July 31, 2021

Making an “on-air” light for my home office

The final product - an "on air" light when I'm in a meeting.

When my wife and I started working from home in March 2020 we settled into a routine where she’d work downstairs and I’d be in the bedroom upstairs. Since I'm on the bedroom our cat Angie is usually sitting on the bed right behind me - in full view of my webcam. This is great for paying the cat tax during meetings, but not so great when my wife wants to come give Angie some pets and I happen to be on a video call. After a few accidental meeting interruptions I knew there had to be a way to make it easier for her to know when the coast was clear for a cat visit - something like the "on-air" lights used in recording studios.

Our senior cat Angie enjoying some sunlight on the bed.

We already had a few Hue light bulbs in the house, so my first idea was to just turn a light on whenever I went into a meeting. I could do this pretty easily from my phone or Google Assistant, but I usually forgot to change the light which defeated the purpose.

Luckily I’d been exploring some DIY home automation tools and had bought a Raspberry Pi to try out Home Assistant, an open source home automation solution that can be run locally on your own WiFi (I wrote a bit about Home Assistant in Debugging the smart home) . It can run on a bunch of different hardware, but I wanted to keep things simple so I bought a Raspberry Pi starter kit from CanaKit and followed Home Assistant’s instructions to get things set up. With Home Assistant you don't even need to already have Hue lights. You can use any light the 100+ lights Home Assistant supports or even just smart outlet with a light plugged into it.

Here’s a quick walkthrough of my setup:

What I used

The steps

The first 3 steps involve setting up the Raspberry Pi and Home Assistant. I followed along with the online documentation for each step and will link it below. If you've already got it configured, skip to Step 4 to build out the automation.

Setting up Home Assistant

1. Set up Home Assistant on the Raspberry Pi

I followed the excellent guide on Home Assistant’s website with no issues. I chose to do the Home Assistant Operating System installation as recommended on their website.

2. Add the Hue integration in Home Assistant

Again Home Assistant’s excellent documentation makes this super simple. There’s even a single click button to add the integration from the site: https://www.home-assistant.io/integrations/hue/

3. Install the macOS (or Windows) Home Assistant Companion App

Direct link: https://github.com/home-assistant/iOS/releases/tag/release/2021.7/2021.202

Creating the Automation

Creating the actual automation is the only part not covered by Home Assistant’s documentation so I’ll walk through it in detail. We're going to create a scene that tells Home Assistant which lights to turn on, what color to make them, and how bright to set them. We'll then create an automation that tells Home Assistant to trigger that scene when the computer camera turns on and an automation to turn off the lights when your camera turns off.

1. Create a scene for your lights

  • Navigate to Configuration > Scenes > Add Scene in Home Assistant.
  • Name your scene and choose your light(s) from the devices list
  • Click the lightbulb to choose your brightness and color/temperature
  • Save your scene

2. Create your "on air" automation

  • Navigate to Configuration > Automations > Add Automation > Start with an empty automation
  • Name your automation and add a description. Leave the Mode at its default value of Single
  • Choose Device for Trigger Type
  • Select the computer you’ve installed the Companion App on
  • Choose “[computer-name] Camera In Use Turned On”. [computer-name] will be whatever your computer’s name is as registered with Home Assistant.
  • Skip conditions and leave as is
  • Choose Activate scene for your Action type and select the scene we made in step 4
  • Save your automation

4. Create your "off air" automation

  • Navigate to Configuration > Automations > Add Automation > Start with an empty automation
  • Name your automation and add a description. Leave the Mode at its default value of Single
  • Choose Device for Trigger Type
  • Select the computer you’ve installed the Companion App on
  • Choose “[computer-name] Camera In Use Turned Off”. [computer-name] will be whatever your computer’s name is as registered with Home Assistant.
  • Choose Device for your Action type and select your light
  • Choose Turn Off for the action.
  • Save your automation.

Now you’re good to go! If you set this up, run into issues, or have an interesting automation I’d love to hear about it on Twitter.

April 20, 2021

Debugging the smart home

My first ever smart home device were smart lights from Philips Hue a after graduating college. They were perfect when I just had a bedroom in a shared apartment. And more importantly they were fun! I could change colors, dim the lights, and pair them to movies. Over time the last 10 years I've slowly accumulated a bunch of smart devices from different companies to do different things.

At this point we're using connected devices to:

  • Control our outdoor lights
  • Control our indoor lights in rooms without light switches
  • Play music throughout the house
  • Ask questions to Google
  • Turn the TV on/off and launch streaming apps
  • Set timers in the kitchen
  • Look at recipes
  • Video call our family
  • Open / close the garage door
  • Lock our front door
  • Look for packages and ring our doorbell
  • Alarm and monitor the house while we're away
  • Control our small sprinkler system
  • And probably more

And I love it! It's awesome to be able to turn off all the lights in the house when I go to bed or to have the garage let me know I accidentally left it open. My absolute favorite feature to this day is being able to easily play music throughout the house just by asking Google. It still blows my mind. But sometimes things go wrong and something disconnects or dies and the whole system starts to fall apart.

Last week the lights in my living room stopped responding. Yesterday I found my wife on our front porch, locked out of the house by our dead Yale smart lock. Every day my office lights seem to flip a coin on whether or not they want to stay connected to WiFi. This isn't usually a big deal for me. I don't mind dealing with the troubleshooting most of the time. Unplug it, plug it back in and see if it's working. Reset the bulb and reconnect the WiFi. But as you add devices to the system the troubleshooting becomes more complex.

Lost connections

Recently IFTTT, a tool I've been using for years to connect various software and smart home services, decided to change their billing plan. Free customers would now be limited to three applets - the if this then that rules you use to connect two services - and the rest would be archived. At the time I'd been using IFTTT to:

  • Sync my Fitbit scale data with Google Drive
  • Connect Logitech's Harmony remote system with Google Assistant
  • Send me text messages for my basement water sensor around my water heater

The Logitech connection alone used multiple applets to let me control my TV, speakers, and Xbox from Google Assistant. So when IFTTT changed their plan the voice prompts I'd been using for years - "Hey Google turn the TV on" - suddenly stopped working. And sure IFTTT is well within their rights to adjust their pricing strategy, but the issue here is that when the connections between these devices are so fragile, even a small disruption from one service can ripple through our connected home.

Abandoned by the manufacturer

An even more concerning issue is when the device manufacturer's change which connections they allow or stop supporting their connected devices completely. In 2014 the startup Revolv launched a smart home hub to help customers make sense of all the different smart home standards. Customers could connect their different devices to the hub and then use Revolv's app to create custom actions - similar to IFTTT. People used this hub to create custom actions like turning on their sprinklers when a motion sensor was activated. In October of that year Nest acquired Revolv to help build out their Works With Nest platform that opened up Nest devices to third party platforms. Less than two years later, however, Nest decided to shut down the cloud servers that powered Revolv, breaking the custom connections Revolv customers had set up. And then three years later in 2019 Google ended all new connections for the Works With Nest program! New Nest customers would have to use Google accounts that no longer supported the same third party integrations. What a journey. And this is only one company! There are plenty of other examples of smart devices suddenly becoming dumb devices or completely useless paperweights.


Who can you call when your smart home breaks?

When these connections break, it's not always easy (or even possible) to repair them with other services. My 1930s house has plenty of old systems that are still in use. We have steam heat radiators, cloth-wrapped electrical wires, and a 1990s home security system. While each of these requires maintenance, each is independent and none rely on cloud servers managed by their manufacturer. They can even be repaired by non-manufacturer experts! If one of our outlets stops working it can be repaired by any electrician. Familiarity with these systems fades in time as technologies like steam are phased out, but a 90+ year lifespan is a far cry from the 3 years of Revolv's hub.

Our Yale smart lock automatically unlocks for me most of the time, but never unlocks for my wife. We're both signed in with the app, have given it the appropriate location permissions, tried reinstalling the apps, and even resetting the lock per Yale's customer support. None of it worked and we're left with a lock that works but not as expected and there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it. Yale shipped us a new lock but the problem persists. Even when companies are aware of issues they don't always fix them. Just this week Wink customers have been left without a working device for over a week with no updates from the company. Sometimes those fixes never come and customers are left with broken devices.

Overlapping services

Another frequent challenge is the number of overlapping services you can end up managing. If you have the time and money you might be able to plan out your smart home to strategically use compatible devices, but for someone like me who's built up my system over time it's easy for the services to accumulate. I have smart lights from both Hue and Wyze which each have their own apps. I typically manage these through Google Home, but could also use Apple's HomeKit. When our bedroom lights dimmed unexpectedly I had to check both my Google Home and Hue apps to find an old Hue automation that dimmed the lights. A true smart home would help me figure this out.

For someone like me who's interested in technology and is frequently an early adopter this is tolerable. But what about people who don't have the time, inclination, or expertise to put up with all this? They're left buying into devices and systems that may or may not work as expected. Designers of these systems need to understand the complexities of the environments they will be operating in and the wide range of customers who will be interacting with them.

Designing for everyone

Even when the system itself seems to be working as intended, our failures to design for all users can lead to unfortunate challenges. At our house the Google Assistant seems to have a harder time understanding my wife. She often has to repeat her query or say "Hey Google" more than once before it will start listening. Unfortunately it's not just our house that has these issues. Voice recognition in general has been shown to have gender and racial biases as the training data used to create machine learning models is often an incomplete sample based largely on data available from white males. As reported by the NY Times, a 2020 study from Stanford showed that speech recognition systems "misidentified words about 19 percent of the time with white people. With black people, mistakes jumped to 35 percent." Understanding the reasons behind these failures, as well as the implications for customers, is crucial to help smart devices work for everyone.

So where do we go from here?

Smart devices are a fun way to bring technology and automation into our homes and while all the challenges I complained about above are real, it's not all bad news. There are a few things smart home consumers and smart home manufacturers can do to make all of our lives easier.

For consumers

Plan for graceful degradation

While I'd love to assume that each company behind my smart home devices will both continue to exist and support their devices for their entire lifetime I know that is unrealistic. For less expensive and novel items (like a color changing lightbulb) this might not be a big deal. For mroe expensive and/or longer-lasting devices (like a lock, smoke detectors, or security system) can look for devices that can continue working without a cloud-based service. You may lose some of the best features, but at a minimum it should be just as functional as it's dumb home relatives. A lock should still unlock without WiFi, a smoke detector should still yell at you even if the power is out, and your security system should still beep even if it can't send you a text.

Invest in companies with a good track record

Many companies already have an extended track record of long-term support. Investing in products from companies like this as well as strong companies that have been around for a while is a good way to hedge against the eventual shutdown of a smart device.

Open source and local solutions

Open source tools like Home Assistant openHABHome Assistant, and Hubitat let you build your own smart home hub and host it on your local network. For now it takes a decent amount of time and technical ability, but these services are making it easier and easier to run your own smart home system. I recently purchases a Raspberry Pi 4 to start experimenting with Home Assistant on my own to do things like turn a hallway light red when I'm on a meeting and check the battery level of my Yale door lock. Contributors are adding integrations to these services all the time and working to make them easier to set up and use. I'm hopeful that services like these will bring some power back to the consumer and maybe even let us use devices abandoned by their manufacturer.

For manufacturers


Broadening our sample sizes and including customers and coworkers from traditionally underrepresented demographics can help create systems and services that work for more people. Those of us who work in technology should be thinking about how our products can work for people all over the world of different ages, ethnicities, income levels, education, and more. Everyone should be able to benefit from the efficiency and convenience smart, connected devices can bring. And as we continue to make these services work for more people, we need to continue ensuring that they work together and don't ask too much from the user.


To help with troubleshooting and setup, the systems we make should be able to easily talk to one another and there should be an easy way to see where a command came from. Who or what asked my lamp to turn on at 5am? We need to assume that customers aren't using these devices in a vacuum and are likely to have many other integrations, devices, and services running. It's up to us - not them - to ensure our products work well in that environment and that the customer can easily and successfully configure their system and troubleshoot when needed.

Open up

In an ideal world manufacturers would open source services they're shutting down so consumer can continue to use the product. This might be unrealistic but I think a realistic goal is to support additional integrations. If a company doesn't want to support a product then they should at least let the open source community continue to support it. Android's open source community is a great example of how old devices can be given an extended lifetime thanks to the developer community. I don't think we'll see something quite as flexible from smart devices, but if product teams start with more robust and powerful integrations it will be a fantastic start.

Designed by Will. 

Built with Wordpress, Semplice, and some homemade HTML, CSS, and Javascript.