Community Spotlight: Advanced Home Automation

Remember old episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk (or Picard, if you'd prefer) would ask for the Enterprise's computer to dim a room's lights? It was a fascinating example of what future technology would someday be capable of doing. Greg "OverloadUT" Laabs, a Shacknews community member for more than five years, was among those inspired by these scenes and he soon became interested in the world of home automation -- in particular, controlling lights with a computer. Over the past few months, Laabs has taken his home automation system to new heights. Laabs has tied in his Harmony One remote control with his PC, Xbox 360, and home lighting system. His living room is now set up to remotely dim the lights whenever a movie is playing through his Xbox 360 or PS3 and automatically bring the lights back up when the movie stops. He has also hacked elements of the iPhone's SiriProxy to remote dim the lights through voice commands. Laabs has posted a demo on YouTube showing both the Harmony One and Siri controls, showing a culmination of nearly 10 years of work. By Laabs' own admission, the process was a lengthy one, involving following tech advancements and putting down serious money. Once he had all the tools, it was all a matter of figuring out the connections. "The first step was getting the light switches in to the network," explained Laabs, who is also senior community and social Media Manager at 2K Games. "I decided to go with INSTEON as the core technology and then just slowly replaced the light switches in my living room with fancy networked switches. At that point, the light switches could talk to each other, but without a central computer to tell them what to do, they really weren't anything more than regular light switches."

The INSTEON outlet

That led to the pursuit of a central computer to work as the system's brain. There were no shortage of choices, all varying in cost. Laabs was looking for something powerful with a robust API (Application Programming Interface). He eventually settled on the ISY-994i from Universal Devices, along with an IR transmitter, IR receiver for his PC, and his Harmony One remote. With all of his equipment ready, Laabs moved into implementing them. "It's one thing to have all of the parts, but another to figure out what to do with it," he said. "So far, I have found that imagining a use case (i.e. "I want to be able to dim the lights to a movie-appropriate level and have them dim up and down when I pause and unpause the movie") and working backwards from there to be pretty efficient. It required learning the unique programming interface in the ISY, but Universal Devices did a pretty decent job making it intuitive." That's not to say the process went entirely smoothly. Laabs ran into a couple of snags over the course of putting everything together. "Very early on in the process, I decided to replace one of the outlets in my house with an INSTEON outlet," he explained. "Once I had the power turned off and the wires all exposed, I realized that wiring an outlet is not the same as wiring a light switch, which I had mostly figured out myself). This resulted in a pretty humorous Chatty thread of me desperately asking for help, and getting many conflicting answers." After completing work on the Harmony One interface, Laabs focused on working with Siri. He wrote a SiriProxy plugin so that he could use his iPhone to control his lighting system. His YouTube video shows him asking Siri to play a movie, to which Siri replied that she'd dim the lights before the lights in Laabs' living room lowered to movie theater-level. As cool as the exchange looks on video, Laabs has a warning for would-be Siri hackers. "I should warn anyone interested that the process of setting up SiriProxy and making a plugin for it is fraught with peril and took way longer than I expected! SiriProxy is a very technical hack only meant for serious programmers to take on." Laabs also points to the numerous technologies used to create Siri, like VirtualBox, Linux, Git, and Ruby -- none of which Laabs had ever used prior to this project. Laabs has kept fellow Shackers up to date on his home automation progress through a number of Chatty threads. He says that his work has inspired other Shackers to take up similar projects, while others have become interested in learning more. While Laabs could conceivably call his advanced home automation system a success, he says his work is far from over. "Anyone who has played Deus Ex: Human Revolution probably remembers how cool it looked when you enter Jensen's apartment and the blinds automatically slowly raise, letting in light," Laabs said. "That's the biggest and most expensive thing I'd like to add to the system: window blinds. To do this I need to replace my blinds (which would be a nice upgrade all by itself) with ones that have a drawstring compatible with hooking up a motor. Then I could control that motor with the brain. From there, I could control the blinds with Siri, my Harmony One, and even having the blinds automatically adjust throughout the day based on the weather and temperature inside." As Laabs continues to conduct research for his home automation system, he pledges to remain focused on his other ongoing projects. One of those projects is his ongoing Dungeons & Dragons live stream on Twitch called Thursday Knights, with more than 120 episodes and counting. Laabs also offers one final tease for the future. "I just recently started working on an personal video game project inspired by one of the most underrated games of all time, but it's not really at the point where I have anything to talk about."