Monday, November 18, 2013

DIY House JARVIS


OK, this is sort of a rough thing to admit - but I have a lot of extra tablets lying around.

So, hear me out - first, I'm a CTO and so I wind up buying a lot of them for experimentation, plus they also sort of show up when you buy things these days. I purchased a new TV a few months ago, and...poof, tablet. Then, of course, there's the actual tablets that I use in my personal life.

The problem with tablet proliferation is: they are all really pretty nice, so you don't want to get rid of them - but as technology moves on, the older ones get left by the wayside. Either the operating system doesn't upgrade any further, or the hardware can't support the new operating systems. The two tablets I'm going to talk about fall into those last two categories: The Samsung Galaxy Tab 7+ and the Asus Transformer Prime.

The Hardware


The Galaxy Tab 7+ is one of the best tablets I've ever owned - seriously, I have no idea why Samsung messed with that tablet line as badly as they have, but the new Galaxy 7 series just doesn't do it for me. This thing had everything, a blazingly fast dual core CPU (before it was fashionable to have quad cores), expandable memory, front/back cameras, excellent wifi, and on and on.

Unfortunately, the 7+ is stuck on Android 4.0.x, and doesn't look like it's going to be updated any further. Pity, but... it's time for a new life.

The Asus Transformer Prime is another sad little character in the world of tablets. Although blazingly fast (and gorgeous) when it came out, it was soon plagued by issues relating to it's wifi and GPS. (Both radios were getting partially blocked by that snazzy metal case.) In addition, the unit only has 1G of system RAM - so as the Android world moved to Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond, even though the Transformer Prime was getting the updates, it was slowing way way down for practical use.

It's sad, because the screen was really phenomenal, but...now it too will get a second life.

For years I've wanted a kitchen computer (anyone remember Audrey?) - but they were always too large, too unreliable, and too difficult to install cleanly. Pre-iPad tablet computers existed, but they were extremely expensive and prone to overheating. Plus, they really couldn't do much in the way of home automation.

Enter 2013: tablets are plentiful (and lying around my home office, apparently), and home automation has seen a resurgence (Nest, Sonos, Media Center, alarm systems, etc.) - this seemed to be the perfect opportunity to use what I had to create a low-cost JARVIS for my house. One "JARVIS" would be in my bedroom (the Tab 7+) and the other would be in my kitchen (the Asus). This would allow me to experiment with different configurations and interoperability between the two units, and see what sort of additional kick to my home automation I could provide.

The Software

In order for these things to become "JARVIS," they had to have the right look. The naked Android interface wouldn't cut it, plus placing widgets all over the screen would get pretty clumsy and cluttered over time. I was looking for an interface that would suggest "JARVIS," but allow me quick access to all of the applications I know I wanted in both my kitchen and my bedroom: Sonos, Media Center controls, Recipes, Weather, and a few others. Not a ton of things, just those that were useful.

Fortunately, this is Android, and adapting the screen to my needs was just a matter of replacing the home screen launcher. I sat down for several hours and looked at all of my alternatives, and the one that made the most sense was GinLemon's Smart Launcher Pro. SL has the interface I was looking for (a circular flower of large buttons for the apps, plus a clock and date in constant display) and it was skinable. It took me only another few minutes to find a JARVIS skin that someone put together for SL.

Golden!

So, the next thing to do was to strip my tablets all the way down, removing all of the software that I had placed on them over the years. I wanted these things to be as lean as possible, so there was no chance of failure. I also created another Google account for my house. A generic one that I could mess with however I wanted, and it wouldn't effect my other Android devices. (Plus, house guests couldn't accidentally stumble upon my email, Evernote, Dropbox and other personal goodies.)

Next, I spent some time adjusting the default behavior of the tablets. I wanted the lock screen to go away, the screen timeout to be longer than 2 minutes, and the brightness and sound to be cranked up to a reasonable value.

The one thing I couldn't find a solution to in off-the-shelf software was screen activation. Android tablets do not have a face proximity sensor, and when an Android device turns its screen off, it really goes to sleep in a traditional sense. Without a proximity sensor running, the only way to wake up a sleeping Android tablet (aside from hitting the power button) was to shake it, since the motion sensors are still running. Shaking a tablet that is firmly mounted to the wall, though, is a losing proposition.

Waking the things up eligantly was something I was going to have to do mechanically in hardware...

The Framing

The first thing to consider was how to place these things in the house so that they were at once out of the way and still immediately available. Also, being a bit of a persnickety gentleman, I was concerned about the aesthetics. I wanted these things to blend into the rest of my decor, and not look like the geek toys I want so desperately wanted them to become.

Keeping that all of this in mind, I immediately began to seek out wall mounted solutions. There are plenty of wall mounts for tablets on the web, but most of them are cheap "stick this to your wall" sorts of affairs, and none of them provided power. I was going to have to construct my own in a way that fit in with everything else. 

Even though I live in San Francisco now, I used to live in Boston and I carried that New England sensibility over to the left coast. That means I have a lot of muted colors, and my wall highlights tend to be white, wood frames. Fortunately, this makes for a relatively easy framing project, and a great way to hide cables to the tablets, give them ventilation and makes sure they are both securely hung on the walls and easily removable in case I need to get inside.

I walked down to my local frame store and picked up a couple of frames that were (a) larger than the tablets themselves, (b) made of wood, not plastic, metal or particle board (c) had  thick frames that I could cut into in order to make channels for the cables and plugs. 

Using a pullsaw, also called a Japanese saw (you see it there in the photo to the right), I very carefully cut the frames down to as close to as exact fit around the tablets as I could. I made the cuts on the 45degree corners, so that I could hide

the alterations easier.  To be honest, I went through a couple of frames ($25/pop) until I got the effect I was looking to achieve. Once done, I had to do it again with the second frame, then paint over the new seams. I kinda impressed myself. 

The next trick involved carefully carving out (or, in my case, haphazardly gouging out like an insane person) cutouts into the wood frames for the power plugs. Both the Asus and the Samsung use similar types of plugs that look nothing like USB jacks - in fact these are both quite large, about the size of a quarter, so the larger wooden frames worked great for hiding these huge plugs.

Whilest I haveth ye ole wood chisel in my hand, I continued my hacking away to place two screw mounts on either side of the frame. It was important to make these mounts as flush with the wood as possible, as it is important that the frame mounts tight and flush against the wall. It's a touch screen interface, and the rig can't bounce around on the wall when your poking at it.

The final cut to make into the frame had to be far more precise than my hack jobs. As I mentioned above, android tablets have a lot of sensors on board, but the one they do not have is a proximity sensor. On phones, the proximity sensor allows the phone's screen to either wake or go to sleep when the phone is placed close to, or taken away from, your face so your cheek doesn't accidentally hang up the phone or punch buttons. On a tablet, you rarely hold it to your face so the OEMs save themselves a sensor and just have the user touch the physical "on" button to wake the screen.

What this means for this project is that there is no software I can write, or applications I can download, that will allow me to wave my hand in front of the tablet to wake it up. I literally have to "punch the button" to get it to wake up. This is fine when the tablet is just sitting on the table, but punching the button is difficult to do when it's covered up by two inches of wood and screwed into the wall.

My solution to this problem was old-world mechanical: create a button mechanism that extends through the frame.

I don't own a drill press, so I used a vise and a steady hand to drill a 5/8th inch hole through the frame to where the tablet power button sits. I then cut a 2.5 inch length of 5/8th inch dowel stick, and shaped the end (with sandpaper) that would come in contact with the power button to conform to the shapes of the tablet edging. (Note: Aside from the Sony Tablet Z, there's no tablet I'm aware of that has a flat edge bevel. Both the Samsung and the Asus have tapered edges that need to be taken into account, otherwise the dowel will not seat properly against the button.) When I initially cut out the framing, I arranged the tablets so that their power buttons are on "top" of the frame, and the dowel stick just rests on top. I had to do a little extra sanding on the dowel stick itself to reduce friction when it was in the hole, otherwise I ran the danger of the dowel being held down against the power button causing the tablet to reboot.

Ta-da! A wooden "instant wake" button.

Keeping the tablets in place in their framing was easier than I anticipated. I cut poster board to fit the backing of the frame, drilling a hole in the back to allow the cable to come through. The poster board was then held in place by simple metal clips that you can purchase at any framing store.

That's it - both units are now ready for wall mounting.





The Wall Mounting

Ok, now for the tricky part. I have created two tablet mountings for two areas in my home: the master
bedroom, and the kitchen. The look I am going for is a free-float mounting, without any cables coming through from the framing. In order to obtain this effect, I ordered 6 foot long USB extension cables for both tablets and drilled holes in the wall behind each tablet, and again at the baseboard. This allowed me to thread the cable out the back of the tablet, down the wall and fish it out down below.

While this sounded simple, the mount locations of each tablet differed from each other in a couple of significant ways:

The mount in the kitchen was theoretically "easy," as the wall I was placing the unit on was an interior wall, without any exterior window framing. Therefore it was basically hollow, with simple 2x4 framing done every 18 inches. This would have been an easy effect to achieve, except the previous owners of the house crowded that wall with a security alarm control panel, and an intercom system for the front gate. Just slapping another piece of electronics on the wall would have looked junky if I didn't re-arrange the existing devices.

I'll spare you the gory details, but I took down the ADT security panel (revealing that lovely hackjob of a hole in the wall that the installation dude cut) and moved it down about 9 inches. Similarly, I pulled off the 40 year old security gate phone (70's wiring is amazing, uh....really) and moved it over about 5 inches. With the old equipment positioned as you see it in the photo, I was now ready to install the kitchen "JARVIS."

Fortunately, as I had hoped, the interior wall was completely hollow. "Wiring" in the unit, just
required me to attach the USB extension cable, electrical tape it together, and drill a 3/4" hole near the baseboard on the opposite side of the wall, which was next to an electrical outlet. If you are familiar with using a coat hanger to fish wires, the rest was very straightforward. (If you aren't familiar with using a coat hanger, uh, it's pretty much exactly what you are thinking: unbend it, make a hook in one end, and use it to fish the dangling cable through the hole.

Once all of that was done, placing the drywall screws in the wall where the tablet would be mounted was a snap. Just make sure you level the holes, measure twice, drill once. The tablet snapped right in without any trouble, and the dowel-stick mechanical button worked as advertised.

Voila! A neat, clean wall tablet installation.

Mounting the bedroom JARVIS would be a more difficult proposition, but I understood that going in. The wall location was not only an exterior wall, but it was between two windows - meaning that the framing would be intense. Exterior window placement means that the framing on either side of the windows consists of two 2x4's stacked against each other, and below each window would be a pair of stacked 2x4's to hold the window weight.

What this meant for the installation was, well, messy. I had to drill the 3/4th's inch holes for the USB cabling both at the tablet mount point, and down below by the baseboard, just like in the kitchen - unlike, the kitchen, however, I would have to locate the stacked 2x4's that were taking the
weight of the window frames and chisel a channel for the cable through them...which, of course, meant channeling through the drywall.  This went from a simple drill-and-hang operation to one that involved wall patching and painting. So be it...I had extra wall paint in the basement.

Once the channel was cut into the wall, threading the USB cable was just like the kitchen, except I used anchor staples to attach the USB cable to the 2x4's so it wouldn't be able to move or slide around - once that was done, I patched the wall up and hung the frame for the bedroom "JARVIS" as intended, making sure that everything was level.

Because of the amount of patching that was done, I waited 24 hours for the wall to dry. Once I was convinced it was dry, it was just a matter of applying the wall paint and hanging the tablet.

Volia (again)! Bedroom JARVIS.

Conclusion

Because this is a woodworking and home renovation project as much as it is a tablet installation project, this may not be for the faint of heart. However, I'm guessing there's a few shortcuts you can take that would allow you to get the project done professionally if you were willing to pay out some coin. (You can probably locate a framing shop that would do your tablet framing for you, for instance, and an electrician could mount the tablets a little easier.) 

However, if you have some extra tablets lying around and want to give it a shot, I highly recommend it. I've lived with the installations now for about a week, and I have to confess that I use them far more than I thought I ever would. Controlling Sonos from the wall alone is worth it, but once I added the software to control my Nest, the WeMo's, Epicurious, Cellar Tracker, Yahoo Weather, My Media Center and other applications by home automation nirvana was reached. I use both tablets differently in each location: Music control is a constant, of course, but in the bedroom I use the house Nest control, weather applications, security cam monitoring and video hangouts quite a bit. In the kitchen, I use the recipe and wine cellar applications as much as I use anything else. 

So, let me just leave you with a couple of videos to tempt you into trying this yourself. (Yes, I'm saying "OK JARVIS," instead of "OK Google." I'd like to claim credit for that hack, but that's a Google easter egg I'm exploiting.)

Enjoy.

video video



Monday, June 17, 2013

Google+ Quietly Becomes a Photographer's Best Friend

Is Google+ where all the photographers have gone?

"Filtered" Image from My PicPlz Days

I rant about Instagram, but I use it because that's where my friends and family are...so I reluctantly go there.  I'm as guilty as showing my food on Instagram as everyone else, I suppose. It's fun in its own way, but it mangles photos in a way that makes my blood curdle.

I tried Path for a while. Meh. Your photo's are presented the way you wish, but the community is small and oddly self-curated.

I never really post to FaceBook unless I'm experimenting with something, I can do without their spidering tenderals of data collection.

500px is good, but charges for their service and still has no mobile upload, which I find...amazing, actually.

I stilll morn the death of PicPlz , the photo-sharing service that was competing with Instagram....until Instagram was bought by FaceBook. Then poor little PicPlz threw in the towel... but it was lovely - photos were presented in a way that the photographer intended: the right framing, aspect ratio...and if you wanted to filter your photos, you still could. The community on PicPlz was gear towards showing it's art, it seemed, not whatever they were currently eating.

Flickr seems to be having a rebirth of sorts, and I like what I see there again. The website is gorgeous, and so are the new mobile apps (both iOS and Android)...so, maybe there's hope there again...

Then there's Google+... I started to notice photos from photographers early on in G+... but uploading photos conveniently to G+ in the earlier days was a little convoluted. Then Google bought SnapSeed and you could see how they wanted to compete with Instagram, at least in terms of photo filters. SnapSeed is significantly more powerful than Instagram filters (easy to use, as well), and allowed for easy uploads to G+... but as G+ was a streaming feed, it's possible that photographs would get lost in the endless stream.

Then, at the end of 2012, Google+ introduced the concept of communities, and everything seemed to change - almost overnight. I liken communities to the old school USENet News Groups. Conversations you could just monitor or contribute that keeps the dialog to a specific social niche. Photographers took to communities in droves. There are scores of photography communities specializing in everything from HDR to Black and White, to Selfies, if that's your thing. It's heartening to see people's work, some of which is really damned incredible, flood those conversations.

Suddenly, I don't miss PicPlz as much as I once did....

Update: I uploaded most of my PicPlz archive here

Saturday, May 18, 2013

72 Hours Under Glass

In May of 2012, I was one of the 2,500 folks who chose to commit to plunking down $1,500 at the 2012 Google I/O to become a test subject for a device that few people had touched, and whose public face appeared to the world to be an expensive GoPro. (Skydiving stunt, not withstanding.) Still, it felt like something interesting was going on here - and I was curious enough to put my money down to see if there was fire under the smoke. Besides, $1,500 to test out the future, seemed like a good idea at the time.

This action caused me to become what Google calls a Glass Explorer,  a clever term for beta field tester. Over the next year, I became indoctrinated into the program, which was being administered beautifully by +Sarah Price. I was one of the earlier classes, I believe - and met up with my particular pairing of 5 other lab rats. The first day there, after a brief orientation, I put on my first Google Glass headset -- essentially the same hardware that is now currently in the field, but the operating system and applications were severely limited. Still, it was very clear that this was more than just a GoPro device.

A full year after agreeing to pay out the $1,500, I received "The Email." A polite, brief note thanking me for my patience, and telling me how to place the final order. I have to admit, after the recent spate of #glasshole jokes, I began to second guess myself -- but in the end forged ahead with my original plan. As the days wore on, and people began to receive their units, the term #glasshole began to take on the air of a badge of courage, rather than the insult as it was originally intended.

As timing would have it, my Glass was ready to pick up at Google I/O 2013, just a few days ago in fact.  There was a brief orientation in a hotel room suite, accompanied by a nice glass of prosecco, just to cement the whole "glasshole" thing. Putting on my personal Glass for the first time, it was immediately apparent that they had been busy at Google... the OS was clean, crisp and responsive. There were already a smattering (very small smattering) of apps from companies willing to put themselves out there.

I wore the unit over the next couple of days at the conference, which, paradoxically, was the worst possible environment to try these things out. Google I/O was so jammed with people with cell phones, tablets, laptops....and Glass.... that WiFi connections and most cell service connections kept timing out. I had T-Mobile and Verizon hotspots, and none could keep up...and even the conference WiFi was crapping out more often then not.

Still....there was something interesting here.

The Good....



...and by that I mean there was something to this whole Glass nonsense. Putting on the Glass I was immediately presented with information that I instructed it to feed me from the handful of available applications. eMail, CNN news, NYTimes breaking news, Twitter, Facebook, SMS, G+ (naturally), it was all there...and all available.  The tiny little screen presents your eye with 640x360 images and text, and then disappears when its not necessary or needed. The little prism in the upper corner of your vision feels initially like a thumb-smudge on the top right of a pair of glasses. It becomes very easy to ignore.


As I said, the responsiveness of the unit was pretty incredible. Not only is scrolling around and looking at your timeline of events easy, it's easy to move to settings menus, maps, and nested levels of events from, say, your SMS history.

Some of the available applications, even in this early stage of things, are phenomenal. Both of the news services, for instance, provide timely, breaking news. They get out of the way quickly if you don't want to see anything right now, but allow you to drill down deep enough if you want to hear more about the story. The New York Times will even read you the news if you'd like.

Walking directional maps on this thing is pure Terminator territory. It will not only display your location on a map and direct you there, but it will track your head movement and indicate with arrows which direction you should be headed in... it's a lot more convenient than looking down at your phone to find your address, and - in sketchy areas of unfamiliar cities - it's probably a hell of a lot safer. Glancing at your phone and taking your attention from your surroundings makes you a target - if you have your eyes about you at all time with momentary glances up and to the right, you do not look as vulnerable...despite having a computer on your head.

The bone induction system for both the mic works surprisingly well - the mic was able to pick up and transcribe my voice without missing a beat, even in the crowded conference hall. In fact, I used it to compose a two paragraph business email, and it worked without a hitch.

Speaking of speaking, the Google Now implementation on Glass is an amazing experience. Tap and hold the sidebar and ask Google Now literally anything. Most of the time the answers are read back to you, but it will always display a proper response. I haven't been able to stump it yet, and what it tells you is specifically useful for the environment you are in.]


...the Bad....

I know it's early, but a lot of the basic apps are phoning it in. The Path app is pretty ridiculous, since it's not really an app so much as it is a giant G+ circle. I believe that anything shared to that circle is picked up by Path and sent. There's no way to comment on a Path "moment" during the initial send. 

Similarly, Twitter setup is pretty messed up - Twitter has been on a rampage lately to funnel people to it's own applications, rather than use third party client apps. So, the initial setup for Twitter on Glass requires you to download the "official Twitter app" for your phone if you want to change the defaults, otherwise you will get unwanted tweets sent to your Glass unit, and the screen goes on and off like a Christmas tree. Even if you get the defaults set the way you want, if you were an early Twitter adopter you'll still have a bit of a problem: in the early days of Twitter, all new contacts had "notifications on" by default... this flag is recognized by the Twitter Glass app, and you will be notified every time one of your early contacts tweets. Again, this can wear the battery on Glass down pretty quickly - but the only solution I found is to go into those old contacts one by one and turn off the notifications flag. It's annoying.

The initial Glass release has made some very odd choices with regards to the UIX. Despite it's reputation of taking photos, videos, etc, Glass is currently a consumption device more than it is a creation device. There is no way currently, for instance, to begin a Twitter conversation (although you can contribute to an existing one). Likewise, in order to SMS a contact, you need to go to the MyGlass application on your phone and manually tell Glass which contacts you would like it to store locally on Glass - it does not import your whole address book. (I'm assuming this is because they haven't discovered an easy way to let you select from 1000's of phone contacts.) However, like Twitter, if someone SMS's you directly, you can respond right from Glass.

The contacts issue in general is one that the Glass team needs to grapple with very seriously before this is released to the public. Even Google's own G+ system needs to be manually curated by you on the MyGlass app, before you can share anything directly from Glass. I haven't played with the Facebook app yet, but I am assuming that it is similar.

Battery life is, of course, also an issue....probably the main issue....with the pre-release units. If you get 4-5 hours of battery life, you're doing very well. With 3 radios (WiFi, BlueTooth, GPS) constantly firing, I'm not sure how they plan to pull off power management -- but cell phones do it, so they should be able to as well.

...and the Ugly.

OK, so it's not as hideous as a first gen product could have been, but it does stick out like a sore thumb. In the 72 hours I've worn Glass, I've been interviewed about 7 times, and I get people coming up to me at the rate of about 20-30 a day. (Seriously.)  That's fine, and I completely understand it, but that sort of attention is going to wear thin after a while. Making the unit less conspicuous and partnering with existing eye wear manufacturers is going to help quite a bit in this area.

Finally, the speaker. Hmmmm. What to say about it? It's also bone induction, but there's no volume control, and you cannot really hear it well in a crowded environment. I wouldn't really recommend it for phone calls in it's current state, unless you like saying "What??" a lot.

Oh, also, Glass crew? Please stop tagging my SMS and email with "Sent By Glass" at the end of each message...or at least allow me to turn that off.

My Conclusion?

Despite the warts, this is a direction that the world will head. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the potential here, and Google is making it very easy to get involved. The development program is open to all, the operating system for Glass is Android, and the amount of help that the developers receive is truly impressive. 

Is the current implementation of Glass ready for prime time? No, probably not - at least not until some of the UIX, battery and application concerns get addressed.

However, none of those things really matter - those are engineering and execution problems that absolutely will get solved. What is important to take away here is that Glass is, truly, a new paradigm for interacting with a computer. Everything from the display to the interface is new, and the immediacy of the system lends itself to a "Notification First" environment, which is a different world from which we currently operate.  Plus, there is more that Glass can do than it is doing now. +Lance Nanek was able to dump an API that lists a surprising number of sensors on this current device: 13 in total. When those devices are revealed to application developers, the magical usefulness of Glass will increase tremendously.

We're beginning to enter a different world - people throw around terms like "wearable computing" (which it is) and "augmented reality" (which it is not), but those are just hyped up media terms. What does matter - what is truly important - is the connection between you, this machine and the growth of truly personalized social and information retrieval and dissemination.

Unlike the original Sony Walkman that caught media flak for isolating the wearer from his/her environment, Glass does the opposite: it peels back the layers of what is around you: people, places, things and events. It puts you more, not less, in touch with your immediate environment. It has the potential to increase, not decrease, communication and understanding in a way never before possible. It was my childhood belief in technology like this that made me get into this business in the first place.

I have gone from skeptic to believer in a very short time. I guess that makes me kind of a Glasshole, but that's sorta ok with me...

Update: 5/22/2013

It's been a full week under glass now, and I'm still digging the experience.  Here's my interview on +Revision3's +Tekzilla being interviewed by the always-charming +Patrick Norton ...