Multimedia players in a smart home

This article is about how, where and what devices we play videos on. Let’s take a look at the possibilities. My aim is to review arguments both for and against the different options.

In 2017 breaking news was that the screen of Apple IOS tokens can be mirrored to the Microsoft Xbox One player with Airplay technology. Getting really excited about that I reviewed the number of different devices we use for playing videos. This article is about how, where and what devices we play videos on. Let’s take a look at the possibilities. My aim is to review arguments both for and against the different options.

Traditional CD/DVD/Blue ray disc player

We don’t own this type of device as it is quite out-of-date.

Pros:

  • it can be indispensable hardware for old collections

Against:

  • we watch most films and series streamed on the internet or local network. We don’t use disks.

Xbox One / or other gaming console

Pros:

  • it is a type of game player which can also function as a CD/DVD/Blue ray player if necessary.
  • there is Netflix application on it with which online films are available.
  • it has a DNLA compatible video player that can play films from local networks.
  • it has an Airplay server application to mirror the screen content of iOS devices. Therefore films and videos purchased in iTunes Store can also be watched on ”Xbox”.
  • it has got Youtube which functions as an infinite tv channel for kids as well. We mainly look for videos on interesting topics: it may be a funny video or a short documentary on animals.

Cons:

  • it is slightly more difficult to manage than a remote control so it is a challenge for grandparents. They also dislike a simple remote control.
  • the codec base is not complete, that is why it cannot manage to play local films with certain coding.

Smart TV (we own a Samsung one)

Pros:

  • it has a smart tv centre that contains DNLA player and Youtube.

Cons:

  • the codec base is not complete, that is why it does not manage to play local films with some types of coding.
  • I have experience of a couple of smart TV generations but I am sure that the developers hardly ever use them in their homes. The ones I have seen are complicated and clumsy to navigate. Consequently, they are not grandparent friendly.

Apple TV

Pros:

  • series/films purchased on iTunes can be immediately streamed contrary to phones or tablets.
  • It mirrors phone and tablet screen content

Cons:

  • it cannot be used for anything else and it is not worth using it in the future just for streaming purposes.

Telephone or tablet + HDMI adapter

Pros:

  • there is no codec problem once the compatible software is installed.
  • not only video but any screen content can be mirrored on the TV screen (e.g.: games)

Cons:

  • the capacity of the battery is a question
  • it is not easy to find the adequate/compatible video player software. Unfortunately the processor or the bandwidth is not often enough for consistent HD/4K streaming. We use Airplay software and the Synology NAS video player software on iOS devices in turns/alternately.

Boxes specially used for playing videos

We have been using the PopcornHour products for a long time to our great satisfaction.

Pros:

  • I have never encountered a film which it wouldn’t play consistently.

Cons:

  • other functions are annoyingly difficult to use.
  • software updates aren’t frequent

How to control all these boxes?

I am keen on the product of Logitech Harmony Hub for two reasons.

  • Firstly, it meets my big wish, that is, it solves the all-in-one problem of different remotes.
  • Though it is much more convenient to use its own remote, it also has software that can be installed to your phone.

The result is that there is a box installed next to your device and after being programmed it can control all devices with media functions with one single remote control. The connection between your smart home is through an infra gate: if you activate the movie function in your living room, Logitech Hub informs smart home through the infra gate to adjust lightning to the function.

Conclusion: what would I buy today?

Xbox One or other gaming console is the perfect choice if you also use it for playing. If not, the best option is a smart TV with a great menu (you should try it out in the shop!) Other gadgets are becoming less and less useful.

Audio in the house – multi-room systems

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s the point of a multi-room audio system, such as Sonos?

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s the point of a multi-room audio system, such as Sonos? Although the home is divided into living spaces, it’s still used as a unit. Way back when, if you turned the volume of the living room radio high enough, you could hear it all over your apartment (and also next door, whether your neighbor wanted it or not). This was a simple solution to a problem you still have today: you want to listen to music while going about your business in your home. There are two distinct ways to listen to music in your home:

  • you want to hear the same music at the same volume regardless of which room you happen to be in
  • you want to listen to different music in different rooms

Music source

Online music subscriptions

Online streaming services have completely taken over as the source of music in recent years. Earlier multi-room systems focused on locally stored music. Today, the main goal is to integrate and easily manage online music subscription services (Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer).

Back in the day, when choosing what music to listen to, I used to just think about the music selection I’d collected. This changed a few years ago. Then if I heard a song I liked, I looked up the performer on Spotify, and checked out his/her songs online. More recently. I’ve started relying on online playlists created by others (such as Top ten lists). And the latest trend for me is to choose “moods” when listening to music. For example, if I want to listen to jazz when going to bed, I just start the playlist “Jazz at Night”.

Playing stored music

The storage drive is either directly connected to the multi-room system or it is linked to the network via a separate device. If you use a dedicated device, it should be DLNA-compatible, so the multiroom system can play music directly from it.

Audio via Aux input

This can be particularly practical if the Aux plug is in an easily accessible place. This connection method is typically used when the multi-room system gets the music from a guest’s cell phone.

Connecting via other wireless systems such as Bluetooth/Airplay

These methods help send the music playing on your phone to your multi-room audio system.

Where will the sound come from?

In some multi-room systems, the speaker and the receiver are built in one unit. Such devices typically cannot be built into your walls. If you have built-in ceiling speakers, they have a separate receiver and speaker output.

Before buying, you should consider the following:

  • is there room for floor standing speakers? should the speakers be standing towers, or should they be mounted on the wall or built into the wall/ceiling?
  • do you have a power source in the area where you want to put the audio system?
  • do you have a network connection or Wi-Fi signal in the area where you want to place the multi-room unit?
  • how humid is the environment? (bathroom, sauna)

Is it possible to link your multi-room system to your home theatre?

Yes, and the way to do it is to have the multi-room system set up as an audio input on the home theatre system. If you have an open concept kitchen-living room space, this setup allows you to listen to music using the multi-room system’s speakers in your kitchen and the home theatre in the living room.

How can you listen to the radio in the multi-room system?

Many multi-room systems allow you to listen to online radio stations. If yours does not, you can use your home theatre’s radio as an audio input. Unfortunately, in this case you won’t be able to change the channel with the app.

A few useful remarks from my personal experience

Now that we can control the multi-room system’s comfort functions with a simple cell phone app used much as a remote control, we’ve noticed that we listen to music much more than before. Household chores are less of a drag if you can listen to music while doing them.

PS: a low-cost multi-room system from the 1990s

Although it’s not available in my country, you can order from abroad radio transmitters strong enough to cover a 100 m diameter circle. Using this, you can provide music on a particular wave length available at every point in your home. In other words, you set up your own radio station, which can be heard by everyone around your home. This simple solution allows every musical device in your home to play the same music via this private radio station. It’s not that convenient but the outcome is just as good as it’d be with an up-to-date multi-room system.

What will a smart home be like in 2030?

3 things about smart homes showing/pointing out to the future

It’s 2018 now so this article can become reality at any time. What are the prospects regarding home automatization? What is definite is that the ‘Internet of things’ trend is going to grow. This means that electronic appliances surrounding you will be connected and available through the internet. Common data transfer formats such as Bluetooth, wifi or z-wave used in everyday IT will get more and more widespread alongside bespoke patents. Items worn as accessories or used at home will become smarter aiming to make our life more convenient.

 

3 things about smart homes showing/pointing out to the future

It’s 2018 now so this article can become reality at any time. What are the prospects regarding home automatization? What is definite is that the ‘Internet of things’ trend is going to grow. This means that electronic appliances surrounding you will be connected and available through the internet. Common data transfer formats such as Bluetooth, wifi or z-wave used in everyday IT will get more and more widespread alongside bespoke patents. Items worn as accessories or used at home will become smarter aiming to make our life more convenient.

The question is: to what extent can this be taken further? How long is it worth using such items? Will you turn into the slave of something that is supposed to assist you in your everyday life? Don’t think too seriously, just remember the feeling of “I need to put my smart phone on the charger”. This idea is in your head every day and becomes habitual.

1) The flat surface= the monitor/screen

It is expected now that high tech gadgets will use flat surfaces surrounding you with displayed data.

However, what if information appears before your eyes? There have already been tests, but the real breakthrough is likely to happen once technology has shrunk to the size of easy-to-wear glasses.

2) Robots think instead of humans

Research on artificial intelligence has been introduced into everyday life in some elementary forms. Apple’s Siri and Google’s voice based search can do a lot of basic and routine tasks instead of you… in theory. For me it mainly worked in a quiet environment and with perfect English pronunciation. While experimenting I realised that what I can get from the AI experience is audio books in my mother language during my runs. Now my smart phone, with a robot voice but clearly can read them out. (link for settings)

Computers that have the potential for keeping you company have not arrived but the concept of the film She shows the future, maybe not tomorrow but the day after tomorrow.

3) You measure everything

Fitness gadgets measure everything related to motion, home thermostats can even analyse the content of the air, your scales tell you your up-to-date BMI. Most of this data can be used smartly if it is examined in relation and you are not interested in momentary figures. For example, on a fitness device I mainly monitor time during my work out, but I am also interested in distance, especially when timed. It is crucial to find a balance and get only as much data as we can deal with. A lot of smart devices are programmed to display their full potential even though you do not need it. A personal example the data I focus on and when:

  • during my run I only watch the time
    I check the kilometres I have run weekly
  • as for the scales I check the graph for any change
  • in case of the thermostat I expect permanency but I am glad when it indicates that CO2 levels are too high so I can air the place

The near-future, or what devices I am expecting….

I’m expecting a thermometer that will make an easy job easier. We’ve been treating our mercury thermometer as a precious piece of treasure since electric ones are really unreliable in indicating fever.

I’m also expecting a door knocker the brilliance of which lies in its simplicity. I regard it as a necessity in home automatization- when it is available.

Coming up: sound at home and multiroom system experiences

Smart Home case study: outdoors

Outdoor automation

Cameras

Modern IP-based cameras (for example Trendnet) can record in HD quality with a distance range of 30-40 metres even at night. Moreover, you can easily automate their control even without calling a technician by using a NAS device (such as the Synology J series). You can set many different sensor modes and recording modes. The camera footage should be continually screened on old tablets that are attached to the wall in some of the more high traffic areas of the house (for example the lobby or the kitchen). As for recording quality, I would suggest 1 fps rate. This produces okay-quality still images while requiring less storage, allowing you to keep the footage for as long as you need. You should also put up a sign, clearly visible from the outside, that your property is under CCTV surveillance/it has an alarm system/it has a dog that bites.

Garage gate and yard gate

Opening and closing doors/gates are essential functions of controlling your Smart Home. For example, when you open your garage gate, it’s good if your garage door also opens. Don’t use an IR gate as the emergency mechanism to stop the closing of the yard gate. If you have foot traffic by your house, people walking by may inadvertently keep the yard gate open for a long time.

Garden lights around the entrance

Using a motion sensor to turn the light on/off here is a no-brainer. You’ll probably need a sensor by the front door and one by the yard gate. The distance between the gate and the door can be covered by correctly timing the lights. Up-to-date systems “understand” sunrise and sunset, so if you set your motion sensor to only turn the light on when the sun is no longer out, the light will not be unnecessarily on.

Lights elsewhere in the garden

Security cameras come with night vision, so just for the cameras, you don’t need to have the lights on. Gardens don’t need constant lighting because you’re not out there all the time. In my house, you can control different mood lights for the garden manually at the Smart Home control unit.

Driveway heating

The problem is that if your driveway has thicker pavement, regular heating cables will not be able to heat it through. Even if you’re using thinner pavement, it takes at least 3-4 hours for the heating to start melting the snow. You can automate the driveway heating by connecting it to an outdoor temperature sensor. But I have yet to figure out how to tell the system when icing begins. So for now, I continue to use the device own internal sensors and controls. 

What doesn’t belong to the Smart Home system and why?

Alarm system

For the alarms, I’ve chosen a stand-alone system. We only have data exchange between the Smart Home and the alarm system. This means that once the alarm is turned on, the Smart Home manages the additional functions:

  • automatic moving of shades
    presence simulation by randomly switching lights

Irrigation system

Modern irrigation systems do pretty well watering your plants on their own in accordance with precipitation levels and the season. Since I needed a controller unit for the sprinklers to coordinate different irrigation zones anyway, I didn’t see the point in combining the irrigation system with the Smart Home.

Heating the house

The expectation for the heating system is to provide a constant temperature in the house with the help of thermostats. This means that there’s no point in using the Smart Home to control the heating. If your house has modern insulation, using the “holiday function” only makes sense if you’re away for weeks. And this can be turned on manually.

Coming up next: what’s in store for the Smart Home? Can this all be taken any further?

Smart Home case study: kitchen

Today the kitchen is seen as the center of the home which has to meet a lot of requirements at the same time. This means that automation and manual operation live together. Everyday scenarios are set based on that.

Everyday situations in the kitchen

Daytime: this is the default setting

  • The lighting should only be on if the outdoor light sensor deems it necessary. If possible, you should have some basic lighting that you can enhance with spotlights. In this scenario, the spotlight is not needed.

Flood light/spotlight needed: manual operation

  • Regardless of the time of the day it switches every light on

Sleeping/Night time: based on the time period

  • Only the night light is on. You’ll really appreciate this setting when you go to the kitchen for your midnight snack and you don’t have all the lamps shining in your sleepy eyes. You need this lighting during power failures, too.

 

 

Extra tips

  • The kitchen is the centre of your home which is why you the universal chargers for your gadgets (minimum one per family member) should be placed here. Let me give an example.
  • The number of kitchen appliances is rising, so min. 10 sockets should be available at the worktop, 6 definitely won’t be enough.
  • Additional local lighting is essential but they can also be manually operated (e.g.: cooker).

Utility room and/or larder

In a lot of households it is in the kitchen. Should it be a separate room, you should take into consideration the following aspects:

  • lighting controlled by a motion sensor,
  • socket with timer function for the iron + extra lighting+ tv, should the ironing take too long
  • humidity sensor might come in handy.

Coming up next: outdoor tips

Smart Home case study: bathroom and restroom

Everyday scenarios in the bathroom and in the restroom

Daytime

  • the lighting should only be on if the outdoor light sensor deems it necessary. If possible, you should have some basic lighting that you can enhance with spotlights. In this scenario, the spotlight is not needed.

Spotlight needed

  • the system turns on all lights regardless of the time of the day.

Night time

  • only the night light is on. You’ll really appreciate this setting when you go to the restroom at night and you don’t have all the lamps shining in your sleepy eyes. You need this lighting during power failures, too.

 

Extra tips:

  • water sensors to detect leaks can come in handy. They should be placed away from the bathtub so that they don’t get splashed.

  • the occupied sign is useful even in the family. Choose a door knob that can signal this.

  • if you use an electric towel warmer, it should come with a timer. You can set it to turn off automatically for example after 60 minutes.

  • Firing up your sauna should be connected to your smart home system. Even infrared saunas work better if they run for a few minutes before the session. Finnish saunas need 30-60 minutes to heat up before they can be used.

 

General lighting is controlled by the presence sensor. The presence sensors should be set at the sensor or at the home management system with delayed activation. This way lack of movement will not trigger the OFF mode immediately. For us, a delay of 120 sec works best.

Smart Home case study: bedroom

Everyday life in the bedroom

Daytime

  • Lighting should be on only when the external light sensor says so. All of the lights can be switched on. This type of lighting is not needed during power failures.

  • Blinds should roll up at wake-up time but not at weekends or when the school holiday option is set.

  • Play music option is allowed.

Before bedtime/watching TV

  • Only mood lighting is on, but only if it is necessary according to the external light sensor. For afternoon nap preparations any lighting is unnecessary with natural daylight.

  • This type of lighting is unnecessary at power failures.

  • Blinds should go down and full shading should be activated.

Sleep time

  • Only night light should be on. It is to be turned on during power failures.

  • Anti-burglary protection: when the sleep time mode is active and the night period (e.g.: between 10 pm and 5 am) is on, any external door or window is unlikely to be opened. In this case a so called external alarm can be activated, it’s quiet mode alarm focuses on the bedroom. In our home an unpleasant flashing light starts, as each light flashes and goes out simultaneously 15 times.

I got up first

  • Only the mood lighting is switched on, if and only if the external light sensor says so.

Shading: according to the previous settings

Miscellaneous

  • Music is to be manually controlled, that is, sleep time function is not used to stop it.
  • A universal charger is a compulsory component of the bedside table mainly for recharging smart phones (therefore the smart phone as a torch is always at hand)
  • The reading lamp is to be in the middle, it can be turned to either direction, so it won’t disturb the partner still asleep.
  • Wardrobe lighting is necessary only if the wardrobes are in an awkward or dark place.
  • Led candles can perfectly function as mood lighting, just 1 or 2 can provide enough light.

Coming up next: bathroom and restroom