The Forgotten Role of Technology: One Step Away from Magic

I’ve noticed an increasingly more prevalent theme this year. The core theme is the concept of technology that is so ubiquitous and elegant that it appears to work like magic. For most of us that is rarely our experience. Often technology, whether we’re using an electronic tool that performs some physical work, or a piece of software that executes a virtual action, rarely seems like magic.

Some of this is simply due to the fact that most of us have developed a specific level of expectation over time through gradual changes that occur across the span of decades. There are certainly many things that might be perceived as magical to someone from an earlier time, whether it was someone from five hundred years ago or only a decade ago.  Perhaps magic, in this context, might be defined as something that is done for you that you didn’t even think about when you made it happen. Like turning on a light switch or opening a door, except the level of interaction is subtler.

Earlier this year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to join a college at a conference where Josh Clark, a user interface design expert, presented along with several other experts. While there we also had the opportunity to speak with him directly at one of the lunches, where he joined our table. Much of our discussion was on this very subject as was his presentation. His topic, of technology functioning like magic, was engaging and, in my opinion, a change heading toward us rather quickly.

I love technology. I enjoy learning about new innovations and gadgets and I have spent several late nights and weekends just tinkering with devices and software, sometimes without a defined goal. Some of those projects were dead ends. Others were successes. I learned from each one.

Yet, over the years, I continue to notice one problem with much of the technology that we have at our disposal.

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Washing Machine Notification (Smart Energy Sensor & Indigo)

As part of my recent dive back into home automation I decided it would be cool (and once again practical) to be able to receive an alert that the washing machine has finished washing a load of clothes.

This wasn’t something I blindly jumped into. There is plenty of information on the Web documenting how others have already done this with various home automation setups. As it turns out, at least with our washer, Indigo 6, and an Aeon Labs DSC06106-ZWUS – Z-Wave Smart Energy Switch it can be remarkably easy.

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Using a Multi-Color LED Bulb to Visually Indicate the High Temperature Range for the Day (Zipato RGBW LED & Indigo 6)

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In the morning, when I first get up, I walk past a motion sensor. A moment later a lamp with a color-changing bulb illuminates, glowing a specific color to indicate the temperature range that will include today’s forecast high temperature. With just one glance I know whether or not I should take a jacket before I step outside.

It’s been a long time since I last spent any significant amount of time focused on home automation but I recently made up for lost time by eliminating the last of my Insteon gear. All of the home automation gear is now Z-Wave compatible. But why stop there and not take the opportunity to add new enhancements?

In general, I’m uninterested in bulbs that can be directly controlled themselves, such as Z-Wave or wifi enabled light bulbs. They certainly have their applications but I don’t find them very practical for normal use. They still require that a light switch is left in the ON position in order to function. This breaks down very quickly when guests come to visit. For example, even with a remotely controlled lamp on an appliance or dimming module I often discover that instead of using the provided remotes our guests have simply turned the guest room lamp off using the traditional lamp switch. It’s just a normal, reasonable action.

My reason for purchasing a Z-Wave controlled, color-changing LED bulb certainly wasn’t a typical one. In this case I purchased one to use with my home automation system as a supplemental notification method, though for this particular project it is actually the only notification method used.

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Using a Zubie Key (Vehicle Monitoring Service)

ZubieMy wife recently purchased a new vehicle and so I started thinking about also purchasing a new vehicle. And then I decided that not having a car payment was something that I currently prefer over having a car payment (note – my wife had a very good reason to purchase a new vehicle, I do not).

Instead of purchasing a new vehicle I decided to add some enhancements to my current one. One of those enhancements is a Zubie Key.

The Zubie Key requires a subscription service that costs $99/year. The device works in conjunction with the Zubie Cloud service, which is used to review data via Web browser or from the Zubie App. When connected to a vehicle’s OBD-II port the device automatically connects to the Zubie Cloud via cellular connection. GPS is also built into the device.

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A View of What Fails in the Blend Door Actuators (Impala 2008)

Actuator-01As a 2008 Impala owner I’ve become well acquainted with a specific part failure. Typically, it’s not expensive to correct (as long as it’s not one under the dash) but it can be inconvenient and over time I’ve had to replace two of them multiple times each.

For those that have experienced this problem I decided to post some photos that help reveal where the failure occurs.

The first photo included in this post shows an unopened actuator.

The next photo shows the actuator split open:

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When I opened the actuator several of the damaged teeth fell out of the casing. A closer photograph reveals that several teeth from a gear are missing:

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I suspect that all of these that have failed in my vehicle would show the same problem. Could this problem be solved by using metal gears? Perhaps.

First Impression: Amazon Fire TV Stick

My wife and I decided to pre-order an Amazon Fire TV Stick for her parents, which we gave to them for Christmas. While visiting with them I had the opportunity to setup the device and use it for an extended period. Overall, I’m impressed. The cost is relatively low, performance and stability seemed good (at least during the time I was using it) and the interface was easy to use.

We were both impressed enough that we decided to order one for ourselves, though they’re currently on back-order so it may not be until the end of January before ours ships to us. I was able to pre-order the Stick for my in-laws for $19, but it regularly retails for only $39.

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2014 Year-End Review of Enduring Tech

Over the years I’ve published several posts about various devices. Frequently, I’ll return to the original posts and add notes describing my experiences with those gadgets that include details such as whether or not I still use them or if they turned out to be as useful as advertised.

For this post I’ve chosen to highlight the devices that I still use, at least a few times each year, that have endured and remain useful. Though I’ve acquired some excellent gadgets in 2014 I’ve chosen to exclude those here as those items have not yet been used for an extended period.

Unfortunately this won’t include every device worthy of this recognition – only those that I’ve previously highlighted in this blog. In addition, I chose not to write about all of the devices that have since failed, or failed to live up to expectations – those experiences are typically available in the older posts.

But my search for technology that works well, and meets or exceeds expectations, is the reason that I maintain this blog. Over the years I’ve chosen to share several experiences in the hopes that they’ll either serve as good recommendations or, unfortunately, as suggestions to avoid certain products (or at least know what to expect from them).

I’ll begin with the oldest item first.

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