01 December 2016

#DIY #IoT #SmartRemote: #BlackFriday Score @BestBuy $9.99 #Smartphone! Control #SmartCast #GoogleCast #AmazonEcho

It seems nearly everything can be controlled by an app nowadays. There's an app for that and there's an app for this. And while the idea of such convenience is great, controlling everything at the home or estate level could become a pain for a multiuser household. Think about it. So-called dumb TVs didn't care who was turning the channel --- a child could do it unassisted --- but a SmartTV may need to be paired with an app in order to create an optimal viewing experience.

If you're a bachelor, it's not a big deal to download an app to your personal smartphone that controls your new HDTV. But what do you do when your bros visit to hang out and binge watch? Pass around your phone (with all those private selfies)? Expect everyone download another (useless) app to his own phone merely to control the TV at your house? Neither are ideal solutions.

In honor of Throwback Thursday, here's a "tech growing pain" flashback: Remember when all the streaming services launched under an assumption that each person would have an individual digital library that was his alone. Yeah, it was ridiculous to assume that people in the same household would login/logout of the same app on a family TV to watch the very same content or that each person in a household would buy a copy of the one show everybody watches. Obviously a family or household would share content across devices. Amazingly, this was the default mode in a "dumb" home. It took a while, and a lot of complaints from people like me, but most services now have family plans which allow for some form of "household" content sharing, which should have been the standard to begin with...

In addition to often lax security (Mirai IoT botnet DDOS attack, anyone?) and sketchy consumer privacy policies (All your base are belong to us?), the idea of a single user app to item 1-to-1 pairing is one more shortsighted oversight in the push to make everything Internet-connected. (Oversights of this nature are what I call "tech growing pains", where the advent of tech in a specific arena has to catch up to the actuality of usage. This "phenomenon" frequently occurs in the area of consumer products. Developers often seem to remark, "we never imagined people would use our product for thus and so." Product development tends to be rather myopic this way.)

The issue at hand: If you need an app to control X (where X is something that anyone in the house might need or want to use) then where should the app reside so that anyone authorized may access it?

Luckily, however, there is a simple solution: An IoT connected SmartHome needs at least one (multiuser) SmartRemote. You can buy one. It can be a bit pricey. Alternatively, some of the new high-end products that rely on app control come with a SmartRemote included. (High-end series of Vizio SmartCast TVs, for instance, include a free Vizio SmartCast Tablet Remote.) Or you can go the crafty tech geek way....

I decided it would make more sense to simply acquire a cheap smartphone/s and turn it into a DIY SmartRemote rather than clutter up my business or personal smartphone with home automation apps and create a security nightmare by allowing children, neighbors or guests to have unfettered access to my private mobile ostensibly to turn the television or peek into the refrigerator.

A handheld DIY SmartRemote can be loaded with any apps necessary, left unlocked and kept in a common area so that anyone in the house can make use of it. It doesn't need an active phone service, only WiFi and perhaps Bluetooth. Almost any smartphone will suffice --- you might have an old one (or several) sitting around leftover after you last upgraded, repurpose it. The caveat being to make certain that whatever smartphone you employ for this task has an OS version can support the apps you need to load and that it has enough storage space to hold said apps. (You may need to update the OS on an older model phone, if you're able, in order to make it compatible with newly released apps and/or add an external MicroSD card to expand storage capacity.)

The salient point here is that a smartphone is really just a handheld computer. "Telephony? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." (I kid. I kid.) However, due to its ubiquitous nature the price of smartphones has dropped dramatically (on the low end of the Android market at least) compared to what "real" handheld computers cost. Of course, said ubiquitousness of smartphones has led to their becoming the latest "disposable" electronics item. To combat this horror, collect old unused smartphones from friends and family, if you're able, and turn these into SmartRemotes. Help alleviate the tech garbage glut by repurposing items whenever possible! And recycle, when items become obsolete.

Due to the fact that I'm a hard core recycler/reuser and work diligently to "green" my tech habits, my household actually didn't have any old smartphones not in already in use for some means (woe is me, I know). Not to worry, due to market saturation, you can find new Android smartphones for dirt cheap, if you keep an eye out. Black Friday sales tend to feature prominently in this quest. To this end, I scoured the Black Friday circulars and online notices for this year's sales and found a winner!

Alcatel IDEAL Android Smartphone
Best Buy advertised an Alcatel IDEAL Android Smartphone (AT&T GoPhone Prepaid Service) 8GB WiFi Bluetooth Lollipop for only $9.99 plus tax, available online or in-store. So I nabbed one. Considering that I recently redeemed for a Vizio SmartCast HDTV (reward) and won an Amazon Echo in a contest, I realized I'm at the point where a dedicated SmartRemote was in order. (I was totally willing to invest $10 on a DIY SmartRemote.) I'm only getting started with home automation, planning its integration into my home as I design, build and renovate, so this is merely a first foray, so to speak. As my SmartHome setup expands and alters, so will its needs.

For now, however, this Alcatel smartphone will work for the four or five "smart" things I have going. I happen to have an 8GB MicroSD card (freebie find) that I'll pop in it to expand the storage space a bit, since the OS alone takes up roughly half its built-in capacity. I plan to install the Vizio SmartCast app, the Amazon Alexa app and the various Google Cast compatible streaming service apps that I use regularly for starters. (All these apps are free to download, but may require a subscription to use, of course.) Once configured, it'll probably sit on an end table near the telly in my home theater (room). My little niece can use it to cast cartoons onto the big screen. And if she drops it on the floor or gets sticky fingered residue on it, it's all good.

I don't need to sacrifice my personal smartphone on the altar of IoT home automation. And neither should you.



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NOTES: Depending on the extent of automation in your household, you may only need one "omni" SmartRemote responsible for controlling the three tasks the average person automates (lights, music/TV, security). If, however, you happen to be a massive tech geek like I am wherein practically every thing in the house that can be automated will be automated, then merely having one remote quickly becomes very inefficient. (Engineers loathe inefficiency.)

If you only have "one remote to control them all" but own several hundred things that can be remote controlled, you'd be stuck scrolling through hundreds of apps to find the specific one needed to control your SmartCrockPot or your Home Theater --- and this cuts down the convenience factor to roughly nil.

Geeks like me will have "thematic" SmartRemotes stationed throughout the home. There will be a Kitchen SmartRemote that only has SmartKitchen Appliance apps loaded onto it, a MediaCenter SmartRemote with only entertainment and media device apps installed, etc., etc.. Each remote will "live" in the room/s that it controls. Such a thematic SmartRemote might even be built into the wall, others might be handheld and portable depending upon need.

This is the future, I envision. My Castle Modern. I've got dreams, dreams...

1 comment:


  1. UPDATE: I went ahead and unlocked this smartphone from AT&T service. Having an active phone service isn't required in order for the smartphone to function as a SmartRemote, but I don't like locked phones. If I purchase a phone outright, I expect to be able to do whatever I like with it.

    I purchased an "AT&T Alcatel IDEAL unlock code" from a phone unlocking service on eBay for $0.99. I happened to have ~$2.00 remaining balance on an old eBay Gift Certificate that I'd received from writing an "online auction knowledgebase guide" some months back, so technically it was free --- and I still have ~$1.00 left for some other pittance!

    After I received the code, which took about 3 days from the time I placed my order, I simply removed the pre-installed AT&T SIM card, put in an unrecognized SIM card, turned on the phone for the first time, got a Network Unlock prompt popup window, input the unlock code, and voilà!

    As I never registered or activated the phone on the AT&T GoPhone service --- I removed the AT&T SIM before powering on the phone for the first time --- my information "could not be validated" via the automated AT&T phone unlocking portal when I attempted to do it myself. While I could have squabbled with AT&T over an unlock code, it wasn't worth my time, especially when I could pay a service a mere $0.99 to do it for me.

    Once the phone was free and clear, I installed a Freedompop SIM card, I had laying around. This Data Only Freedompop SIM card gets a roughly 500MB/month data allotment at no cost. The SIM originally cost $1.99 and came with free 8GB MicroSD card thrown in. I also popped the MicroSD into the smartphone to expand its storage space (as previously mentioned in the post above). I paid for the SIM card using funds earned from taking an online survey, so technically it was free, too. I now have an unlocked smartphone with a free data plan + a SmartRemote for app-enabled appliances. And it cost me a whopping ten bucks!

    Sense a theme? I like freebies and deals. As I said, if I can get something for free or incredibly cheap, why go OOP?

    TIP: I will often take random surveys online in my leisure time, if they pay cash or offer some other tangible benefit. When I receive the ePayment (generally via Paypal), I transfer it to my bank then onto my AMEX Bluebird card, which I specifically got to function as a "reward card" or a card that has "free" money on it to use for fun stuff. The Bluebird card (prepaid Debit Card) was free to sign-up for and has no associated fees for using your own money that's been transferred onto it. Allows me to stash any cash I earn from online panels and surveys. (Yes, this money is earned income, but its also discretionary income excluded from my budget, and thus earmarked for nothing but fun.)

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