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How Arduino And Raspberry Pi Can Enhance Your Connected Home

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 10:17am

ReadWriteHome is an ongoing series exploring the implications of living in connected homes.

The connected home, the ultimate ideal in technology-driven luxury, promises easy living by passing along our drudgery to computers.

But it’s not perfect.

Even if you’re willing to shell out for expensive devices for your house, are you willing to trust them? There’s always the concern that when a middleman is involved, you’re relinquishing at least some control of your own domain.

See also: Hacking The Connected Home: When Your House Watches You

In that case, why not roll your own connected home?

Arduino, a microcontroller board, and Raspberry Pi, a fully functional mini-computer, are both cheap solutions for harnessing the Internet of Things at home. Unlike your regular computer, both devices are very good at reading the world around them. That’s because they both include plenty of inputs and outputs for sensory add-ons to test light, temperature, humidity and more. 

These DIY sensors and components are cheaper and easier to use than ever. With minimal coding knowledge, you can copy and paste open-source Python scripts to tell your house which tasks to automate. And since you’re retaining total control of your connected devices, you can double down on security measures to your heart’s content. 

Here are some of the ways to implement connected home features on a DIY device like Arduino or Raspberry Pi. 

Arduino Projects See also: Arduino Rising: 10 Amazing Projects For The Tiny Microcontroller

The Arduino isn’t a fully functional computer, so you’re going to need to connect it to a computer first to program it, and it'll need to run off a battery or outlet after that. But at half the size of the Raspberry Pi, it’s a small and unobtrusive sensor for your home. 

  • Make an Arduino safety alarm. Connect the device to a beeper and a bell to warn you of an intruder or a fire. The creator of this open-source project said he successfully scared off an intruder by using this device. 
  • Build an thermostat that connects to your air conditioning unit, or, if you’re in the United Kingdom, your combination boiler. Both projects include an LCD screen so you can monitor and adjust the temperature. It's not as cute as Nest, but totally custom. 
  • Monitor your home while you’re away with an Arduino-powered "Internet of Things" camera. You can install an Eye-Fi SD card in an Arduino Uno to program it to take photos and then push those photos to a site or device of your choice. 
  • Get the most out of an Arduino by programming it to control central heating, lighting and security in your house. This tutorial uses Home Easy, a wireless home automation tool that enhances Arduino’s connected capabilities significantly.
Raspberry Pi Projects See also: 12 Cool Projects For Your Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi can double as a second PC. Just give it a screen and a keyboard and you can use it to program itself. That means you can either run it in the background as it collects data off of the sensors you’ve installed, or you can use it as an Internet of Things control hub. 

  • Never forget to feed your pets again; let Raspberry Pi do it. This dual pet feeder could work for dry cat or dog food, and can be assembled in four to six hours. Have a pet that’s more scaly than furry? Try our IoT fishtank tutorial
  • If you have more time than money, make Pi into an automated sprinkler system. The creator set it up with wireless so he could control it through a simple SSH login. Read more about how to login with SSH here
  • Build an app to control your lights from your computer screen. Raspberry Pi’s general purpose input output (GPIO) pins emulate pressing on and off switches. That way, instead of physically visiting the light switch, you can activate your lights with one click of your mouse. 
  • Last but not least, if you’re a DIY genius you might as well build a Pi home automation center that wouldn’t look out of place at Starfleet. There’s no tutorial for this Star Trek inspired control panel that monitors doors, windows, lights, weather and more, but watch the video below and see just how polished a DIY solution can look:

Photo by Lauren Orsini for ReadWrite

Categories: Technology

The Rear-View Camera Is No Longer Just An Option For Cars—It's The Law

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 9:04am

ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.

Here’s something gruesome to consider: More than 200 people are killed every year when cars are reversing—most of these deaths are children. Back-up accidents also injure more than 15,000 people each year.

These factoids get more tragic when you consider that it’s usually a parent behind the wheel, and the cost of preventing nearly all of these accidents is a cheap piece of technology: A $50 camera.

Take heart. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took a big step on March 31 to prevent those horrific accidents when it ruled that all new cars must be equipped with back-up cameras by May 2018.

Auto companies usually dig in their heels and fight against any new mandate that adds cost to a vehicle. But in this case, the cost is modest—about $150 if both a camera and screen are required, and just $50 for a car that already has a dashboard screen.

“There’s a reason we have a timeline now,” said Thilo Koslowski, a Gartner analyst for vehicle information and communication technology. “Most manufacturers are planning to put displays and screens in the cars anyway. The cost of doing this is less than one-percent of purchase price of your average new vehicle.”

Inevitable Migration

The Volkswagen XL1 concept car doesn't have side-view mirrors or a direct window view to the side. Drivers rely strictly on a camera and monitor.

There's a well-established process of flashy new car technology eventually migrating to more proletariat vehicles. In the case of safety technologies, it started decades ago with air bags, pre-collision warning systems, and electronic stability control—first seen in brands like Mercedes or BMW models as costly options, and then finding its way to Ford, Chevy and the like.

These days, when everybody loves geek gear, consumers are only too happy to pay another fifty bucks for something cool like a back-up camera.

“Heads-up displays used to be luxury,” Koslowski said. “Now, it’s in cars from Toyota and Mazda.”

Koslowski believes more futuristic features—like self-parking and 360-degree cameras for parking assistance—will also become commonplace. That’s because these technologies, usually developed by tier-one automotive suppliers, are designed and priced at a premium when introduced in low volume. Then, these features ramp-up to larger quantities and the cost drops as they go mainstream.

“This is all planned,” he said. “It doesn’t happen by accident.”

We are already at mainstream levels with back-up cameras, which are found in approximately half of today’s new cars. Even more models have screens, due to an insatiable consumer desire for entertainment, navigation and connectivity features.

Independent car technology expert Doug Newcomb said “any automaker that’s going to have an infotainment experience needs some kind of screen." At the same time, the cost of cameras has significantly dropped in recent years—mainly because camera components have integrated into hundreds of millions of smart phones and mobile devices.

Common Sense, Mandated

To recap in simple terms: Back-up cameras are cheap and they save lives. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to get the government or the auto industry to make them ubiquitous. It took a lawsuit by Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports, to get NHTSA to act—even after it blew past deadlines established by the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007. Backup safety regulations were expected in 2011.

Cars with rear-visibility technology already earn brownie points in NHTSA safety scores—the same way the federal safety agency gives higher scores to cars with electronic stability control, autonomous braking systems, early collision warnings and lane keep assist.

“NHTSA and others have shown, statistically, that a lot of lives can be saved by these systems,” Newcomb said.

The side-view camera on the Volkswagen XL1 concept car.

The final rules on the rear-visibility mandate, which applies to cars built after May 1, 2018, requires the field of view from the camera and screen to include a 10-foot by 20-foot zone directly behind the vehicle. The system must meet other requirements including image size, linger time, response time, durability and deactivation.

Now that we’re on course for back-up cameras, perhaps it’s a matter of time before side-view-mirrors are replaced with cameras. One week after the NHTSA ruling on back-up cameras, Tesla Motors applied to the safety agency to allow side-view cameras to replace side-view mirrors—a move that increases the efficiency of cars through better aerodynamics. And they also look pretty cool, to boot.

Images courtesy of Chrysler, Ford, and VW

Categories: Technology

How Microsoft's Cortana Stacks Up Against Siri And Google Now

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 7:53am

Cortana doesn’t want you to know where Master Chief is hiding. But for just about everything else, Microsoft's new voice-controlled personal assistant is ready and available to do your bidding.

See also: Introducing Cortana, Plus 8 Other Things To Know About Windows 8.1

Cortana, a new feature in Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, is both a search engine and a helper, just like its counterparts: Apple's Siri and Google Now for Android. Cortana—who says she's female, though not a woman—is Microsoft’s attempt to counter Google's domination of Web search on smartphones while also serving as its counterpoint to the cheeky and informative Siri on the iPhone.

In this way, Cortana—like almost everything in Windows Phone—emerges as a combination of iOS and Android features embellished with some of Microsoft's own unique elements.

Cortana Leans On And Learns From Bing See also: Windows Phone 8.1—The Good, The Bad And The Ugly [Review]

The first thing to know about Cortana for Windows Phone is that it is, at heart, Microsoft’s Bing search engine. At Microsoft Build 2014, one press session bore the title “The Bing Platform”—and it was all about Cortana.

Bing is no longer its own separate app, nor are there any specific Bing features like news or weather. It's now all Cortana, all the time. On Windows Phone, the two are basically indistinguishable.

By using Bing as the backbone of Cortana, Microsoft has made it a lot like the Google Now assistant on Android. Cortana recognizes your interests and uses Bing to mine various information categories to deliver news and contextual information that you are supposed to find particularly useful.

During setup, you can choose among pre-defined interests like health, sports, technology or headline news. You can set your favorite sports teams or neighborhoods where you like to eat and explore. Cortana will then deliver you information based on what you like and where you are, using both Bing and the sensors in the smartphone that help keep track of what you do and where you do it. The information is delivered in Cortana’s notebook, the equivalent of using a homescreen on Android for Google Now.

Where Google Now differs is that it uses a variety of factors to determine what information it delivers users. If you sign in to your Google profile, you can have it access Gmail, search, navigation, calendars … all of Google’s core services. It will also note what websites you visit when you are signed into Chrome and note those in the Google Now feed as well.

Cortana (left) Notebook vs. Google Now news stream.

Developers can tap Bing to power their apps as well, which then can bring third-party customization to Cortana. Only five third party apps have been built for Cortana at the time of launch: Flixster, Hulu, Twitter, Facebook and Skype (which is owned by Microsoft). Cortana has an open software developer kit for interested app makers that want to integrate it into their products.

Cortana's voice-control and language interpretation functions rely on a hybrid of on-device and cloud computation. When you speak to Cortana, your phone will use key speech patterns to interpret what you've said. If Cortana doesn’t understand a particular word, it will reach out to its neural network in the cloud to filter for possibilities. This hybrid approach is designed to let Cortana learn better speech recognition over time.

An Assistant Like Any Other

Cortana straddles the line between what Google Now provides as a search engine and how Siri acts as a personal assistant.

Google Now is an assistant without a personality. It is essentially Google delivering information you might want or need and allowing you to control your phone through voice actions. It wants to tell you stuff before you think you want to know about it. The other day, for instance, Google Now told me that I had to leave for a meeting at 1:57 p.m. to get to a meeting by 3 p.m.

You can set reminders, tasks, timers, send texts or emails through Google Now as well, just like you would with an actual assistant. But for a variety of reasons, Google decided not to make Google Now a search experience driven by a particular character the way Siri and Cortana are.

Siri doesn't provide the precognitive abilities that Google Now or Cortana do, because its fundamentally different under the hood and doesn't have a search engine spine the way the Microsoft and Google offerings do. Instead, Siri hooks through both partner databases and search engines, relying on Wolfram Alpha for computational search power.

Siri provides contextual, relevant information like stocks or sports or weather by creating hooks to third-party databases Apple has partnered with. Siri can also set reminders and alarms, open apps, post to Facebook or Twitter and navigate. Siri set the standard of personal assistants on smartphones, which Google Now and Cortana have now largely matched in different ways.

Cortana has a couple of additional capabilities that set it apart from its rivals—for instance, by personalizing your communications with trusted people. If you establish someone as a member of you “inner circles” within the app, you can then use Cortana's voice control to set reminders by name.

So you could tell Cortana to “remind me to read Rebekah’s essay this evening,” and it would understand who you're referring to. Siri and Google Now have similar capabilities, but Cortana takes it a step further.

Cortana also has a personality all its own. The assistant is named after an artificial-intelligence character in the game series Halo—a guide that gets you through missions and helps along the way. On Windows Phone 8.1, Cortana (which is voiced by the same Halo actress, Jen Taylor), will respond to Halo-related questions. For instance, if you ask where Master Chief (the main character in Halo) is, Cortana will give a variety of answers.

Where is Master Chief?

Cortana also knows that it is a computer. Yes, it will identify as female, but will also give answers such as “I contain multitudes” (a Walt Whitman reference) and “Is there a third option?”

Cortana: Still A Beta

Microsoft’s goal was to imbue Cortana with a personal touch. It combines the semantic search of Google with the personality of Siri while still being fun and dorky in a Microsoft kind of way. Which you may or may not like, depending on your view of Windows Phone and whether you play Halo.

That said, Cortana is still in beta. After using it for a little more than a week, it's easy to see that the assistant is still coming into its own. Cortana's voice recognition is good but often requires precise enunciation (Cortana often confuses itself with Cortado, apparently a city in Italy), it doesn't always connect contacts with data correctly and its navigation sometimes misfires.

It also doesn’t have a touchless command, the way Google Now on Android devices activate when a user says “OK Google.” These types of problems are fairly easy to fix, so Microsoft can presumably work them out ahead of the formal launch of Windows Phone 8.1 later this year.

Lead image of Cortana in Halo 3 by Flickr user Brian, CC 2.0

Categories: Technology