like they could lower my monthly bills compared to Amazon Glacier, which is $11 per month for a Terabyte… I currently have my Synology set to backup all data to Glacier, where I pay for everything that I use.

iDrive (called HiDrive in the Synology Package Manager) https://www.idrive.com/pricing is $3.71 per month (with current discounts) for 1TB of backup directly from your NAS. It seems like the most straight-forward way to get backups for about 1/3rd the price of Glacier. I will need to try that option out.

And then there is Symform… http://www.symform.com/how-it-works/features/

Depending on how you set up your backups, it could be free, especially if you’re willing to foot the cost for drive capacity that exceeds your needs by a ratio of 2:1. My one concern is if someone manages to both break the encryption of the distributed file chunks as well as gains the ability to reassemble whole files or search across their network. I just don’t know if the threat surface on your data is actually higher with the distributed nature of their storage scheme. This will require more research, but in theory I love the way their service works.

  •  → Written by: Tim

I was listening to the latest episode of ATP and they talked a bit about photo solutions they are using and wether or not it’s a good idea to switch to Photos for Mac. None of them mentioned Synology Photo Station, even though they all own Synology NAS products.

Because I couldn’t find a clear list like this anywhere else, I want to list out, here, the features of Synology’s Photo Station software.

Photo management is the topic that just won’t die. It’s just not easy and simple yet, there are so many little worries and concerns that the knowledgable geeks have with every solution out there. I believe Synology offers a photo solution that has more on the positive side of the balance than anyone else.

Mobile Apps

Having good apps is both the minimum bar of functionality, and the most amazing aspect of the Synology software ecosystem. So many consumer electronics companies try to provide a mobile app to interface, and so many of them do it badly. But, the DS Photo+ app is really quite good.

DS Photo +

Unfortunately, it has the same problem that every photo backup app on iOS has, namely it only backs up your photos if you have opened the app recently. This is where Apple’s iCloud Photos solutions really take the wind out of everyone else’s sails.

Web Albums

Web albums are the primary purpose of the Photo Station software running on your Synology. The whole thing is a web application that indexes and presents a nice album view of all the folders of images you have. I think the fact that it uses folders as it’s default organization structure is a really good choice. I don’t like having everything in one massive opaque library file. Storing photos as files and folders is a metaphor I understand and has passed the test of time. I have my photos broken down by year and month folders. So all the most recent pictures are in the 2015/04 folder.

Folder Structure

Permissions

If you have multiple people in your household with different collections of photos and all want access to it, you have lots of control with the Synology. Creating users and assigning them permissions is a straightforward task for the knowledgable home geeks.

You can have different users have different permissions (like viewing and uploading) per folder. You can also short-cut the whole thing and have everyone in your house use one primary user account for logging in just to simplify things.

Sharing

Sharing is where Photo Station sets itself apart. From the web interface it’s easy to choose photos for shared albums. These shared albums can be protected with a simple password that you give to friends and family, or can be unprotected but hidden behind a long URL (this is the default option in the latest version). You can also just create plain old public albums listed for everyone in the public interface of your diskstation website if you are using your diskstation to host a public website.

sharing

The photostation software also has features that allow you to post photos or links to photos to sites including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Picasa.

They also allow you to set up a built-in public ‘Photo Blog’ a feature I haven’t used because I prefer to post photos to my WordPress blog.

Synology has to make the web interface available to the internet in order to make this sharing funcationlity really work. The Disk Station software tries to walk you through setting up Dynamic DNS and firewall rules during initial installation. Exposing your NAS to the internet has some inherent risks.

Indexing and Conversion

When Photo Station analyzes all the photos in you photo/ directory, it will auto-rotate and generate a few thumbnails as well as indexing all the EXIF metadata. This makes searching by map and timeline and various tags possible from within the web interface.

Detail View

In the Disk Station control panel you can have the software automatically convert all video files to mobile friendly formats.

Editing

I wouldn’t say these are great ways to edit, but they have integrated the web-based Pixlr and Aviary photo editing services. These are actually quite powerful and don’t require you to have special software installed on your personal computer. But, they do have some limitations in speed and funcationality compared to programs like photoshop or lightroom.

Tagging and Face Recognition

You can assign tags to photos one at a time or to a selection of multiple photos. There is no concept of stars or favorites in Photo Station, but you can add a tag you call “Favorite” or “5 Stars” in the interface if you wish to be that organized.

You can manually select faces in a photo and assign a name. The Disk Station will do it’s best to identify faces based on the data you give it. This feature is still listed as experimental.

Conclusion

Web based software is unlikely to be as fast and easy as a natively built desktop app, but I think PhotoStation comes close. I like the fact that I have all my family photos on a cloud service that I control and own. And I love the fact that it’s still integrated with a good Mobile App, even if the integration isn’t as smooth as Apple’s iCloud Photos. Uploading files to a NAS inside of your home network is going to be a lot quicker than getting photos up to iCloud. And the NAS should be set to back up it’s files weekly to an offsite cloud location anyway. I set mine to go to Amazon Glacier on Sunday nights. Overall, I think the benefits outweight the problems.

I still have to finish my detailed description of how I get all my photos into the Synology disks from our two iPhones and our Sony Digital Camera. Look for that soon.