Season 5 Episode 6 Jun 16, 2021

Home Automation Nerd-Out!

Pitch

Home sweet automated home.

Description

In this episode, we talk about home automation with Lars Richter, application developer at Parship Group.

Hosts

Ben Halpern

Forem - Co-founder

Ben Halpern is co-founder and webmaster of DEV/Forem.

Jamie Gaskins

Forem - Principal Site Reliability Engineer

Jamie Gaskins is Principal Site Reliability Engineer at Forem.

Guests

Lars Richter

Parship Group - Application Developer

Lars Richter is a software engineer from Hamburg, Germany. He likes all things .NET, home automation, underwater chess, sky diving, and lying in bios.

Show Notes

Audio file size

75525150

Duration

00:52:27

Transcript

[MUSIC]

 

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[00:01:37] LR: So my solution is I will have some kind of QR code that they can scan and they would go directly to all the devices my guests are allowed to control.

 

[00:01:59] BH: Welcome to DevDiscuss, the show where we cover the burning topics that impact all of our lives as developers. I’m Ben Halpern, a Co-Founder of Forem.

 

[00:02:07] JG: And I’m Jamie Gaskins, Principal Site Reliability Engineer at Forem. Today, we’re talking about home automation with Lars Richter, Application Developer at Parship Group. Thank you so much for joining us.

 

[00:02:15] LR: I’m so excited to be here.

 

[00:02:17] BH: So today, we are going to nerd out a little bit on home automation, maybe complain about parts of it, and overall, just talk about what it is. And the way Lars wound up on this show is that I have created a forum called Hometechnica. And for those who are not totally caught up in what we’re doing, Forem is the software that powers DEV, but it’s also open source and we’re starting to build out other communities. And Hometechnica is one that I really want to exist in the world. And we just have a handful of people who have even joined and posted there, and Lars is one of them. And home automation is one of those areas of technology that’s sort of like a little too hard not to need community. And that’s where we got here today. So Lars, can you give a bit about your background?

 

[00:03:10] LR: As you said, I’m a developer at the Parship Group. We also have eharmony in the company or the MeetMe, the entire meet group. So it’s basically like dating and human connection companies. And I work there as a .NET developer. Before that, I worked at a couple of agencies and a brewery and have been on .NET ever since. I’ve worked a few years with Java as well, a few front-end technologies.

 

[00:03:42] BH: How did you get into home automation?

 

[00:03:44] LR: Yeah. We bought a house in 2016. And before that, there was really no motivation for me to start with home automation, because if you live on rent, you don’t want to put extra cables in the walls and extra wires and do a lot of work on the apartment. And when we bought the house in 2016, a few years later, my wife started working for an energy supplier. And when I checked their homepage, I saw that they sell something called a smart home subscription. So I checked it out and it was actually pretty cool. They use Homee. It’s the home automation system with the “cubes”, in air quotes, because all their building blocks are cubes. They have the Brain Cube, which is just all things Wi-Fi and the main software on it. And then you can buy a Zigbee Cube to connect your Zigbee devices like Hue light bulbs or the IKEA light bulbs. You can buy a Z-Wave Cube for all the Z-Wave components, and there’s also EnOcean Cube for a lot of the Eltako devices. So we bought it and it all started from there. I started with cheap IKEA light bulbs because I think lighting is a good starting point when you get into home automation, because it’s somehow cheap, if you think about other stuff that you can do. Then I got into window sensors and radiator thermostats, building like more or less fancy nightlights for the kids where they can choose the color when they can go to bed and building myself a little busy light, if I’m on a call or not. There’s a post on Hometechnica where you can see my busy light, which is red when I’m on a call. So right now it’s red, of course. And when I’m free and my kids can come up or my wife can come into the home office.

 

[00:05:45] JG: It’s kind of like the traditional recording studios. They have like the “on the air” lights.

 

[00:05:49] LR: Absolutely. Everyone knows work from home can be difficult if you have kids at home. They come in and bomb your videoconference. So I installed this busy light and it works quite well. Even my two-year-old daughter knows when it’s red. Mostly, she avoids bombing my videoconferences.

 

[00:06:11] JG: It mitigates it, but does not eliminate the interruptions.

 

[00:06:14] LR: Absolutely.

 

[00:06:16] BH: Jamie, what’s your relationship with home automation?

 

[00:06:19] JG: There were a few projects that I’ve been looking to work on. When I bought this house, one of the things that I wanted to do was when I wanted to let my dog out outback, I don’t have like a fence up or anything like that, but I wanted to put up a fence, but then I’m like, “Well, then how do I drive my car up the driveway into the back and get in there?” I haven’t actually done this yet, but one of the things that I wanted to do was to get something that would open like the gate when I drove up, something I could attach to my car. One of the cool things about it that I was thinking about is it could be something that happens as soon as it connects to the Wi-Fi, because I drove up and my phone connects on the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or something like that, something with proximity like that. And then that could open the gate for me or something like that. One of the things I was thinking about was hooking up a Raspberry PI or Arduino to solenoid to pop up in the gate.

 

[00:07:06] BH: One of the first ever posts on DEV, and I’ll make sure that we get it linked in the show notes, and I mean first ever posts. So like I just looked it up, April 2nd, 2017, just about four years ago, there was an awesome, very memorable post by Andrew Buntin who created a system which did wrestling entrance music when people walked into the office and connected to the Wi-Fi based on detecting their individual devices at the office. So if you show up, it’s your phone connecting to the Wi-Fi and you’re going to get your personal entrance music.

 

[00:07:47] JG: That’s amazing.

 

[00:07:48] LR: I'm pretty sure I need that. Just today I read on DEV.to about someone explaining home automation and things that you should do and shouldn’t do. And there was a pretty clear warning about doing stuff like geo-fencing or like presence detection. I think it’s great for stuff like opening the gates. He said he had a funny encounter when he was out with his wife and the babysitter complained that all the lights turned off when they left the house. And even when she put it back on, it all went off again. So geo-fencing can be tricky if you do it too much.

 

[00:08:34] JG: You make a lot of assumptions there, I imagine.

 

[00:08:35] LR: Yeah, you do.

 

[00:08:37] BH: And in general, the worst thing that can happen with home automation is that it works substantially worse than just not having anything. It’s the reliability and the edge cases and all the ways that home automation can lead to your life being dramatically worse because a dumb fridge never has an irreparable firmware bug. It just plugs in. And if S3 goes down, your dumb fridge still works.

 

[00:09:06] LR: It’s still a fridge.

 

[00:09:07] BH: But your smart fridge may not. That’s kind of I think the balance, what you’re trying to strike if you’re trying to do anything cool is that you want to try and also make sure that those normal, simple situations don’t get dramatically worse in the event of an edge case.

 

[00:09:24] LR: I saw a tweet where someone posted a picture of his Google-connected doorbell where there was a Post-It saying, “Please knock. Google is down.” So if your doorbell is no longer a doorbell, it’s not the best solution maybe.

 

[00:09:42] JG: I remember a while back, there was a big problem. I want to say it was Nest thermostats, but it may have been somebody, different manufacturer. If your internet goes out, you can’t turn your thermostat on. You can’t change the temperature in your house. And I thought that was pretty ridiculous. There are some things, like that signal should never leave my Wi-Fi, should never leave my home network.

 

[00:10:01] LR: Totally agree. And that’s one of the things that can be pretty difficult on choosing the right system for your home automation and maybe even your voice assistant because I think I’m not completely sure, but if you are using the Amazon speakers, you will have to have an internet connection. And if the internet connection goes down, you can’t control your lights anymore. I use Apple HomeKit. I have a couple of HomePod minis in my house. At least the Apple HomeKit stuff on the things that are certified have to work offline. So this is one thing that’s good about that and why I chose it because I can still switch on my light or whatever I want when the internet is down. Did you choose your voice assistant? Or do you have a voice assistant in your house at all?

 

[00:11:03] JG: I use all Apple things just because I kind of started in there and it was just easier to pick the same manufacturer for a lot of things. So I’ve got the HomePod minis as well.

 

[00:11:13] BH: My voice assistant is Amazon Alexa, but I haven’t really integrated it into the rest of my home automation. So when it first came out, I was so excited about how cool it seemed. So I got an Alexa like day one as a pre-order. I was so excited and got some smart lights and integrated it at first. But lately, I’ve become much more interested in my long-term privacy and also reliability and things like that. So I’m kind of in a space where I don’t have any cool voice stuff anymore just because I’ve become too over analytical about what I might want to do and wanting to accomplish it with open source, but not really having the energy to actually do any of that. So my house is somewhat an Amazon ecosystem, but mostly trying to build out things that are a little bit more like agnostic or at least built kind of to my specifications and a little bit of proprietary stuff, a little bit of code off the internet. We’ll see. Will the technology advance enough that I can buy it off the shelf? And I’m happy with the options from every perspective. Or maybe will the open-source ecosystem advance and become friendlier and I’ll want to adopt it more or I’ll like at least take the time to learn some options in advance? So it’s a constant dance.

 

[00:12:49] LR: It is. And it’s pretty tempting to use your voice assistant at the start. But to be honest, home automation is the most fun if you have a lot of automation in it. So I do have some automation. When the sun sets, my lights go on in certain rooms. Or if the sun rises, the kid’s night-lights will turn off. And I think this is where it gets interesting because if you use a voice assistant to do all this, you could still use a simple switch. Of course, you don’t have to leave your couch, which is great. Staying on the couch is pretty cool. But in the end, it’s not automation. It’s just some other kind of switch that you use.

 

[00:13:31] JG: I was noticing that as well. The more I thought about using the voice assistance and all that stuff, it made me feel like I was in Star Trek, talking to the computer. But then after a while of doing that, I’m like this isn’t actually any easier than just pulling out my phone and pressing a button.

 

[00:13:46] LR: Absolutely.

 

[00:13:47] BH: Yeah. My favorite little things about my automation setup are anything that even if it’s not a big win, it’s just a consistent little thing that’s like always better. So one small, nice thing we have is when you go downstairs at night, so after 11:00 PM, before 7:00 AM, we have motion detectors that turn on all of the downstairs lights on dim, which is just kind of logically there’s not a lot of edge cases where you wouldn’t want all the lights on dim, at least, as you go downstairs. So they don’t all brighten up. The house doesn’t light up when you go downstairs. But as you go downstairs, you’re probably on your way, all the way to the kitchen. So it gets you a little bit of the way there and it is really nice.

 

[00:14:40] LR: Is that something that you did with your own home automation suite, this automation that they go on, on dim? Or is it something you can do with a Hue gateway?

 

[00:14:53] BH: My setup is a little bit of both. I have my own application set up, but some of this stuff is implemented using the Hue app, which is kind of how I like it. I find you’re generally going to have a mix of logic happening in different places and I feel like you need a little bit of flexibility to be like, “All right, my system may or may not all run through this one elegant application that I wrote and it won’t also just come out of the box with everything I want to do here.” So I think we have to be willing to accept some funny design in terms of how the house works together, as long as we can fit it all in our heads. That’s kind of how I think. So my system involves some of my own code and then some of just the logic you can use through the app. But hopefully, it can kind of talk to itself effectively. And I think that’s where at least you can kind of make progress and you can do some interesting stuff.

 

[00:15:55] JG: How much would you say are you doing of each one? Are you doing a lot of your own code or are you kind of writing some glue code in between some of the different components?

 

[00:16:04] BH: There’s elements of glue code and then there’s the like whole ecosystem from there. So mine is probably like 50-50 between my own code and the application, like if this, then that kind of statements that you kind of get depending on the system. But my ideal is that everything talks to one another with glue code and I’ve accepted that I kind of need the glue code to be the thing I care about the most, at least in my personal system. Lars, how’s your system coming together?

 

[00:16:38] LR: Right now, most of it is in the Apple HomeKit integration. So some of the automations are there and some are still in the Homee system, but I’m planning to move some of it at least to my personal project, mostly because it’s my personal project, not because it’s the best solution, maybe. Let’s see. But I’ve found it to be pretty difficult, to be honest, to work with the IKEA gateway, at least in my C# world. There’s no library or something like this to just use it and have like a nice API to talk to. Have you heard of the, I think it’s CoAP protocol, Constrained Application Protocol? Somehow like REST, like HTTP, it has actions like get and post and put, and you have a payload that you can send, but it’s for constrained environments. The IKEA gateway talks JSON. So I can send some JSON information about the lightbulb I want to switch on or off or maybe change the color or the brightness, but they all have like codes instead of names for the properties. So that’s like 50-58 is switching on the lights.

 

[00:18:01] JG: Sounds like the Jira API.

 

[00:18:02] LR: Yeah. It’s the brightness and there’s no documentation for it because you’re not meant to use it. So I checked GitHub and some people tried it out and found some of the codes. But when I tried it, maybe it’s new property codes that I found now, but I’m still not sure what some of this stuff means. So it was super interesting to do it, also a little frustrating because when you’re working in a language like C# or maybe even Ruby or other stuff, you’re used to like nice APIs. You can use some kind of library where it says switch on the light for light X, Y, Z. But it’s not like that at all.

 

[00:18:52] BH: How about client side code for home automation? Lars, I think you mentioned that you are playing around with Vue.js to represent some of your home automation interface. Can you talk a little bit about that?

 

[00:19:07] LR: I wanted to do a web app. This was important for me because I was first thinking about using Xamarin or Xamarin.Forms because I’m a .NET developer, and you can do like fancy iOS apps and Android apps. But to be honest, I don’t want to maintain more than one app. And when guests come into my house, and most of them won’t care about smart home system, because when they come in, I will switch on and off the lights or they will go on and off automatically, which is the best case, I think. But when they want to do it, I don’t want them to like download a special app, maybe even grab some kind of APK for the Android files from some strange server and say, “You can just install it. No problem.” So my solution is I will have some kind of QR code that they can scan and they will go directly to all the devices. My guests are allowed to control. So that’s why I wanted to do a web app. I’m not a front-end developer at all. So that’s why I was really heavily inspired by your project because I saw the UI in the screenshot. Yeah, that’s how it can look. And then I tried to come up with something different and I didn’t. So I thought, “Yeah, okay, this is nice.” And when I was looking for a UI framework or a JavaScript framework to use, I went with Vue.js because that’s what I used when I researched JavaScript frameworks for gradual migrations of our old ASP.NET apps. Because Vue.js is really small and you can just use it for just a small part of your application. You can leave all the rest in ASP.NET, do just a small part of it with Vue, and that’s what we are using at work for our customer service tool or at least we are planning to do it because there’s so much on our plate to do, to refresh the UI of the system. But that’s where I found Vue.js really simple. And this is great if you don’t have too much JavaScript experience. I checked out Angular, but this is the beast, I think, that’s my experience. I tried to React, which was fine, but Vue just stuck with me because you don’t have to write JavaScript code that I know of. We have a lot of JavaScript code at work that is like dumb manipulations and other stuff just trying to get data on the page. In Vue.js, you just fill in your data in your data object and it appears wherever you put it. So you don’t have to take care of like selecting the correct element and putting it in the correct property. Is it val or is it value? I really don’t care. I just grabbed the data and put it in my template and it’s beautiful.

 

[MUSIC BREAK]

 

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[00:23:54] BH: So for the folks who are listening, we have a situation where we’re now maybe talking about some coding paradigms they may understand, if they were lost when we got into the idea of constrained application protocol. But really what we’re talking about is just using whatever tools we have to talk to these other things, which may or may not have ever wanted us to talk to them, although they usually make it technically possible. So you talked about hacking on the IKEA technology, whether or not they really intended for you to do that, but you build a couple abstractions or maybe someone else built a couple of abstractions, they put it on GitHub and maybe eventually you can create a layer so that you are now coding in Vue.js or like something where like you have abstracted away all the random crap on the backend, which is also why this server client paradigm kind of probably makes sense. For a mental model for web developers who are listening here, you’re going to have a front end and you’re going to have a back end that’s going to do a lot of random stuff. So in our day jobs, we might call out to a bunch of databases, external services, et cetera. In home automation, you’re sort of like connecting to whatever protocols are available. And hopefully, every line of code you write isn’t so low level. You sort of piece it together and then create something on the front end that’s a little bit easier to wrap your head around. You say that’s a fair way to assess the whole situation?

 

[00:25:38] LR: Yes, it is. Coding for your home automation system heavily depends on your main home automation system. If you choose stuff like the Apple HomeKit, I don’t know if there’s any way to do it in an official and supported way to do your own coding with it. There’s the Home App where you can do your automations. There’s even the Home+ App, it’s called, I think, where you can do even more automation and more like if-else cases. But there’s no real API that you can talk to as far as I know. If you use stuff like Home Assistant, which is a home automation system that is open source and with a focus on privacy that can run on your Raspberry PI, there are of course APIs and ways you can talk to your gateway to switch on your lights or to change your radiator heating and all the other stuff that is connected to your home automation system. So it heavily depends on what you choose. If you choose some kind of vendor locked stuff like Google or Amazon or whatever. And with Amazon, I think it’s not like that bad. You can create your own skills, the Alexa Skills that you can use. But for the other big vendors, I think it’s difficult to do real coding for that. Mostly you will have OpenHAB or maybe Home Assistant for that. And that’s where you really need a community, to be honest, because this is where it can get really frustrating when you want to build your own home automation suite based on security and privacy. So this is open source, of course. In most cases, you don’t have big companies behind that that will give great support or something like this. So this is where communities like Hometechnica can come in and give a helpful hand with topics that you might not have on your list.

 

[00:27:48] JG: That’s a really good point. It’s an interesting segue into what kind of things have you tried that just straight up didn’t work?

 

[00:27:54] LR: Not too much.

 

[00:27:55] JG: Oh, interesting. Okay.

 

[00:27:57] LR: But the automations in my case are pretty simple, like finding it to like day-off time or something like this is straightforward and it worked great. And when something did not work great, which were my radiator thermostats, I think I just bought crappy hardware for that. So it was like warm inside and they were heating and heating and heating and I thought, “Well, I bought this to save heating costs and I achieved the opposite.” So one advice would be check the stuff that you buy before you buy that. Ben, do you have stuff that you thought would work great, but did not?

 

[00:28:43] BH: With lighting, sometimes it seems kind of inefficient to have smart bulbs and you’d rather have a smart switch. So we have a chandelier with six lights above our dining table and I tried to install a smart switch to control everything instead of six or seven or whatever individual bulbs. I’d done that once in a previous place I lived and it worked fine, but I could not get it to work at our current place. And I just don’t know enough about actual electricity in the wires in our house to problem solve. So the big win there is that I got the old one back on and working. I didn’t break things such that...

 

[00:29:31] JG: And converted that to the plain old off and on?

 

[00:29:33] BH: Yeah. Yeah. Nobody got hurt. But yeah, that was a failure. So that was a $25 smart switch. That didn’t work out. But that wasn’t so bad, but I had to use smart light bulbs, but then that was fine enough. I have the off-brand smart bulbs. The Hue bulbs themselves are pretty expensive, but they are compatible with lots of other devices. So that was fine. But the issue there is that if you’re constrained to smart bulbs, you can only use the smart bulbs. So there’s a lot of artistic bulbs that would be awesome to use. So like if our home is going to reach a hundred percent smart lighting, I’m going to have to figure something up and I’m kind of working on it. I’m going to either try the smart switch in some capacity again, learn a little bit more about the electricity, what wasn’t working at the time, but that’s where I’ve sort of fallen short here and there. One project that I’m trying to wrap my head around, which I most likely will fail at, we recently had heat pumps installed in our house. So we moved into a house with good old-fashioned American oil heating, which is both bad for the environment and extremely expensive. So one of the first things we did was install a heat pump system. And there was an option to go with Wi-Fi enabled heat pumps, but it was going to be like $400 more per unit. So several thousand dollars extra, but the ones we do have come with the remote controls. And I feel like there has to be something I can do to make that system smart. The remote controls, if I had a robot that was pressing the remote control buttons for me, that would be smart. So that’s maybe the dumbest abstraction I get, but I don’t really understand what I’m talking about at all, but I have to think just like creating the remote waves with computers instead of with my fingers has to be a thing.

 

[00:31:43] JG: Like this old universal remote, so you could have them learn any signal?

 

[00:31:47] BH: Yeah. I don’t really know how remote control protocols really work, but I imagine they’re not very complicated if they’ve been around so long. So I don’t know if anyone in this call has any off-the-cuff thoughts on how that’s going to go down, but I really would like to control that heat in the house even though we didn’t get a smart system per se. It just came with a bunch of remotes.

 

[00:32:15] LR: Yeah. I think this might be difficult because I don’t know a lot about that either, but almost sure they’re somehow not encrypted, but I think there are like receivers that will show you the frequency, the remote sent to the station or whatever, and I think this will change for almost every click. Not completely sure, but if it wouldn’t change, you can just simply like for a theft or whoever could just record your frequency and then open your door signal to your smart home system.

 

[00:32:59] JG: That was really common with car clickers for a while.

 

[00:33:02] LR: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s even for at least some reasonable price things, there is some kind of encryption or security mechanism that you can’t just send the same signal on the same frequency again. And that’s one of my pains as well. We do have window shutters that theoretically you could add them to your smart home system, but of course you have to buy a special gateway and the special gateway like costs $400 or something like this and then you need some special technician come over to your house and connect it somehow. Well, I have the remote. And as you said, some kind of mechanical finger clicking it for up and down would do the trick, but I’m a developer. I do want to access it in a cool way.

 

[00:33:56] BH: I will follow up on Hometechnica with answers for how I achieve smart heat pumps one way or another, even if it winds up being a Raspberry PI with a finger.

 

[00:34:10] LR: Nice. Ben, you said that you and your wife are enjoying the automation part of your home automation suite. So that’s one thing I struggle with sometimes because my wife is a non-technical person. And of course, what I want to do is make it simple and accessible for her as well. So it’s not really an option to make her install the IKEA app and the Apple HomeKit App and maybe even the Homee app, which also exist of course, where we can turn on and off our smart plugs and the window sensors are connected to the Homee. But this is three apps already and I’m not even done with our smart home automation. So there’s like partner acceptance factor. How’s it working for you?

 

[00:35:01] BH: Partner acceptance factor, that’s a good phrase. It’s working well for me because my own threshold is pretty high even if I have a high tolerance for the pain of the development, which for our listeners, you really need, like any amount of home automation because of the ecosystem not always getting along with one another or just the nature of where the technology is, is never easy. It’s a very frustrating hobby where you have to enjoy the craft a little bit. But as a user, I’m one of these people who doesn’t want multiple applications or doesn’t really want to go through the pain of anything that’s really not user-friendly. So even if I’m literally only building for myself, I really don’t like creating an end solution that’s not very elegant. So I really want the technology to get out of the way, and that’s really the only purpose of any of this. So if I'm having to remember multiple apps, if anything that’s like where the home automation process starts. We just purchased an IKEA-Sonos product for our home music situation. The IKEA-Sonos speakers are about a third of the price of just the regular Sonos ones. We are getting to use the Sonos app, but I’m already thinking like, “Okay, what’s the most interesting next thing here?” And even just using the Sonos app for everything is not as elegant as, yeah, maybe that’s available for some things, but some other situations are just even that much more automated or the experience of the side in our house can do some little other thing that is cool enough for it to be worth the effort and also like simple and elegant and easy enough to actually make our lives feel a little bit better. So wrapping my head around that right now and we’ll see where it lands us.

 

[00:36:59] LR: Do you have your Alexa connected to the Sonos app?

 

[00:37:04] BH: Not yet. It’s an option we’re sort of exploring what the fresh start opportunity is here with the sound system. For a while, if we wanted to play music in our house, we have the Alexa situation and Alexa is kind of in charge of the music. But with the lack of first class visual interface, it was always a pain, even if you could connect your phone to the Alexa. That ecosystem wanting you to do everything with your voice, even if ultimately that’s a very simple interface that humans can really understand, it can be really frustrating, if you just want to play something specific and the pairing between your phone and the device is off or sometimes we’ll be playing music and it switches to our car whenever someone goes into the car from the house and something, so my wife won’t know what podcasts I’m listening to or if I’m using Spotify. And then it’s been a real calamity. So we’re sort of starting fresh. And we got into this calamity just by no home automation, just because the products don’t talk to each other well or they don’t really take into account what you’re doing. One time, recently, I was listening to a podcast and going back and forth between the car and my house, just to load the car for a trip. And every time I opened the car, the podcast will start playing on my car and I had to like walk far enough away from the car for it to get start playing in my headphones again or go into the app every single time it did that. So some of these smart things can be such a pain. So if anything, by buying a new service, like starting fresh, not integrating anything until we absolutely like need to and just trying to achieve a little bit of sanity again, like our audio system, the way Spotify talks to Alexa and our car is a huge pain in the ass. If anything, I just want a decent solution where we intuitively actually like our things work as they should.

 

[00:39:12] LR: That’s a requirement. So I purchased the HomePod minis like in December last year, I think. We do speak German at home. So my kids use it as well. And they just recently discovered like Ladybug, some kind of TV series on Netflix that they love. And a lot of TV series, there are also like audio books and my son walks in and says, “Hey, Siri, please play Ladybug.” But he says it in German. And the German translation, so if you say Ladybug, it says, “I don’t know what it is.” And if you say, “Ladybug,” which is not a German word, but it’s how you would say it in German.

 

[00:40:02] JG: The transliterated version.

 

[00:40:04] LR: Yes. It’s like, “Oh, okay. You mean Ladybug? Here, of course, I will play it for you.” So using your voice assistant with a language that’s not English can be frustrating, but can be funny as well because Siri also sometimes speaks like a mixture of German and English to me. We do have a light in our dining room, which is in Germany called a “bogenlampe” because it’s like around lamp. I don’t know. And when I say, “Hey, Siri, please switch on the bogenlampe,” in German, it says, “Okay, I set the bogenlampe to 20%.” So it answers in English sometimes. I don’t know when. It’s not really deterministic, but sometimes it answers in English and then tries to just translate the stuff that I said and the names for the devices, which are German in my case. And mostly, it works fine, but not all the time.

 

[00:41:08] JG: That’s interesting. I’ve heard a lot of funky things happening when you use voice assistance in a language that’s not English. I was actually wondering what that looked like.

 

[00:41:16] LR: And it’s interesting because if you have like your favorite band, sometimes you just can’t use the real name, but you have to try to say it in a German way, even if you know that it’s wrong because Siri just won’t pick it up. I heard that Alexa is doing a better job and Google as well, but mostly because they store your data in a more efficient manner and they are using your data and learning from it and the Apple HomePod won’t, what’s the right one?

 

[00:41:53] JG: It does it all on device.

 

[00:41:55] LR: Mostly on device. But even if it’s not on the device, it will anonymize your request. So the Apple servers don’t know who you are and would just try to process it. So it can learn from your mistakes. It’s not really a mistake to pronounce the band’s name correctly, but Alexa will learn from it and Google as well, but the Apple stuff will not, which is if you want privacy and Apple is like okay in the privacy things, you pay for it with stuff like this.

 

[MUSIC BREAK]

 

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[00:44:13] JG: And now we’re going to move into a segment where we look at the responses that you, the audience, have sent us to a question that we made in relation to this episode.

 

[00:44:19] BH: The question was about what people have actually done with home automation. John wrote in and said that they created lamps connected to physical buttons via smart relays so the buttons ALWAYS WORK, always work is in all caps. So that’s the emphasis. Yeah, that sounds boring. But I say bulletproof reliability is cool. God damn it. I hate all the automation that breaks if the internet goes down or a bridge has a bad day.

 

[00:44:52] LR: Yeah, that’s totally true. Because even if we do have good internet connections in general, but it’s not as stable as you think it is. And we do have here near Hamburg some outages. It got better. But when we started with the pandemic, I had at least one internet outage per day, like for 30 seconds. But still in these 30 seconds, I don’t know, switch on my lamp if it’s not offline, working with a real switch or something like this.

 

[00:45:28] BH: There’s an Alan Kay quote where he says something like technology is everything that doesn’t work yet. I might be butchering that, but the notion that when all of this stuff starts working as much as we just expect it to without ever having to know what is wrong with it, what’s down, if it just works, then it stops kind of feeling like technology, and we’re definitely not nearly there with any of this stuff where if it just works reliably, we consider it a big win.

 

[00:46:02] JG: So Levi says, “I made every light in my house a smart light that can dim and is connected to Alexa. I have a bunch of different commands for different groups to turn them on and off. To turn them all on, I say, ‘Flame on,’ like the human torch because I’m a nerd. The only bad thing about this was having to reset every single individual light after I changed my Wi-Fi password.” Anybody who has a lot of devices connected to their Wi-Fi and every time they’ve had to either get a new router or change their Wi-Fi password or even just the Wi-Fi name, that is an irritating process, even without a whole bunch of smart home things. Just having a lot of devices like, “Oh, well, now I’ve got to change it on my phone and My apple TV,” and everything else. But once you start throwing in a whole bunch of these little devices all over the house, that’s two to three, five times as many devices you have to change the Wi-Fi password on.

 

[00:46:56] LR: And some devices are just not great to type on. I do have a smart TV, but it’s not connected to my phone or something like this.

 

[00:47:05] JG: Keyboard. Yeah.

 

[00:47:07] LR: So I use the remote to type in my Wi-Fi password, which is pretty long.

 

[00:47:14] JG: I made that mistake once too.

 

[00:47:17] LR: This is so bad.

 

[00:47:18] BH: When I lived in New York City, I moved around a lot and sometimes things that I own just never got set up, but then I kept them around and maybe the next place I moved to I had more motivation and then I set them up. Oh, yeah, it can be a real calamity. I was really excited to move into a house that I owned. If anything, just to feel like I could invest long-term in getting things set up and the Wi-Fi might not change for a long, long time and things of that nature and maybe this room automation won’t change. When we moved, even just renaming the bulbs, because we have different rooms. So I have all this stuff I already own. It’s actually not that hard to rename it, but it’s just like an effort in like sitting down and doing it and then mixing and matching so they’re in the right place. It’s just going to be that much harder the next time we move because we have that much more home automation because of everything we’ve done here.

 

[00:48:17] LR: But that’s at least something that’s great for the non-wired solutions. So if you use Wi-Fi or ZigBee or whatever, you can move the entire lamp from, I don’t know, the one corner to the other, and it will still work because it has the same name. It’s still connected because there’s no special control wire needed. I had a conversation with a friend who bought a house recently, and he’s going with the KNX round, which is a wired solution for home automation. And I gave it a thought and I thought maybe I should have done that as well. But to be honest, it’s not that easy than to just move a lamp or move my smart plug from one wall I’ll put to the other and have it still work because you have to get into the system and say, “Okay, now it’s no longer this output,” but the other output, and I have to change the names and stuff. If you can go for the wireless route, in that case, it’s easier. But if you move and put your lamps in different rooms and they do have different use cases, it’s still a pain.

 

[00:49:34] BH: Any final thoughts before we wrap up the episode?

 

[00:49:38] LR: Do you have some kind of like presence simulation when you’re like on vacation or something like this, like turning on and off your lights on a schedule or something like this?

 

[00:49:50] JG: My grandparents used to have just a simple timer on there. So like they would set a time for it to turn on and it was just a little thing that the light plugged into on the other side and it had a little dial and then you just set on, off. It came on around 5 o’clock, turned off around 11 o’clock. That was it. Didn’t have to do anything special. Just plug a lamp into a little box with a dial on it. And it was amazing.

 

[00:50:18] LR: It works. It just works. That’s true. I did implement some kind of presence simulation using the automation possibilities on the Homee system, but I always wished that they were a little more flexible because this timer thing is great because it works, but every day it’s the same time. And if I want to have some kind of feel that someone is at home, it should look a little more random. So I thought, “Oh, it would be great if it’s like around five switching on and going off around 10 o’clock or maybe 11 o’clock.” And I’m still thinking about it, doing it with my personal home automation suite because now I’m totally free to use C# or Vue.js to do whatever I want. It can do it like at random time or in the middle of the night or whatever I want. I mean, of course, when someone wants to get into my house, they would just check the window and see that I’m not there. But maybe it will be some kind of hurdle for people just walking around and checking for houses with no lights. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just for me. I know that there’s lights in my house and people won’t go in there.

 

[00:51:44] BH: All right. Thanks for coming on the show, Lars.

 

[00:51:47] LR: Yeah. Thank you. It was a lot of fun.

 

[00:51:58] BH: This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight by Jess Lee, Peter Frank, and Saron Yitbarek. Our theme song is by Slow Biz. If you have any questions or comments, email [email protected] and make sure to join us for our DevDiscuss Twitter chats every Tuesday at 9:00 PM US Eastern Time, or if you want to start your own discussion, write a post on DEV using the #discuss. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.