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Baby steps in Home Automation – the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Mini Review

You would think an Electrical Engineer specializing in building science would have a house full of home automations toys. But no, that would be wrong.

I do have a programmable thermostat and have had one for years but it stands alone and does not have any interconnectivity. A programmable thermostat is the key area where any home owner can make a significant difference in terms of energy savings. No wonder the people at Nest started with a thermostat.

I have had an occupational interest in Zigbee and Z-Wave for a few years. Originally, it seemed like Z-wave was targeted at the consumer market, while Zigbee trended more towards the commercial sector but that is changing now. In the home, both of these protocols, and others, have largely been the province of professionals and keen hobbyists. If home automation is really going to take off it has to be as simple as making a few adjustments and installing an app.

Which brings me to this; the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Universal Smartphone Garage Door Controller. Knowing that I didn’t leave the garage door up after driving away appeals to me, so I thought I would take a look at the feature set.

Here’s a rough description of how the system works:

1) The hardware component consists of a door sensor and a hub unit. Mount the door sensor on an upper garage door panel and the hub on the garage ceiling near the garage door drive unit. The hub uses wifi to access your local network and is also able to transmit a homelink code to your garage door drive to raise and lower the door. The hub detects the door open/closed position using the door sensor. It also contains an audible alarm and LED warning light.

2) Using the Arrayent server back-end, the hub connects via the internet to a private account that you set up with Chamberlain. The API for Arrayent is here. If you have an iPhone or Android phone you can use a free app to monitor door status or remotely send a signal to open or close the garage door. Remote closing could occur with someone in the vicinity of the garage, so the hub sends an audible and visual alert for 5-10 seconds prior to activating the garage door to meet UL325 requirements. This, along with the door operator’s obstruction sensors, allows for safe remote operation. Safety is extremely important; it’s why I chose to go with an integrated product and not a DIY solution.

Installation per the manual is easy but I installed the door sensor in the cold with the included adhesive backed velcro strips and am not confident that it will hold in the long term. My suggestion is to use the alternative, and included, mounting screws for the sensor. The hub mounts to an included bracket easily and quickly. You need AC power nearby to power the hub from a small power supply brick, which explains the suggestion to mount it near the garage door drive unit.

When you first power up the hub, it initiates a bluetooth pairing session. Grab your phone, pair and accept the transfer of wifi settings from the phone to the hub… But wait — and you won’t find this in the manual — My phone uses wireless N and I discovered that the hub uses G because, after repeated tries, I continued to receive connectivity errors. An alternative start-up procedure turns the hub into a wifi hub that you can connect your phone to. Using Safari on my iPhone, I browsed to an alternative set-up web site. That’s when I saw that the hub was only seeing wireless G access points. Luckily I run a separate G router at home in order to connect “old” devices. Once I got the hub connected to the correct router, the MyQ unit wanted to — of course — download a firmware upgrade.
(Has there been a device shipped in the last 2 decades that ever shipped with stable firmware?) The download timed out twice and indicated a failure but the status lights suggested otherwise. Low and behold, after a restart, the firmware update did take and I was ready to start using the unit. Getting reliable wifi into the garage may be a problem for some people, so I strongly suggest that you test signal strength and usability in your garage with your smartphone before purchasing the MyQ. You may discover that you will need to augment or change your wifi set-up before utilizing the this garage door controller.

Your Chamberlain account info must be entered to start the app. Thankfully, the software contains a checkbox to remember your login. The app allows the door to be opened or closed from the touch screen. Additionally, alarms — also called events — can be set up to either provide a notification or email when the door is opened or closed. These events are logged and sorted by date and time. This info is useful if you have allowed third party access to your door through a keypad, for instance.

At about C$140.00, I am satisfied that the Chamberlain MyQ Garage works as advertised. The system does utilize a remote server service but it is free to use. The MyQ system is not Z-wave or Zigbee compatible out-of-the-box but I’m okay with that for this purpose-built application. It is possible to add other MyQ devices but I’m not planning to go in that direction. I’m going to play with Z-wave inside the house. Before that however, my next project is to set-up an older MacBook as a motion detector and security cam.

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Technology and modality: The iPad as Platform

When something is made to sit in the middle of a table, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a table center. For years, PCs have occupied prominent places on our desks. Desktop PCs cannot move around so their modality is fairly singular.

What is modality? As always, you could go to a go to a place like this and look up “modality”. For the purposes of this post, modality will refer to how something is used; as in a procedure or method.

Let’s get back to the PC. Over time, desk-top PC architecture got unified and repackaged. That’s why “luggables” and subsequently laptops were created. Few imagined putting a PC in your pocket. For years, neither the use case nor technology were available to make it happen.

The ways that you can use a device are as important as how you interact with the device. Use describes modality, interaction describes interface. If one takes a look at Apple, it is obvious that interface simplicity and elegance are a hallmark of their designs. It is also clear that when one looks at the arc of product that has been delivered by Apple since the release of the iPod that modality has also been a key part of their design genesis. The latest generation of iPad Air and Retina Mini demonstrate the extent to which the product’s modality is being expanded.

Great product design is not just a matter of answering the question, “what problem does this product solve”. A great design provides extensibility. It allows for further creativity. It can be a platform for something else. From its introduction in 2010 to its latest iterations, the iPad has been completely re-worked to make it thinner, lighter, faster. With each iteration, these optimizations have added dozens of new uses.

So many have wondered what has happened to Apple’s innovation mojo. It is not waning, it is accelerating. To achieve the optimizations that they are delivering requires a tremendous amount of design, science and engineering effort. Is Apple defining a new paradigm of computing with each model change of the iPad? Of course not but the iPad defines an epoch in computing development.

Platform extensibility is leading us in at least 2 new directions:
1) Thinner indicates a trend toward a device that could become flexible and resemble a type of “digital paper”. At scale this could lead to screens that are in some way more like wall paper than stand-alone boxes. This is the real promise of a future Apple TV
2) Reduced weight paves the way for larger mobile screen sizes. Apple could easily ship a 13″ iPad with its available technology that weighs about the same as the original iPad.

From here, the number of usage modes for touch and visual computing grow more and more.