Few days ago I received the prototypes of two interesting products for home automation by ITEAD Studio. In the past I worked on a device (the ARC – the post is in italian) that allows people to control any electrical appliance just using his/her own phone (not necessarily smart). My device works just detecting the caller phone number, recognising it and acting appropriately. You can even control the appliance with your desktop phone. We use it to remotely control our washing machine, that is a great idea because you can find your clothes just washed and ready to be hung exactly when you are back home from work or leisure.
However, it needs a SIM to be connected to the GSM network, and, even if it does not generate traffic (but in special occasions), it deserves some maintenance and costs (few) money, of the order of 10 euros/year, for the SIM.
The advent of smartphones makes the usage of home automation devices much simpler (not the device itself, but its usage).
The devices I had the chance to try are called the Slampher and the Sonoff, currently on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.
The Slampher (see the picture below) is a device that can be simply screwed on a lamp holder to which you can screw a light bulb. Its use is really straightforward. Just take a lamp holder, put the Slampher on it instead of a light bulb, then put the light bulb in place screwing it on the Slampher. You are now almost ready to control the light either using a switch, a remote command or you smartphone.
A small button on the Slampher allows you to turn on and off the light, if pressed shortly.
If you press such a button twice, a red LED starts blinking and you can pair the Slampher with a remote controller with four buttons marked A, B, C and D, just pressing the corresponding button on the controller. You can now control your lights using the remote controller: pressing the chosen button makes the light to switch on and off.
The interesting part comes when using the free App called eWelink, available for both iOS and Android. Once registered choosing a username and a password, you can remotely control your lights from anywhere. Of course, you need the access to a Wi-Fi network at home and you must configure the Slampher to use it, that is very simple: keep the button pressed for at least 5 seconds; a green LED starts blinking; click on the + button on the App to start searching new devices; once found choose the SSID of the network to which it must connect and add the device to your list. You now can control the light using your smartphone from anywhere. Just pressing on the device icon you can switch lights on and off (and you can get the status of the light from the color of the icon: green or red).
As far as I understand the system works such that the Slampher, once connected to the network, can poll a remote service that keeps its status. The user can interact with the service through the App. This can be a concern, in principle, since the possibility to use this device is subject to the availability of such a service. However, I am confident it will. The device is so cheap that the remote possibility that the service disappears in the future is not an issue.
The Sonoff (see picture) is a similar product intended to control any other appliance. Essentially, it is a device that has to be connected to a power cord on one side (left in the figure) and to the appliance on the other side (right on the picture). It works almost like the Slampher: it can be controlled with the push button, with the remote controller and with the eWelink App. The configuration process is exactly the same of the Slampher.
Both the products work quite well and are simple enough to be configured and used to be appreciated by anyone. In particular for the Slampher there is no complication at all and its configuration and usage is quite straightforward. The Sonoff requires some work, in order to be useful: you need to connect the power cord on one side and the appliance to the other using the connectors seen in the picture below. The ideas behind those products is great, in my opinion, though there is a couple of things that must be ameliorated to make them really successful. The Sonoff, in particular, can easily replace my ARC device: it’s smaller and much cheaper (and, needless to say, you can buy it as such, while the ARC is not sold by myself, nor by others).
Here are my suggestions to the ITEAD engineers: they are relatively cheap and easy, in fact, but can improve much the products. The list may appear to be long, but believe me: they are really minor points. The products are already very interesting as they are now.
I would improve a bit the look of both the products and the App: for the latter I would remove the wordings in chinese, I would choose a different font and size for characters and I would add some help in the configuration phase (I had to smartly search for web pages to find how to configure properly the devices: keeping the push button was my first guess, but 5 seconds are long and I didn’t wait enough; moreover, figuring out that I must press twice that button to configure the remote controller was not so straightforward). To remove a device from the list of those controlled by your smartphone you must slide the corresponding line from right to left, that again is not so intuitive. I would suggest to hire a professional in UI design or a designer.
The look of the devices appears to be a bit ugly. The Slampher, for example, is very well designed even in terms of its shape and size, but it wears a label on its side that makes it look as a rather non professional device. Also the prototype I got for the Sonoff is not so nice: the choice for the fonts and size of the characters on the printed label is not optimal; I would choose a more friendly site address and I would point to a page with instructions or an introductory page rather than the user forum. Again: a design professional would help a lot.
The Sonoff, in particular, is rather interesting, but, in contrast with the Slampher, it is not so easy to be used unless you are used to hack devices. I wish to use something more like a power strip with a properly and securely attached power cord and a socket, instead of having to cut electrical cables, strip them and screw them into something that is not completely isolated (that is a great idea when you rebuild your electrical network at home, but not for a running one). It also has just two connectors for two cables, not three as required by regulations that imposes the use of a third cable connected to the ground. A very good alternative would be something like the Slampher that you can plug directly onto a socket on the wall that exposes a second socket for the user.
The real disappointing feature of both devices is that there is some delay between the activation by means of App and the switch of the state of the device. Even if the delay is really tiny, pressing twice rapidly on the device icon on the App causes its state to flip from on to off or vice versa, but in few cases that does not correspond to a real flip of the state of the device that can remain in a state that is different from what appears on the App. Of course this is not acceptable for a device intended to operate remotely on electricity without a proper surveillance and can be dangerous. Solving this problem, however, should not be too difficult: adding some inertia to the App may be a simple solution, but monitoring the real state of the device through the Internet and providing such a state to the user via the App is for sure the best solution.
Overall, I believe these are very interesting products, given their cost and the fact that are relatively easy to use. My guess is that they potentially have a good market. I will give them a try on the crowdfunding campaign.