Dumbhouses

I have written with enthusiasm about the many fun things that come with smart-ifying your home. The Amazon Echo is now one of my closest friends; I can adjust lighting and, to a certain degree, temperature in my small Brooklyn apartment; and I am slowly adding new elements to my Internet of Things. However, while there is now a wide array of smarthome products available on the market, most at affordable consumer prices, it’s important to be patient with your smarthouse and its components. So important, in fact, that if you’re not really the type who can approach tech with calm, I’d call it a dealbreaker for your smarthome development. That having been said, if you are able to be zen in the face of tech, smarthomes present a bunch of fun challenges.

Challenge #1 was that my bedroom is about as far from the router in my apartment as it is possible to be, and after upgrading my router 3 times and spending a ton of money, I gave up and started looking at ways to expand the coverage rather than improve it. There’s something about connecting things via WPS that, for no reason whatsoever, I don’t trust. Mostly, I don’t want to have to climb my shelving unit to get to the router, to hit the button, to scramble down and across to my bedroom to hit another button within 12 seconds. So when I initially set up my smartpartment, I had a wifi range extender which connected via WPS which supposedly would make my wifi reach my bedroom. But the little device that I used didn’t cut it, and after messing up one spare router probably permanently by trying to turn it into a wifi extender, and after maybe 20 resets a day, I needed another option. I consulted with a company called Techdad, and was referred to a powerline adapter, which is currently the best way I’ve found to extend my wifi network. 

Powerline adapters are handy gadgets that plug into the wall near your router, and then into your router via ethernet cable. The receiving end of the gadget plugs into the wall wherever you need internet coverage, and yes, to install it there is a button-pressing-and-then-racing-across-the-room step that is pretty crucial. However, this time, you won’t be breaking your ankle over a WPS connection. Instead, the powerline adapter connected to your router takes the internet signal from your router and runs it through the existing wiring in your house or apartment, and with the second button-press, routes that signal to the other adapter. Then, you plug an ethernet cable into that adapter and line it directly to your device, or to another router which you can set up with the same network name and password as your original router, completing a seamless wifi network that covers your whole space. (If you have wifi-hog roommates, set up your own private wifi network branching off of the original with a different password, just for you and your devices, like I should have done.)

Challenge #2 is simply working within or without your own comfort level. For the most part, smarthome devices have an accompanying app, but for voice-activated products like the Echo, you need to become comfortable talking out loud, alone. Or worse, talking out loud, mostly alone, but where your roommate can hear you cursing Alexa out and start-stopping the same audiobook 10 times. Or even worse, repeating the same phrase over a few times before she grasps it. Or finally, being content with an imperfect completion of whatever task you were trying to get her to achieve. 

From my own experience, I know that mumbling is simply unacceptable for Alexa. She can’t hear you. Don’t try to whisper, or talk softly, or try to be cool and subtle, it won’t work. You need to speak clearly, and without much noise or physical obstruction between you and Alexa’s omnidirectional microphones. But even if you speak totally clearly, there’s some room for error. For one thing, while the Echo now supports creating Google Calendar events, you have to re-start creating the event if you mess any part of it up. Or you might have to settle for editing the title of the event manually from your Google Calendar app later on, because Alexa heard “grocery shop” as “go curry stop.” While I had some trouble recently with Alexa’s recurring alarm feature, I have even more trouble saying “Alexa, stop,” clearly and audibly at 6:45 in the morning when my recurring alarm goes off.

But voice activation isn’t the only way user error might interfere with your smarthome’s effectiveness. Sometimes, your well-trained body will allow your mind to forget about the hundreds of dollars you’ve spent on smart lighting, and you’ll hit the light switch. Then, you turn it back on and hope and pray that both bulbs reconnect to wifi quickly and still work, and you spend 5-10 minutes fiddling with your lights and kicking yourself for hitting the button. 

Challenge #3 is something I never expected to deal with - electronics with no buttons. When I started having issues with one of my Lifx bulbs’ connectivity, I discovered buttonless limbo. The bulbs themselves have no switches or knobs, no reset button. However, they do require updates, and during one such firmware update, my app crashed and interrupted one of the bulb’s update processes. It wouldn’t connect to the internet, and it wouldn’t finish the update. Whenever the bulb turned on, it would flash white a few times and then settle, but it wouldn’t connect, no matter where I put it. 

Immediately I contacted Lifx Support, and immediately, I got an answer. An individual was personally in charge of my ticket, and she not only stayed on top of my questions, she checked in if I didn’t answer for a while. She coached me through the hard reset process, which would wipe the wifi login info that my bulb had, and allow me to start over. The hard reset is pretty easy - you just switch the bulb off and on, 4 times. Except, after 400 times, my bulb still refused to reset, or cycle through the primary colors to acknowledge the hard reset attempt. Kate and I were at a loss, and she even suggested replacing the bulb for me, until one day, for some reason, it worked again. 

For me, smart tech has been fickle like that - sometimes it just decides not to work until it wants to work again. And I’m sure there’s some signal-strength related real reason for it, but with button-free, and display-free devices, sometimes you just can’t tell what the problem is. Luckily, my favorite thing about smart home technology is that it’s still pretty new, as far as markets go. And if you want to emerge as the best product, it’s still possible. The market isn’t flooded yet, and there aren’t so many clients yet that they can’t take care of your problems individually. Got an issue with your Echo? The Echo team might be the most responsive product development group in the world. Not only do they respond to individual feature requests, update questions, and error alerts in the app and via email, but if you post in the Echo Reddit thread, developers often hang out there and answer your questions from an official-unofficial Amazon perspective. 

So while your smart products might not always work perfectly, it’s early yet. Smarthomes are still becoming a thing, and you, as an early smarthome dabbler, get to be a part of it. Your error reports actually mean something, your requests might actually be fulfilled. It’s an exciting time to get into smarthome building as a hobby.