CSR will give Bluetooth gear in the smart home super powers

This year is going to be a big one for Bluetooth technologies in the smart home. Thanks to some updates in the Bluetooth standard from a year ago, we’re seeing products such as light bulbs, outlets and more using the radio technology to connect devices. But it’s not just the standards update that’s helped; a few firms have also introduced software that have allowed companies to turn their Bluetooth radios into a mesh network that offers more resiliency and range for the technology.

The Bluetooth SIG will embrace mesh

One of the more popular is CSRmesh, the software designed by CSR, the company that helped invent Bluetooth and is now in the process of being acquired by Qualcomm. Now a year old, and primarily used in lighting products like those out from Samsung or Avi-On, the CSRmesh tech lets you group up to 64,000 bulbs or devices together.

But it can do so much more. And soon it will. I took some time to discuss the technology with Rick Walker, who is in marketing with CSR to discover what’s next for the technology and whether we may see it integrated into the official Bluetooth standard anytime soon.

The answer on that last question is a solid maybe. Tuesday, the Blueooth SIG will be announcing the creation of a working group chaired by Robin Heydon, the creator of CSRmesh to study the addition of mesh networking to the Bluetooth Smart standard. While it may not adopt the CSR standard exactly, it’s likely that we will see a mesh technology added to the Bluetooth standard and some aspects of the CSR attributes win out.

Sleepy sensors and actuators

In the meantime, CSR is pushing ahead with the launch in April of a new Home Automation version of the CSRmesh technology that will add new capabilities to the tech to preserve the battery life of sensors and things like door locks in the home. the update will let sensors using the tech wake only when there’s new information to be sent and when they do send it, they can send it to a proxy device, such a light bulb that’s plugged in if the receiving device isn’t online.

csrmeshplan

The second capability it adds is a different wake pattern for actuators such as a door lock or a vent control. These will wake often for a very short amount of time to listen for a message and then go back to sleep. The idea is is should take between 30 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds for a message to hit and flip the bolt, vent or other piece that requires movement.

The goal is to save as much power as possible, without sacrificing responsiveness in the network. Other elements of the CSR mesh that are pretty exciting from a home and building automation point of view are the grouping features and ability to use proximity to trigger events. These won’t be out until the October time frame when the next iteration of the home automation version of the CSRmesh standard comes out, but I want them today.

The asset model looks promising

Because Bluetooth radios are very distance sensitive, you can use them to understand how close you are to a particular item. So when your phone or key fob, for example, is within 20 feet of a lock it might open it. Certain devices can do this today. But as part of the CSRmesh standard that could become much easier to implement, and one could do it for a variety of devices. So your locks could open, or your lights you turn on (or off). It’s part of what Walker called the asset model, where each device with a radio is tagged as an asset and devices respond to it.

Also as part of the asset model, the devices in your home could find a particular asset. So if your keys have a fob, you could issue a command asking your home to find your keys and all of the BLE devices on the mesh could send out a signal. Your kitchen lights might send back a message saying, the key fob is nearby, while a Bluetooth outlet on the counter gets the strongest signals and signals that they are closest to it.

All of these sound pretty awesome, although there are other mesh networking technologies out there including the older ZigBee and Z-wave radios that are in millions of devices. They don’t have the advantage of being on people’s handsets, which is something Bluetooth has going for it. And to get the benefits of CSRmesh, all one has to do is download an application that uses the CSRmesh software on top of a radio running Bluetooth 4.0, which is what current generation iOS and Android handsets are using.

On the security front, the CSRmesh uses AES encryption to stop eavesdroppers and authentication at both ends to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. It also prevents replay attacks where someone can copy messages and replay them, by inserting a numerical sequence at the beginning of each radio transmission that is then replayed out of sequence if copied.

We’ll have to wait for some of the cool features, although the security elements are already in the mesh today. What I take from all of this is that we’re going to be able to solve many of the problems of the smart home many different ways which means standardization is probably a ways off. And that in turn means, it’s hard to go out there and shell out a lot of money for new devices. Although with Bluetooth I guess you don’t have to spend all that much.

When it comes to smart home security, cameras are the worst

Don’t freak out, but the products inside your smart home have some serious security flaws, according to a new report out from enterprise security research firm Synack. The company tested 16 popular devices over the holidays and determined that connected cameras were the least secure. Products ranging from the SmartThings hub to the Nest and Lyric thermostats also had some problems.

Colby Moore, a security research analyst who compiled the report, said it took him about 20 minutes to break into each of the assorted devices and he only found one — the Kidde smoke detector — that didn’t have any significant flaws. But the Kidde isn’t actually connected. Before we break down each device’s big problems, the macro picture from the report was that there are no real standards in the connected home security space, and perhaps we should come up with some.

“Right now the internet of things is like computer security was in the nineties, when everything was new and no one had any security standards or any way to monitor their devices for security,” said Moore.

The Withings Home camera

The Withings Home camera

In general Moore suggests the following as basic best practices, even though he concedes that some users won’t like them:

  • Hardwire as many devices as possible. And when devices are wireless, make sure they have push notifications to the user when they are kicked offline.
  • Firmware updates should happen automatically, especially those dealing with security flaws and vulnerabilities. Don’t wait for the user to push them through.
  • Require strong passwords. Make sure they have combinations of numbers, special characters and letters and are more than 12 characters.
  • Send all the data to the cloud using a secured connection. Don’t store it on the device, which can be hacked.
  • If you are going to use SSL, check certificates at both ends. Apparently, some devices do not.
  • Use SSL pinning so your device is authenticated, as opposed to the network the device is on.

Some of these may be controversial. For example, stronger passwords can be a pain to enter on devices with tiny screens and no keyboards. Another issue is hardwiring everything. Wireless devices are simply more convenient and wireless connectivity is often a reason people buy a certain product over another. Finally, storing all of your data in the cloud might be more secure, but it’s only as secure as your cloud vendor. If the vendor get hacked, there go your data and your camera images.

Moore concedes these points, but says that even understanding these tradeoffs would help. I agree. It’s one thing to trust my camera data to Nest or Amazon, but another to trust it to a startup that just launched three months ago (although it’s highly likely that its cloud back-end is Amazon Web Services). So what about the specific devices?

Synack looked at four classes: cameras, thermostats, smart hubs and smoke detectors. It found the most flaws in the camera class, with Dropcam being the most secure.
camerassynack

In thermostats, Nest once again was the most secure, but most were dinged for their password policies. This is understandable, because most thermostats don’t have keyboards, making it tough to enter a password on the device itself.

thermostastssynack

When it comes to smoke detectors we see Kidde, the only device that got a perfect score from a security perspective, in part because it’s not connected. Why it’s on this report, I don’t know. There’s also the first mention of a supply chain–based attack, which is worth noting, because it means that someone would have to intercept the device and change a component. This isn’t specific to just smoke detectors, but any connected product. I thought this was tenuous, but Moore pointed out that we could see more of it in the future and that it really just took a bit more long-range planning. It could also be seen more in returned or second-hand devices.

co2synack

Finally we see his results from testing home automation hubs. While the Revolv isn’t sold anymore because Nest purchased the company for the engineers, the others are on the market.

hubsynack

While this report covers the devices themselves, I’d like more insight into how we secure the future, when we start linking these devices together. I tie many services together via Works with Nest, If This Then That and many other services, and suspect others will soon do the same. And while individual devices may get more secure, once they start sharing data between clouds, that introduces new weaknesses that this report doesn’t even get into. When asked about security in the smart home today, Moore said, “Security is abysmal.”

So, let’s work on that, but let’s think about how we’re planning for tomorrow, too.

Updated: This story was updated at 3:06pm PT to clarify that the Kidde smoke detector isn’t connected.

The deluge continues: 3 smart home hubs worth checking out

I thought we’d be over hubs by now, but I was wrong. They are still coming hot and heavy, and if the Consumer Electronics Show was any indication, there are still more heading our way. So instead of doing deep dives into what I think is a pretty full market, I figured I’d start doing some roundups of products and hit on the features that make them interesting, because honestly, who can keep up anymore?

Today’s batch are the hubs found on crowdfunding sites. They have some cool tweaks that make them a bit different, but of course, as with all crowdfunding efforts, who knows when they will actually deliver.

Of all of these Hive looks to be the most likely one I’d back, and Oomi is the only one I’ve seen in person. Let’s get to it.

hive
Hive: This system combines a hub and speaker (or series of speakers) with an app that lets you control the whole shebang. The Kickstarter promises that the hub not only controls the speakers but also your connected gadgets via an impressive array of radios, including Z-wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The video shows a Nest, motion sensors and other devices working with the hub. The speakers not only tie in to become “the voice of your home,” but also act as a sound system that can be linked to play the same music all over your house or separate music from sites that appear to be supported by Google’s Chromecast ready program. The campaign shows the Spotify logo but makes no mention of it elsewhere.

A backup battery and integrated 3G modem mean you have backup connectivity if your power goes out. The app will be available  for Android and iOS and everything is expected to ship in May. The retail price is expected to be $299 for the hub and $199 for each speaker, although the Kickstarter prices are cheaper. Those waiting for retail might get a discount if they buy optional security monitoring packages along with their purchase. This is certainly something I’m going to look for later this summer, although the Kickstarter is not doing well so far.

20150120062003-starter-kit
Oomi: I ran into these guys at CES and thought they had a unique way of using NFC radios to get devices to connect to the system. Basically, you tap to touch a device to onboard a sensor to the main hub. It’s fun, but it only works with the Oomi products and any NFC-enabled phones. Still, even technophobes could use this and get started with a smart home. The main component is a stylish black cube that includes a lot of sensors, a microphone, a speaker and a video camera. It acts a security and communication device and has an IR sensor for controlling televisions and a variety home automation and media devices.

The system also comes with a connected outlet and a tablet to control the whole system. In keeping with the simple idea, Oomi is a learning system and once you connect your devices to it, it starts learning how you use your home and then starts building up its own rules and schedules for users. The folks behind Oomi already plan to launch a colorful light bulb, an air quality monitor and a Chromecast-like media streaming stick for the system. It also supports other Z-wave devices and says it integrates with other popular devices such as Sonos, Hue lights and Nest. Retail cost should be about $450 for a cube, a plug and the tablet, but it costs as low as $230 on Indiegogo with delivery in August and an adaptive intelligence engine released in November 2015(presumably after it is trained on early user data). I like this, but the integrated camera kind of freaks me out because it could monitor my home. I did see that it offers a shutter for the camera for folks like me.

branto
Branto: This is a glowing orb that plays music and changes color. It certainly offers less functionality than Oomi or Hive, but sometimes simpler is better. What sets Branto apart from almost anything out there is that it contains a 360-degree rotating camera that you control from an app. Plus, it has two microphones. So you can see your whole home or teleconference and look around the table.

The smart home elements come in because Branto also has a motion sensor, IR output, connected speaker capability that connected to various services and the ability to control popular home automation devices like WeMo, Nest and Philips Hue lights. The Kickstarter campaign notes that Branto will offer various options such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular modules down the line. The Branto will retail for about $500, although the Kickstarter prices are less than that, and it will ship to backers in September.

Wink’s rocky launch hasn’t stopped it from gaining market share

Wink, the relatively new company that spun out from Quirky to sell connected home devices and software, is looking to be a serious contender in the home automation sector with the launch of new devices next month and a successful holiday season. In an interview this week with Brett Worthington, VP and general manager at Wink, he said that Wink added more than 3,000 hubs a day on Black Friday and Christmas Day and a new user every 12 seconds (there are more users than hubs because some devices don’t require a hub to work). Those customers added 3.5 devices per account.

He also listed an array of new devices we can expect support for included Z-wave and ZigBee sensors as well as new garage door openers from Quirky and Linear. We’ll see those in the beginning of February in Home Deport stores and supported in the app as part of an app update.

So let’s talk about the bump in user numbers over the holiday. Currently I’m seeing that on the Android side about 50,000 people have downloaded the app according to the tally in the Play store. In most home automation setups involving hubs, iOS users are about 60 or 70 percent of the user base, but I don’t know what Wink’s breakdown is specifically, and Worthington wouldn’t give me the user numbers. However, thanks to the partnership with Home Depot, the Wink hub and devices are in stores nationwide, and aggressive pricing over the holidays may have pushed people to give Wink a try.

3088256

The promotions Home Depot ran over the holidays — buy two connected devices and get a hub for $0.99 — were similar to the deal it ran when the hub launched last June, but maybe folks were just in the gift-giving mood or ready to give home automation a whirl. This is impressive, especially given the horrible reviews that Wink received after its launch last July.

An eye on security

The hub was also hacked last summer at Defcon, and there are several posts that show you how to root the Wink hub so you can control your own device to avoid sending your data to the cloud. Yet these issues have not stopped the Wink from finding an audience, so I wanted to find out from Kauffman what we can expect from Wink. The answer is: quite a bit.

First up is security. The company announced at CES that it hired Brian Knopf, who handled security at Belkin, to help it ensure that problems like the Defcon issue (which was immediately dealt with) don’t happen again. One of the problems with the device security came from trying to get the hub out so quickly in the first place, Worthington admitted. The hub, which was manufactured by Flextronics, originally contained software for the embedded side that Flextronics engineers wrote.

“We built that hub with Flextronics very quickly,” said Worthington. “There were a couple firmware bugs and Wink fixed it. We’ve also rewritten some of things we found that [Flextronics] did that weren’t necessarily breaches but that we wanted to make better.”

The Wink hub and GE Link lights.

The Wink hub and GE Link lights.

Some of those included changing some of the radio software so the radio used for the Kidde smoke detectors could also talk to other devices that used that frequency. Wink has kept users up to date on the security software by forcing users to update their hubs if they want to add new devices. In general it’s just good tech hygiene to update your connected device firmware when requested, given all of the security weaknesses being discovered in them.

Giving users more sensor options

The second thing Wink is improving is the roster of devices. On February 2, it will launch several new connected products with an emphasis on new sensors — something currently lacking in the current line up of supported devices. They include a glass break sensor, open/close sensors called Tripper that will sell for $40 for a 2-pack, and a motion sensor. The nice thing about the sensors is that by adding these it also opens up the Wink to other Z-wave and ZigBee sensors in that device class, so those of you with ZigBee devices that support the Home Automation 1.2 version of the spec can use those with the Wink hub and those with Z-wave open/close and motion sensors should also be able to use those as well.

tripper

Wink will also launch a ZigBee connected outlet that will be installed in the wall, and should then let people use other ZigBee connected outlets. That will be nice because right now we’re kind of limited to the Z-wave outlets that sit under the light switch section or the GE Quirky Pivot Power option. Finally we’ll see two new garage door opener options, the GE Quirky Ascend option and support for a new connected option from Linear, which is now called the GoControl Garage Door Controller.

Some of the new products coming on February 2 are available on the Wink store but aren’t supported yet in the app. But as of that date they should be supported in the app and soon after will be in Home Deport stores nationwide. and later this year we’ll also see some other improvements from Wink including a new version of the hub hardware that should get users better control over their Philips Hue lighting with intelligence built into the hub as well as a partnership with Whirlpool that was announced at CES.

It may have launched quickly and with some really bad reviews, but a big marketing effort and some serious investment in the product could mean that Wink becomes a real threat in the home automation space despite those early flaws.

Works with Nest is the best UI for the smart home right now

I spent my CES looking for the solution to the growing complexity in the smart home and didn’t really find it. Instead, I came to the conclusion that the best option out there for a regular person trying to create an easy-to-use smart home automation system is the Works with Nest program. Not the not-even-ready-for-prime-time HomeKit, not SmartThings, not Wink or Insteon or any one of a dozen still-to-be-launched hub and sensor packages that are still coming to the market in 2015.

Now, when it comes to ease of use, the Works with Nest program won’t let users do anything beyond link their devices and select whether they want to turn a feature on or not, but its options are becoming more useful and powerful every update. And at CES, several partners announced updates, making it much more likely that most Nest owners can now experience a product that will tie into their Nest thermostat or Protect.

A screenshot of Haiku with SenseME's app that suggests higher Ne

For example, Philips announced a Works with Nest tie in that lets your light bulbs slowly dim when your thermostats move to the away setting. If it stays in Away for more than a day, the light bulbs then start randomly turning on and off to simulate you being home. It took me three screens to link my Nest and Hue accounts and turn that feature on. Presumably now I’m saving energy and have improved security whereas before when I’ve gone away I’ve set my Nest and manually programmed my lights. There is a SmartThings app that allows for the lights to randomly turn on and off, but I’ve literally never found it.

So while the Works with Nest program isn’t for someone like me who came back from CES pumped to try to create an IFTTT recipe that will make it possible to turn on my Hue bulbs in the morning in my closet and have them glow a different color based on whether or not the temperature is higher or lower than 40 degrees so I know how to dress for my dog walk (yes, I could just do an IFTTT recipe so my Sonos just tells me the weather via SmartThings) it is for people who don’t want to spend time troubleshooting or thinking about their homes.

Zonoff, the company behind the Staples Connect software, also is trying to make its programming a little less programmatic by letting people answer a few questions when they install a new device. As Mike Harris, the CEO of Zonoff explained in an interview at CES, “When people install a new smoke detector, there is a limited number of things they are likely going to want to do with it, so we ask them if they want to do them.”

So it may ask if you want to have your lights blink when your smoke alarm goes off and your doors to unlock automatically. You click yes, and the software sets it up. Unlike with the Nest, the Staples Connect hub still leaves you with the ability to program all the other scenarios you’d like, but it is trying to offer the same trend of limiting the customer’s options and need for interaction with the devices in order to get some functionality.

In many ways this is disappointing. I already knew I wasn’t going to find the one platform or a unifying standard at the show, and indeed saw the big platforms grow stronger, but I was hoping for some more intelligent and contextual user interfaces. I saw sparks on the horizon, with learning light bulbs from Stack lighting (also a Works with Nest partner) or the integrations that app-maker Muzzley is building.

But the path to the truly intuitive home appears to be paved with limitations and perhaps a few false starts. If you’re going to buy into the smart home today, then I suggest you invest into one ecosystem such as Insteon, Wink or a known quantity. Or, if you decide to just go with the point devices you need, start with a Nest.

And believe me, I wasn’t a huge Nest fan starting out. But for the lay person, it’s not a bad place to end up.

GE’s new smart appliances are cool, but where are my retrofits?

GE is introducing some smart appliances designed to save time and energy at CES in Las Vegas this week, but all I can wonder as I gaze into my more productive and energy-efficient future is “Where are my retrofits?” The appliance giant has added several new products to its line of connected home goods including a connected water heater, which lacks wow but could save on wages thanks to being able to lower your water heater’s temperature when you’re not around.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering how long we’ll have to wait before we can see the benefits of such efficiencies across a wide scale. I just bought new appliances in 2012 for a new home, so I’m not replacing any of them for a decade or so. That’s why I’m keen to see retrofits that might help make my ovens, washers and dryers a bit smarter.

Currently GE offers a line of connected wall ovens that lets you start pre-heating an oven when you’re on your drive home, for example. It’s now adding several other connected appliances such as a french door-style bottom-freezer refrigerator available in April 2015; a connected dishwasher available in late 2015; a washer and dryer available in May 2015; and the GeoSpring water heater available in February 2015.

Each appliance will work with its own app as well as with the GE Quirky Wink hub and associated devices. GE touted features like knowing when your dishwasher gets blocked by an errant plate or pot or begins to leak. You also get notices about your clothes in your washer and dryer so you don’t let wrinkles set in or leave your clothes in the washer so long that they develop mildew (guilty). Today reminders are the focus, but GE will quickly move to optimizations designed around how you live your life and even efforts to help you save energy by working with other appliances is my guess.

For example, during an energy-savings event set by your utility, your thermostat might notify your dryer to hold off for a bit or even negotiate between your dryer, A/C and your dishwasher over whose job gets precedence during a peak demand time. Such scenarios are the future in the smart home, and we should start preparing ways to implement them that lets the consumer have a say in how their data is used and how such negotiations play out.

On the water heater side, there are devices like this one from Aquanta or this one from Rheem, but there is little to retrofit a fridge or a washer or dryer to make it smarter. I covered a Kickstarter that tried to make ovens a bit smarter, but it failed.

At CES some Italian engineers are showing off a system of pads that you place food on inside the fridge, called Smart Qsine. The pads may be reasonably priced at between $15 and $50 for each smart pad you want to use (you need one pad per item you want to track, so you can’t track everything). They should be available in April 2015. I also like the idea of a strategically placed camera inside a fridge, although the darkness is a challenge, as is the cold (which drains batteries) and the door (which blocks wireless signals.)

Side note on the fridge stuff, GE Appliances has a partnership Local Motors called FirstBuild which is a place where makers can get together to build community-designed appliances and things that can plug into them. The first product, called the ChillHub is being shown at CES and is on sale for $2,999 now, and seems kind of awesome if you like geeking out and puns. Check it out here, but I’ll just point out that one of the add-ons is a scale like the SmartQsine folks have called the Milky Weigh, which is designed for weighing your milk jug and reporting back to your smart phone when you need to pick up more.

So, while I expect a lot more smart appliances at the show and not a lot of immediate availability or pricing. I am hoping to see some creative retrofits, because that’s what I think will get people to adopt the internet of things in more depth. Meanwhile, I look forward to 2023 when I can maybe replace my aging appliances with connected ones. By then, perhaps we’ll have this standards stuff all worked out.

ces-2015-3

US Cellular gets into the connected home biz

Regional mobile carrier US Cellular announced a new home automation and security service called OnLook, which looks to be aimed squarely at AT&T’s Digital Life and other smart-home-in-a-box services.s

US Cellular is partnering with Alarm.com, a company that – more than its name implies — specializes in smart home management over cellular networks, to offer several tiers of home security, environmental monitoring and home control services. At its most basic level, you get some motion, window and door sensors. But at more expensive tiers, you can add carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, a smart thermostat and remote appliance and light switches. All of those devices can be monitored and managed from Alarm.com’s Android and iOS apps or from a web browser.

The service is launching in Iowa and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which are both in US Cellular’s coverage area of mid-sized to rural markets. The company hasn’t yet revealed any plans to expand to other markets, but it’s likely given the system could technically be implemented anywhere the regional carrier has wireless coverage.

In fact, US Cellular has been treading more into the traditional wireline service world, using its mobile network to offer residential phone and broadband services.

 

Comcast has integrated its X1 platform with IFTTT

Users of Comcast’s Xfinity X1 set-top box can now make use of IFTTT to receive messages on their TV or even change the channel upon a certain event. Comcast’s Chief Business Development Officer Sam Schwartz unveiled the integration at a press event in San Francisco Wednesday, where he showed off a recipe that linked a WeMo switch to the X1, allowing users to change the channel whenever the switch was used. Other possible integrations include messaging on the TV, or the ability to switch to a sports channel whenever a viewer’s favorite team is in the news.