When I was a kid, I thought I had magic powers. Most kids did, but I was sure. I had a set of rope lights, like in the movie theater, pinned up in cool patterns on my ceiling, and late at night, I’d practice using my magic powers to sap light from really bright bulbs and send it into the fading ones so that the whole rope light would last longer. Of course, what was really happening was some combination of an optical illusion and sleepy eyesight. I wasn’t moving power from bulb to bulb with nothing but my will. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I think we’re well into “sufficiently advanced” from the vantage point of Arthur C. Clarke, but I wouldn’t call smart-tech indistinguishable from magic yet; though sometimes, some of it does seem supernatural.
Loving technology can be an expensive hobby, and it might seem to some that if they can’t afford to drop a hundred dollars or so on lights, or two hundred on a smart-hub, that they can’t automate or engage in such a hobby. But just as my passion began with a strip of $20 lights tacked to my ceiling, yours can begin with the many cheap, bootleggish, and off-brand smart-home options available to the masses.
The easiest thing someone can do (and possibly the least expensive) to mimic a smart-home, is to put bluetooth speakers around the house. My suggestion would be to have multiple different kinds, so that you can differentiate between them as you move around your house or apartment and transfer your media-playing device to different speakers. Cheap bluetooth speakers are as abundant on the internet as acorns in fall. Some common speakers, like this one on Wish.com, can also play music off of a microSD card. Other waterproof speakers, like this one can connect with the push of a button, and are great for bathrooms and showers, especially if you lack boundaries, like I do, and like to take calls while bathing.
When I think of smart-homes, my first thought is always lighting, because I still feel like a wizard when I control my lights without the use of my hands, and luckily lighting is the fastest-developing area of smart home technology. Quickly evolving means quickly leaving some companies and technologies behind, and those technologies become less expensive as new ones are developed. This makes smart-lighting really accessible for the average consumer, either because the company will lower the price, or because the company will move on, and the factory will sell cheap spin-offs of said devices. One victim of this cycle is MiPow.
You may recognize MiPow from Kohl’s or Sears, and that is where a lot of their products end up – not in tech stores, but in least-common-denominator locations like hardware and department stores. However, MiPow isn’t only available at market price, in market locations. There’s one bulb with MiPow’s logo, but that isn’t sold officially on their website, or in stores. It is nearly identical to Lifx’s first series bulbs, and offers group control of multiple bulbs through the app, if not through a smart-hub. There are also clones of their old LED strip and of their current Playbulb series, which act as both light and bluetooth speaker, available factory-direct. But they’re not the only company whose bulb designs are popping up on sites that don’t respect copyright as much as American factories do. This Hue bulb clone connects with the Echo system as well as its own app, and therefore makes a great low-cost companion to a smart-home that already has a hub, or to any home without one.
Of course, light and music aren’t the only kinds of media that smart homes are capable of handling. The Google Home can now directly take orders for your Chromecast TV, and the Echo Look is its own media center, allowing you to watch videos through apps including Amazon Video. Though discovered already by cord-cutters, streaming boxes and devices make great media centers in smart-homes, and there are plenty available that aren’t as expensive as getting a Fire TV – although some are more expensive than the Chromecast or Fire TV-stick. The MXQ is a mixed-review TV box setup similar to Minix, and may be difficult for people who don’t have a lot of AV equipment experience, but Anycast , which boasts slightly better reviews, is a cheap and effective way to stream media from any device to any HDMI compatible screen. Though there are many streaming devices that act as hubs, sometimes these devices can have issues with paid media or paid media services, like Netflix, which is where cords like this one do their work, simply cloning the screen on your iPad or iPhone to your TV.
One area where bootleg tech really shines is cameras. You can find a webcam or ‘baby monitor’ shaped like almost anything, and in almost any size and price-point. Some, like this webcam, are apparently brand-less, and are mostly for laptops for people to use with Skype or other video-chat functions, and don’t tie in with many other devices. But others, like this baby monitor, have an app companion where the video feed can be viewed from your cell phone or tablet. Still more are security-specific, but can be used for video-chats or even as creepy cameras with which to watch your strange Caucasian family at a safe distance.
Finally, if you do end up spending larger amounts of money on brand-name smart-home tech like the Amazon Echo, you can use bootleg sources to expand, alter, or decorate your devices. This battery base for the Amazon Echo, and this one, are essentially specialized power-banks with platforms that enable the Echo – an always-on device – to be made briefly portable and unplugged from the wall. These (SPEAKER ONLY) speaker platforms are made to fit the Google Home, and this charging platform is made to fit the Echo Dot while charging your other devices. These WeMo clone outlets work with the Echo system as well, and these pads expand existing Qi charging systems with compatible devices.
So, what does this have to do with being a small child and developing magic powers? Just like my inexpensive, non-automated lights led to a hobby in automation, any of these, or other inexpensive gadgets can send you or your child down the path to discovering technology as a hobby, without spending an awful lot on it. Many of these devices are hackable, or editable, and all are exciting to set up and use if you enjoy the minutia of setting up new technology. Just because big brands make hefty, expensive smart-tech doesn’t mean that you can’t find a lightweight or affordable option to begin smartifying your home, and doing magic yourself