New Year Ideas | Build your own internet of things
Your fridge isn’t really ready to send you a reminder to buy more apples on the way home, but there are already several cool ways in which you can get your electronics talking to one another.
One of the most exciting trends in technology is getting all the devices in a house connected to each other and to the Internet. The Internet of Things, as the idea is described, suggests a world where everything is interconnected, letting your washing machine order detergent when supplies run low, letting your phone switch on the air conditioner automatically as you get close to home, even letting you store music on your phone and play it from the big speakers in the house.
It’s still work in progress, but that’s changing quickly, and thanks to new devices like the Raspberry Pi (a low-cost computer that’s small enough to fit in your pocket), we’re starting to see a lot of home-made hacks that can slowly bring that idea to fruition.
For example, I had a 14-year-old surround-sound system that is just a little too big, and very limited in functionality today. To get the most out of it, the receiver is used just as a dumb box to pick up the signal and pass it over to the speakers. Does that mean tying up your laptop to get good use out of the speakers? To avoid this, I used a new audio protocol called MagicPlay which connects multiple speakers to Wi-Fi networks, for synchronized wireless streaming of audio.
You could buy new Wi-Fi speakers or, by spending around Rs.3,000, you could make some using a Raspberry Pi and some old speakers. You need to download the AllJoyn source code, or a compiled version of it, from the Internet (www.alljoyn.org), and aside from your old speakers, you’ll also need a Raspberry Pi (Rs.3,290 on eBay).
Plug the Pi into your monitor and boot it up so you can connect it to the home Wi-Fi. Once that’s set up, install the MagicPlay service on the Pi—its default setting is to start running as soon as you switch the Pi on.
Then you can take the Pi, attach it to the speakers, hide it in a corner somewhere and just power it on with the speakers. To play the music on the speakers, you can stream it from your phone using the doubleTwist music player app (free on the Google play store). More outputs supporting MagicPlay are expected this year.
Another simple trick is using apps to control an HTPC (home theatre personal computer) from your phone. If you use a small computer to stream movies using the XBMC media player, then there’s a free, official XBMC remote app for both Android and iOS that lets you do everything, from browsing movies, TV shows and music, to setting up a playlist, starting functions such as downloading subtitles, or even using it to switch off the HTPC.
For the tech savvy
Those are very basic hacks anyone can do, but if you’re okay with circuits and soldering, one very cool project that’s possible is building an Internet-controlled power switch. With this, you could use your smartphone to control the lights in your house even when you’re travelling, for extra security.
This isn’t the easiest project, though. Aside from a Pi, you’ll need remote-controlled outlets, transistors, cabling, and a breadboard to make a basic circuit, and you will need a soldering iron to put it together.
To make this work, you need to take a remote-controlled switch, take it apart using a screwdriver, and then connect a transistor to it which can be controlled using the Pi. You can find a very detailed explanation at Jack.minardi.org, but essentially, you need to solder the circuit from the switch to the Pi, so that the Pi can pick up a signal from the Internet and send it to the transmitter, which replicates the effects of the remote control.
That’s actually the hard part. After that, you just need to search for jminardi/lamp_control on GitHub, download his code, and install it on a Web server running Flask.
The code includes on and off—go to the page from your computer or phone, click the appropriate link, and the switch goes from on to off. It worked well for a simple lamp, and would probably work with everything else too, but we only had one Pi to try things with. So we couldn’t, for example, use this as a power switch for a second Pi connected to our speakers.
While the simple tricks we talked about earlier are a great starting point, it’s projects like this one which start to really show how the Internet of Things can change our lives.