Wodehouse status update

It’s been kind of quiet over here, and that’s largely a good thing - Wodehouse has just been ticking along more-or-less working as designed. I’ve not needed to add any new devices for a while, nor have any catastrophically broken.  We are looking at upgrading Wodehouse in the near future (i.e. moving), so it’ll be interesting to see how redeployable our setup is.

In the meantime, here’s a quick round-up.

Bye Bye Hello Sense

So, back in June, Hello went bust, so my sleep tracker’s life has come to an end. The company stated they’d be releasing the data from the system to users “at the end of [that] week”, but that never happened. I did send a follow-up email to find out what was up with that, but I haven’t heard anything. I'm a bit disappointed that they said they'd release the data and they haven't followed through.

My advice on data is if you know you’re going to want it, only use services that already offer data extraction up front - my experience has been that if they don’t offer it to begin with, then go bust, they generally have little incentive to offer it after the fact.

Other things to look out for are how the data is published, is it in an open format, is it compatible with other services (and do those other services have import options) and are they going to charge you for the privilege? Fitbit, for example, used to only offer export as a premium service, but now it’s available to everyone. Google Fit lets you export your data anytime via Google Takeout.  

The same goes for checking if you can delete all of your data from a service before you commit to using it long-term, which may be something you can do but requires you actually contacting them to ask (you’ll have to check the T&Cs on signup).  

Remember, most companies are not incentivised to help you either leave their services. If freedom to move your data between services is a top priority for you, check before you commit.

Wrist wearable

On the topic of sleep data, my now only sleeping tracking device I’m actively using is my Pebble Time Round. It’s still working great, although I have bought a back-up one from Amazon for cheap just in case. I’m glad I did, since the latest offering from Fitbit - the Ionic - is underwhelming to say the least. My plan is to keep my Pebble on life-support until someone else cottons on to the fact that women want smart wrist watches that actually fit.

My continued delight in my Pebble has made me turn my attention to the other devices I’m carrying on my person day-to-day. My smartphone - currently the Google Pixel - really bothers me. It’s so large and cumbersome, doesn’t fit in my pockets and is just so boring. I’m looking at either getting, or making, something a lot smaller or continuing to supplement it with other devices that mean I don’t have to drag that brick out of my bag so often. I'd love to see a trend back towards the wacky Nokia days.


The house is largely running how I want it to right now - I have a couple of outstanding jobs.  The first is our roller blinds in the living room - they’re still dumb, but I’d really like to connect them up for privacy and security reasons.  I often stalk kickstarter and indiegogo when I’m at a loss, and I am hoping that the MOVEZ blinds motoriser device comes through soon.  I had come across their solution a couple years back when it was only Bluetooth, but now that it’s Z-wave it could be perfect for what I’m looking for.

The other thing is the recent heat-wave in San Francisco has me looking at air quality and cooling again.  We generally don’t need AC, but Wodehouse does kind kinda stuffy and it's only predicted to get warmer.

Not got my eye on anything specific yet, so please do send your reckons.

Coming up soon: More robots and DIY devices.

"OK, Google" is a tongue-twister

We're a few months into having both a Google Home air freshener and an Amazon Echo hockey puck, and it's been interesting to see which one of the two we seem to chat to most.

As it stands, Alexa is our most popular artificial friend. Not because the service is better, but simply because "Alexa" is easier to say than "OK, Google".  I know Google is probably better. On the occasions I've tried more complex questions on both devices, Google's years of natural language and search algorithms expertise shine through over Amazon's, but I just cannot get used to saying that awful mouthful of a trigger phrase. 

I've been wondering what it is about the trigger phrases that make one easier to say other another. When I even think about saying "OK, Google", my tongue feels strained - the clash of that K next to those two G sounds. I suspected it might qualify as a tongue twister, so I asked a linguist friend what she thought.

She explained to me that linguists would describe the K and the G sounds as "minimally different", in that they share most of the same properties. They come from the same position in the mouth, making them hard to say in succession, much like the tongue-twisters described in this article "Why tongue-twisters are hard to say". "OK, Google" is hard to say in the same way that "She sells sea-shells" is difficult.

I wasn't imagining things - "OK Google" is simply much harder to say than "Alexa". Performing lingual gymnastics every time we want to turn on a light just isn't going to fly.

I noticed while watching some of the Google I/O coverage that many of the presenters talking on the topic of the Google Home/Assistant were in fact saying "Hey, Google" instead of "OK, Google". I assume because "Hey" sounds more natural and also it's easier to say. I know most of the I/O stage-talks are heavily scripted and show pre-recorded Assistant conversations rather than live interactions, but I just shouted "Hey, Google" and our Google Home does respond to that (in fact, it responded every time I played the video I linked to). The alteration in the phrase is not a documented customisation, rather they're making the "OK Google" phrasing a little more forgiving in certain cases. 

Not all words are going to be easy for all people to say - some sounds are impossible for some people to make, depending on which language you learned in your youngest years, or due to speech impediment.  Sometimes it's even more banal - I wanted to use the Amazon trigger-word "Computer", since with my British accent I imagined Picarding it up around the house, but sadly it only understood me when I feigned a terrible American accent. Disappointing.

It seems right that customisation in this area is the way to go if these voice-activated systems are going to be equally accessible, but Google currently offers no official way to change their trigger phrase. Amazon allows a choice of 3 trigger words, each different sounding from the other - Echo, Alexa and Computer. Just this small selection opens up the opportunity to find a verbal trigger word that is comfortable to say and easy to remember, not just for one user in the home but for a whole family. It's not fully customisable, but it's a good start.

The story on the grapevine is that Google doesn't allow customisation of the trigger word because they don't want to personify and name their assistant - they don't want you naming your device after a person and then potentially treating it badly (the latter probably being a fair concern). You'll note that 2 of the 3 Amazon words are not what you'd typically consider person-names, so this excuse is a little weak and doesn't explain not offering a choice at all. Plus the Google Assistant literally already sounds like a human being, rather than a robot / synthesised voice, and you're encouraged to interact with it via normal human-to-human conversational patterns.

There are unofficial workarounds for android phone users (for google assistant), but they won't help you with the assistant on your Google Home. If you can't say "google" easily, or something that sounds remarkably similar, you're gonna have a frustrating time.

Voice controlling our entire homes could be really amazing, particularly for those with mobility or vision issues, but they're no good if they don't work for real people, their real voices and their real vocabularies. Google and company should do the hard work to make it simple for as many as possible and I hope that's the trend we'll see. 

Lowe's Iris motion and door sensors

I've been extending the motion-based lighting around the house, and needed a few new sensors for bathroom doors and the staircase. I spotted the Lowe's Iris devices on Amazon and noticed they were a bit cheaper than the SmartThings equivalents, so decided to give them ago.  

They basically work seamlessly with my SmartThings hub and they're a lot smaller.  They appear to be standard Zigbee compatible components, so you don't need to install their app or buy their hub to include them in your setup if you're already running a system that'll gladly except 3rd party devices. Pretty happy and I plan to pick up a few more. 

SmartThings Motion Sensor vs Lowe's Iris Motion Sensor

SmartThings Motion Sensor vs Lowe's Iris Motion Sensor

Discrete sized motion sensor

Discrete sized motion sensor

Door sensor attached

Door sensor attached

What I really want to set up is a night-light situation in the bathrooms, but I haven't come up wit a satisfactory way to do that, yet. Putting motion sensors in the bathroom seems creepy, and using door sensors isn't quite enough (Should lights be off if the door is open? For how long does it need to be open?). If anyone has a good configuration, I'd love to hear about it.

Piccorobo arduino biped

I picked up a little flat-pack robot arduino kit while I was in Tokyo. I couldn't find any instructions on how to put it together in English, but VStone does have a wiki with instructions that Google Translate got right enough to follow along.  It appears to be called a "PiccoRobo", and it was actually a piece of cake to assemble, even though I've never built anything with an arduino before.  It can walk backwards, forwards, make left and right turns and shake its head.

Robot parts

Robot parts

The Japanese instructions can be found on the wiki over here.  I skipped the first part and didn't bother testing the board and parts before assembling the robot.  A couple pro tips if you find yourself assembling a similar set.

  1. When you get to the calibration step, if, like me, you find one or two of the servos are totally at the wrong angle - rather than correcting it in the software, I actually unscrewed the part that was wrong (in my case, his left leg was a good 45° off) and reassembled it closer to 0° so there's only minor software corrections to make.
  2. Mark the ends of the cables of the servos as you go (with tape or a sharpie), so you'll remember which is which when you come to plug them into the board - I had to pull and hope I could see where the cable went - I still ended up swapping his left and right legs by mistake.
  3. The battery box shifts slightly from side to side as it walks, as it's not a snug fit between the two pieces of MDF inside, and can cause it to tip over. I recommend rectifying this by either using a bit of sticky tack or velcro tape to secure it in place - either way, you'll want to still be able to remove it to change the batteries down the line. I may even end up moving the battery pack to the robot's back as a counter weight when its head inevitably gets too heavy with electronics (fashioned into a jetpack, perhaps).

It's all up and running now. I'm going to pick up a wifi module and a couple inputs and outputs and see if I can't hook him up to the house next.

A short romance with Pebble

I picked up a Pebble Time Round cheap on Amazon after seeing a friend sporting one recently. Finally, a watch that's lady-wrist sized! It's pretty and e-paper! It's notifications work and they have adorable animations! It's developer friendly! I love this thing.

Pebble has built-in activity tracking that I'm syncing out to other systems like Google Fit and Fitbit

Pebble has built-in activity tracking that I'm syncing out to other systems like Google Fit and Fitbit

My  GadgetWraps  strap matches my keyboard. Swoon.

My GadgetWraps strap matches my keyboard. Swoon.

The evening it arrived, the rumours started that Fitbit had acquired Pebble and Pebble would be no more. Uh oh. Did I jump in too late?

So slim. This thing actually just looks like a regular watch.

So slim. This thing actually just looks like a regular watch.

Even with the backlight off, the e-paper displaying my minimal watch face is easy to read at a glance

Even with the backlight off, the e-paper displaying my minimal watch face is easy to read at a glance

Today, Pebble confirmed that the company did indeed get acquired, along with all of it's IP and some of the team.  Pebble is dissolving, and the hardware is no longer being manufactured.

Bummer.  At least I know why it was cheap now.

I'm not returning it. It's a nice device and it's not going to stop working overnight and really, what are the alternatives for a slim watch that doesn't look like you strapped a circa-1999 Nokia to your arm? The Time Round is arguably the only feature-rich wearable that appears to have not been exclusively designed for chunky white guys. 

There's an alternative operating system for the watches, called GadgetBridge, that I may have to look into but honestly, given that most hardware these days seems destined to return to the sand it was once formed from within a year or two, I didn't believe this was a forever deal anyway.