TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Automate Your Place, part 1

Volume Number: 23 (2007)
Issue Number: 01
Column Tag: Home Automation

Automate Your Place, part 1

Have your Mac brew your coffee and take care of the lights on your way out

By Andrew Turner

Introduction

Like any good developer or power-user, you've been using the great tools that come with Mac OS X to automate much of your workflow. Applescript and Automator together allow you to rid yourself of repetitive tasks. You import, backup, convert, and markup your photos automatically. Data backups happen once per week, with incremental backups in between.

However, despite all this effort to make your computer work more efficient, safe, and hassle free you probably haven't really considered how much your Mac could be doing for you. Why restrict your automation to just the virtual desktop, why not also automate your real desk. While you're at it automate your office, house, store, garage, shop, or any other place where you have a Mac!

Seem a little too Sci-Fi? Just imagine that in the morning your alarm goes off. As you get out of bed your coffee maker begins brewing a fresh pot of coffee, your Mac wakes up, starts downloading your email, updates your news RSS feeds, opens iCal to the day's agenda, and plays some soothing morning music. Half-an-hour later your coffee maker automatically shuts off. As you pull out of your driveway your computer performs a backup of your files then goes to sleep. When you come home at night, your house knows that it's dark outside and turns on the porch and hallway lights for you. When you're ready to watch a movie you pull up FrontRow and the living room lights dim, the stereo turns on and your video starts playing. You could do the same thing to your shop, office, or garage. Save energy by turning off unused lights, know the state of your security system via a web-browser from your house, or get notified by email when someone enters your driveway. These are just some of the possibilities of an automation system powered by your Mac.

In this article we will introduce you to the current field of Location Automation in the Apple world, it's not just about your house anymore. Automation software has become more advanced, hardware more prevalent and robust, and the community has grown. We will show you how to get started, setup your environment, and connect to the community. In future articles, we will cover more in-depth topics such as writing complex scripts, web interfaces, homemade sensors, and notifications on your cellphone, email, or Skype.

A Whole World of Options

There are two main components of the automation system: automation devices, and the management software that will connect to all these devices and allow you to create your scripts and settings.

Hardware

When home automation became really popular several years ago, everywhere you looked there were ads for X-10 devices. More often than not, the advertised systems were camera systems that had little to do with the X10 standard associated with automation systems. However, the ads made the term X10 known to most computer users. X10 is a standard communication system developed in 1975 for remote control of devices in a home or building. This standard is known for sometimes being unreliable as the communication between the controlling computer and the devices is dependent on the quality of the wiring in the building.

Recently, several more robust standard have begun to emerge to address the frustrations and shortcomings of X10. Most are still in the standards formulation and beta release stage. These include Zigbee, UPB, WiMax, Z-Wave, and HomeRF.

One technology that very has been recently released and gained widespread use and support is INSTEON, which was developed by SmartLabs Technology. INSTEON couples the traditional powerline communications with redundant mesh-networking to speed up response times as well as add state verification. These techniques are implemented to provide users with a hopefully more enjoyable and reliable automation system.

A benefit of the new INSTEON system is that it is backwards compatible with the older X10 devices. This allows current users to slowly upgrade their existing X10 automation systems to INSTEON, and new users purchase the newer INSTEON controller and then purchase INSTEON or inexpensive X10 modules as necessary for your location. For this reason, in this article we will design our automation system using the INSTEON modules. Readers can apply the same techniques to older X10 components.

There are 3 key hardware pieces required for the simplest automation system: controller, signalinc receivers/repeaters, and a device module. We suggest you look at buying starter packages from a vendor (see Resources) to start off your automation system. An INSTEON starter package will cost about $130 USD.

The controller connects to your Mac via USB and plugs into an electrical socket on the other end. The controller will send and receive signals from the INSTEON devices at your location. If you're on a budget, you can stick with an X10 controller like the PowerLinc 1132CU, which is USB and therefore doesn't require a USB to Serial cable. The PowerLinc also has good support with most of the available Mac software packages.

The SignaLinc receiver/repeater are new devices that provide the INSTEON signal repeating and mesh-networking redundancy. The Signalincs come in a pair, and plug into wall sockets around your location. They also have small antennas and will need to be setup so that the pair can communicate wirelessly through your walls.

The device module can be a lamp dimmer or appliance controller (on/off). These modules plug into a wall socket, and then you plug the lamp or appliance into the module. You can then turn the device on by using the appliance's own power switch, by using your Mac, a control pad, or INSTEON switch. Additionally, a device module can be a sensor such as a motion detector or window sensor. For a less apparent automation system, instead of an external module, you can get a wall socket that will replace your current socket.

Other typical pieces of an automation system are switches, button controllers and control pads. These devices have the benefit of looking and operating like normal wall switches and power controllers while also hooking into your automation system. A control pad plugs into a wall socket via a cable, or communicates wirelessly. It is a good idea to have at least one control pad that provides direct control of your hardware devices. That way if your Mac is turned off, out of commission, or you need to debug your home automation system, you can use the control pad.

In addition to the basic devices discussed above, it is possible to tie in a HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) controller, security systems, sprinklers, house sensors, theater systems, and cameras.

For wireless interface, it is possible to get a wireless transceiver. Utilizing a wireless transceiver, you can turn control devices or send commands to your Mac using key fobs and small control pads. Additionally, the wireless interface will detect commands from motion detectors and magnetic switches like the DS10A, and they will show up like X10 devices.

The W800-RF32 is a well-supported wireless interface that plugs into your Mac. Because the W800 is a serial device, you will need a Serial-to-USB converter. The Keyspan adapter is an affordable and very well supported option. Using the W800 you can receive signals from wireless door sensors, or wireless remotes inside and around a house or office.

Look at an online automation vendor for other device options. Also, X10 has been sold under a variety of other branding labels, and these devices are often found inexpensively online or local stores. In particular, the Black & Decker Freewire system provides outdoor X10 plugs, and a wireless remote interface that is great for controlling holiday lights or other external devices. Radio Shack also carries home automation devices that work with X10, and therefore INSTEON systems as well. This can be a great place to quickly pick up devices rather than waiting for that box in the mail.

Software

Once you have your hardware in hand, you will need a way to control and read all your devices. Automation software runs on your Mac computer and allows you to setup triggers, groups, and scripts to give some intelligence to your automation system. Without a software controller you are limited to simple control of devices and small groups of devices.

There are currently 5 software options on the Mac: Perceptive Automation's Indigo, Sand Hill Engineering's XTension, AlwaysThinking's ThinkingHome, Findley Studios' HomeRun, and the open-source MisterHouse.

MisterHouse is an open-source option that is built on Perl. It runs on all the major OS's: MS Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. The scriptability of MisterHouse is very powerful, and the entire underlying system is exposed for the user to tweak as desired. However, the learning curve is somewhat high, and INSTEON support is starting to emerge, but not solid yet.


Figure 1: MisterHouse offers a lot of features and configurability, but has a steep learning curve.

XTension has long been a well supported and very reliable Mac automation solution. It has been developed and supported for over 10 years, and includes many interesting features. In addition to the normal configuration and control of devices, XTension allows users to configure their own layouts and switches in the client views, and the ability for multiple XTension instances to communicate with one another over a network. It also offers a unique capability to utilize multiple controllers, which is useful for dealing with bridging different power legs in buildings. Lastly, XTension has a large AppleScript dictionary for users to write their own logic, and good integration with web cameras.

The developers of Xtension, Sand Hill, evaluate new technologies before necessarily implementing them. Their philosophy is that a critical component of the automation system is reliability. Therefore, their releases and feature updates are less frequent than other automation software options. Sand Hill also maintains a very extensive list of tutorials and information on automation systems and is definitely worth reading for learning more about the subject.

Perceptive Automation's Indigo was upgraded recently to a version 2.0 with a large list of new features, including, foremost, that it is a Universal Binary, so it will run natively on your new Intel-based Mac. Indigo supports X10 and INSTEON controllers, utilizes Client/Server architecture, so it's easy to control your automation system from a remote computer running just an Indigo client. For additional remote control, there is a very configurable web interface, and Dashboard widget, and very active community and forums to help you set it all up. Using the web interface, you can quickly control your automation system from anywhere in the world (disclaimer: the author developed the web interface and widget, and the source code is available under an open-source license). Indigo is available as an unrestricted 30-day demo available at Perceptive Automation's website.

ThinkingHome, and HomeRun all provide adequate interface to X10 controllers, with varying levels of scriptability, interface, and overall features. Unfortunately, these three options don't appear to be actively updated, though they're still available for trial. They're also only available for PPC and not as Universal Binaries.

This was a quick run down of the various automation software solutions available on the Mac. Due to the active development and support of Indigo, as well as the ease of use, support of Mac technologies, and impressive list of features, we will be discussing Indigo in more depth in our next article.

Putting it Together: Designing your Automation System

Now that we've covered the different pieces you will need to automate your place, lets design a system. For the purposes of this example, we will use a small office (homes are typically used, so lets turn it around). Besides, the example could easily be inverted and applied to a home, workshop, or home office.

First thing to do is to list the devices you will want to control with your automation system. Lets say: coffee maker, overhead lights, desk lamp, door and window closures, and a stereo system. Additionally, we want to integrate the system with our existing switches to keep the transition to an automation system transparent to other members of the office. Just like SAF (Spouse Approval Factor) there is such as thing as Co-worker Approval Factor (CAF). Based on this list, we will need to determine our "Bill of Materials" to order from an automation store. We will also use this list to record the device addresses of our modules for later programming into Indigo.

Table 1: Components for a Sample Office Automation System
Component Device
Computer Interface PowerLinc/SignalLincs
Coffee Maker
ApplianceLinc
Overhead light switch (2)
SwitchLinc
Desk Lamp LampLinc
Stereo ApplianceLinc
Doors, windows (6) Powerflash or DS10A
Wireless transceiver W800-RF32

This is just a suggested system, and you're free to choose and configure the devices as you see fit. Our example office is just a general example of a simple system that utilizes the principal parts of an automation system.

Summary

We just covered the basics and options of an automation system with your Mac. The automation software available for your Mac allows unlimited customization, and hardware and interfaces are plentiful for whatever you want to control or sense. In our next article, we will setup an automation system for a small office/workshop, setup modes, a web interface, and notifications.

Resources

Vendors

SmartHome - http://www.smarthome.com

FunForGeeks - http://funforgeeks.com

Software

Indigo - http://www.perceptiveautomation.com

XTension - http://www.shed.com/

MisterHouse - http://misterhouse.sourceforge.net/

ThinkingHome - http://www.alwaysthinking.com

HomeRun - http://www.findleystudios.com/homerun

Resources

XTension Mailing List - http://lists.shed.com/mailman/listinfo/xtensionlist

Indigo Forums - http://www.perceptiveautomation.com/phpBB2/index.php

comp.home.automation - http://groups.google.com/group/comp.home.automation


Andrew Turner is an independent software developer and technology integrator who has built robotic airships, automated his house, designed spacecraft, and in general looks for any excuse to hack together cool technology. You can read more about his projects at www.highearthorbit.com.

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Chromium 45.0.2454.85 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. Version 45.0.2454.85: Note: Does not contain the "... Read more
OmniFocus 2.2.5 - GTD task manager with...
OmniFocus helps you manage your tasks the way that you want, freeing you to focus your attention on the things that matter to you most. Capturing tasks and ideas is always a keyboard shortcut away in... Read more
iFFmpeg 5.7.1 - Convert multimedia files...
iFFmpeg is a graphical front-end for FFmpeg, a command-line tool used to convert multimedia files between formats. The command line instructions can be very hard to master/understand, so iFFmpeg does... Read more
VOX 2.6 - Music player that supports man...
VOX is a beautiful music player that supports many filetypes. The beauty is in its simplicity, yet behind the minimal exterior lies a powerful music player with a ton of features and support for all... Read more
Box Sync 4.0.6567 - Online synchronizati...
Box Sync gives you a hard-drive in the Cloud for online storage. Note: You must first sign up to use Box. What if the files you need are on your laptop -- but you're on the road with your iPhone? No... Read more
Carbon Copy Cloner 4.1.4 - Easy-to-use b...
Carbon Copy Cloner backups are better than ordinary backups. Suppose the unthinkable happens while you're under deadline to finish a project: your Mac is unresponsive and all you hear is an ominous,... Read more
OmniGraffle Pro 6.3.1 - Create diagrams,...
OmniGraffle Pro helps you draw beautiful diagrams, family trees, flow charts, org charts, layouts, and (mathematically speaking) any other directed or non-directed graphs. We've had people use... Read more
Monosnap 3.1.2 - Versatile screenshot ut...
Monosnap lets you capture screenshots, share files, and record video and .gifs! Capture: Capture full screen, just part of the screen, or a selected window Make your crop area pixel perfect with... Read more
Alfred 2.7.2 - Quick launcher for apps a...
Alfred is an award-winning productivity application for OS X. Alfred saves you time when you search for files online or on your Mac. Be more productive with hotkeys, keywords, and file actions at... Read more
Microsoft Remote Desktop 8.0.19 - Connec...
With Microsoft Remote Desktop, you can connect to a remote PC and your work resources from almost anywhere. Experience the power of Windows with RemoteFX in a Remote Desktop client designed to help... Read more

This Week at 148Apps: August 24-28, 2015
The Apps of August With 148Apps How do you know what apps are worth your time and money? Just look to the review team at 148Apps. We sort through the chaos and find the apps you're looking for. The ones we love become Editor’s Choice, standing out... | Read more »
NASCAR in Real Racing 3? Sure, Why Not?
I have to give Firemonkeys credit - it's very cool of them to add NASCAR to Real Racing 3 via an update rather than making a separate game for it. But that's a different discussion for another time; for now let's sit back and enjoy driving in... | Read more »
The nuyu is an Inexpensive Activity Moni...
Today, Health o Meter nuyu has announced a series of health and fitness-related products, including the aforementioned activity monitor along with a wireless scale. All at a decent pricepoint, no less. [Read more] | Read more »
The Makers of Overkill are Trying Someth...
Craneballs, the studio responsible for the Overkill series, is taking a little break from all that violence (a little break) to bring us Cube Worm - a 3D take on one of the most classic PC/calculator games in existence. [Read more] | Read more »
The Sandbox Welcomes Cutethulu in its La...
Another month, another update to Pixowl's The Sandbox. This time players can say hello to "Cutethulu" - an adorable little rendition of perhaps the most well known (and infamous) of the Elder Gods. [Read more] | Read more »
ReBoard: Revolutionary Keyboard (Utilit...
ReBoard: Revolutionary Keyboard 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Utilities Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Do everything within the keyboard without switching apps! If you are in WhatsApp, how do you schedule a... | Read more »
Tiny Empire (Games)
Tiny Empire 1.1.3 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.1.3 (iTunes) Description: Launch cannonballs and blow tiny orcs into thousands of pieces in this intuitive fantasy-themed puzzle shooter! Embark on an... | Read more »
Astropad Mini (Productivity)
Astropad Mini 1.0 Device: iOS iPhone Category: Productivity Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: *** 50% off introductory price! ​*** Get the high-end experience of a Wacom tablet at a fraction of the price with Astropad... | Read more »
Emo Chorus (Music)
Emo Chorus 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Music Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Realistic Choir simulator ranging from simple Chorus emulation to full ensemble Choir with 128 members. ### introductory offer... | Read more »
Forest Spirit (Games)
Forest Spirit 1.0.5 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0.5 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

WaterField Designs Unveils American-Made, All...
San Francisco’s WaterField Designs today unveiled their all-leather Cozmo 2.0 — an elegant attach laptop bag with carefully-designed features to suit any business environment. The Cozmo 2.0 is... Read more
Apple’s 2015 Back to School promotion: Free B...
Purchase a new Mac or iPad at The Apple Store for Education and take up to $300 off MSRP. All teachers, students, and staff of any educational institution qualify for the discount. Shipping is free,... Read more
128GB MacBook Airs on sale for $100 off MSRP,...
B&H Photo has 11″ & 13″ MacBook Airs with 128GB SSDs on sale for $100 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY sales tax only: - 11″ 1.6GHz/128GB MacBook Air: $799.99, $100 off MSRP... Read more
13-inch 2.5GHz MacBook Pro (refurbished) avai...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 13″ 2.5GHz MacBook Pros available for $829, or $270 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free: - 13″ 2.... Read more
27-inch 3.2GHz iMac on sale for $1679, save $...
B&H Photo has the 27″ 3.2GHz iMac on sale for $1679.99 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP. Read more
Apple and Cisco Partner to Deliver Fast-Lane...
Apple and Cisco have announced a partnership to create a “fast lane” for iOS business users by optimizing Cisco networks for iOS devices and apps. The alliance integrates iPhone with Cisco enterprise... Read more
Apple offering refurbished 2015 13-inch Retin...
The Apple Store is offering Apple Certified Refurbished 2015 13″ Retina MacBook Pros for up to $270 (15%) off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and... Read more
Apple refurbished 2015 MacBook Airs available...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished 2015 11″ and 13″ MacBook Airs (the latest models), available for up to $180 off the cost of new models. An Apple one-year warranty is included with... Read more
21-inch iMacs on sale for up to $120 off MSRP
B&H Photo has 21″ iMacs on sale for up to $120 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY sales tax only: - 21″ 1.4GHz iMac: $999.99 $100 off - 21″ 2.7GHz iMac: $1199.99 $100 off - 21″ 2.9GHz iMac... Read more
5K iMacs on sale for up to $150 off MSRP, fre...
B&H Photo has the 27″ 3.3GHz 5K iMac on sale for $1899.99 including free shipping plus NY tax only. Their price is $100 off MSRP. They have the 27″ 3.5GHz 5K iMac on sale for $2149.99 $2199.99, $... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Desktop Analyst - KDS Staffing (Unit...
…field and consistent professional recruiting achievement. Job Description: Title: Apple Desktop AnalystPosition Type: Full-time PermanentLocation: White Plains, NYHot Read more
Simply Mac- *Apple* Specialist- Store Manag...
Simply Mac is the largest premier retailer for Apple products and solutions. We're looking for dedicated individuals with a passion to simplify and enhance the Read more
*Apple* Evangelist - JAMF Software (United S...
The Apple Evangelist is responsible for building and cultivating strategic relationships with Apple 's small and mid-market business development field teams. This Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Desktop Analyst - KDS Staffing (Unit...
…field and consistent professional recruiting achievement. Job Description: Title: Apple Desktop AnalystPosition Type: Full-time PermanentLocation: White Plains, NYHot Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.