Ohm sweet Ohm: Linux versus Vista smart homes

Two very different takes on the 'smart home' concept produce widely differing results

Linux Home, Melbourne

Can you take the smart home concept a little too far? Jonathan Oxer, a Melbourne-based web application developer and former president of Linux Australia, has had an RFID chip surgically implanted in his forearm to save him from having to carry a door key around.

When he swipes his arm past the RFID reader attached to the front door of his home, the tag in his upper forearm unlocks the door.

“The door to my office also has a home-made RFID reader, so I can unlock the door with a tag, but, unfortunately, this particular one doesn’t work with the tag in my arm,” says Oxer.

The front gate and letterbox of Oxer’s home are wired to his Ethernet network, allowing him to be notified when somebody enters the property or when the postman delivers mail.

“It’s such a pain walking to the letterbox to see if you’ve got mail!”

“I’ve set up a system that detects when a letter has been inserted into the letterbox, and that can be acted upon by a computer that can send me an SMS or an email to say that I’ve got mail. It doesn’t really matter what it does — once you’ve got it in the realm of software you can control it.”

To go even further, which Oxer admits having done just to prove a point, he can have the system trigger an event which sends an email to an object inside Second Life, which then creates a virtual representation of an email notification that there is physical mail to be collected — you’ve got mail to say that you’ve got mail.

“I’ve always modified things, never treated electronics as a sealed box, but rather something that can be twisted to my devious ends,” he says.

While shopping for new curtains recently, Oxer admits to nearly suffering a heart attack after learning how expensive they can be. So, he tracked down some electric motors and motorised tracks.

“It turns out electric curtain tracks aren’t that expensive, but they aren’t designed to be networked. So, I modified the box with an Ethernet cable and a couple of relay buttons, and now I have software control over the blinds.”

Instead of waking up to a blaring alarm clock every morning, Oxer suggests that the alarm be triggered to slowly open the curtains to let the light in. He is currently working on doing the same thing to his skylight.

But he admits that most of the modifications in his home are “fairly standalone; just little scripts hacked together”.

One of the first modifications Oxer ever undertook was to link up an irrigation system for his Melbourne property.

“I noticed the local hardware store was selling electronic timer taps for about A$20... so I bought one, opened it up, had a look at the circuits and it turned out to be remarkably easy to modify.”

He over-rode the timer’s circuits, so it could be turned on or off simply by sending a signal from any source.

“The way I set it up was that if you shorted out two terminals that would put it in the on position, and if you unshort them it turns it off. It was very easy,” Oxer says.

“Once I had it at that point, it was a simple matter of connecting it to a relay that you control from a computer, and then you’ve got yourself an irrigation system that you can control from a software environment.”

Vista Home, Auckland

By contrast, the Mairangi Bay home of Rob Willcox, a director of New Zealand home automation company Intelligent Lifestyle Integration (iLi), is firmly planted in more traditional couch potato territory.

Unlike Oxer’s home, Willcox’s Vista showcase mainly relies on off-the-shelf components that have been configured rather than hand-coded.

Thanks to a Linksys media extender, music, movies or live TV can be piped from the central Windows Home server to any room with a PC — which means almost every room in this case. Media files can also be synched to the PC in the family BMW whenever it is in the garage.

At the Willcox property, the blinds and curtains are manually operated, and the garden is watered in the old-fashioned way, with a hose. But the lighting comes on automatically when people walk into a room and various lighting “scenes” can be set for any room and from any PC, including Willcox’s wireless tablet PC or even a splash-resistant touchscreen PC that is mounted by the bath tub in the master bedroom.

Similarly, different music can be played in different rooms or in the garden, and the volume at each location can be set remotely.

The automation system also controls the heating and the security system, so simply setting “away” or “on holiday” from any screen will turn the lighting and heating off and the alarm on.

Willcox says he originally looked at building the home automation and entertainment system around Windows Media Centre 2005, but there were a few technical issues with that platform, with its software development kit in particular.

However, he says that Windows Media Centre, which is more closely incorporated into Vista, did not suffer from these problems.

Whereas a fully smart home used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Willcox says the price of the technology has now come down to tens of thousands of dollars, and the increasing use of wireless devices means that the hardware has become easier to install.

The Vista system has also already delivered what Oxer in Melbourne describes as the “ideal situation” that he has yet to achieve: remote visitor-screening. When a visitor rings the bell at Willcox’s home, the view from the front-door camera pops up on the flat screen in the lounge and the door can be unlocked remotely.

So would Willcox consider having an RFID implanted in his arm so he could dispense with door keys?

“Well, obviously there’s a large roadmap with all of this, but we were thinking more in terms of doing something with Bluetooth on your cellphone,” says Willcox.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags LinuxSmart homevista

Show Comments
[]