Google have an offer on at the moment. A Home Mini device for your home. One of these things that just sits in the room, waiting to do something until you speak some command to it.. It was £25, I like tech, so I thought, why not?
It arrived yesterday and was quite painless to set up. On its own, however, it’ll tell me what time it is or what the weather is like – things I can do myself anyway. More interesting, it can control things like lights, with the necessary hardware. Okay, I can control the lights myself too just by walking over to the switch, but I was thinking particularly about when I have to get up at night, in the dark, and have to navigate to the light switch before I do anything. I rely a lot on my sight these days (patchy though it is) and am pretty wobbly (more wobbly!) in the dark.
So I started off knowing nothing, and contacted one of these Internet light shops just to ask “what would I need to buy in order to get something going that I could control with my voice?” The answer came back that it would cost £200. In benefits speak, two weeks salary. To buy something to replace something which already works. So I immediately said “no, thanks”.
I noticed though that each of this guys quotes included another bit of hardware, (confusingly also called a hub). But didn’t I have that already? the Home Mini? the answer was “no”, and here’s why. I’ll refer to this other bit of hardware as a “box”, to hopefully be clearer.
Of course, it took a few hours of web searching to try to understand the technology. Web sites were almost universally poor – I found several articles entitled “why you need another box”. Great, exactly what I was looking for. But what was the one question they didn’t answer? Web sites generally pre-supposed that you did need a box, and here’s what you do with it.
Anyway, I found a few blogs on the subject, and they eventually led me to the discovery that, yes, some of these products do require a separate box (probably the better ones), but that others don’t. The purpose of the box is to act as the middleman. You plug the box into your internet router. You speak to the Google Home Mini, it realises your intention is to turn the light on. It whizzes a command across the internet, which comes in to your internet router and ultimately arrives at this box. The box knows how to speak to the light bulb. and hey presto! the light goes on. Technically, the box is a bridge, something which just translates from one thing to another. Exactly the same as a translator. You can have a Russian guy and a Chinese guy in a room, and via the translator, they can talk to each other.
But some solutions didn’t require this extra box. Like a Russian talking to a Russian, no translation is necessary. These bulbs tended to be called Wi-fi bulbs. The principle is the same. Google Home Mini works out that you want to turn the light on, so it whizzes a command across the internet to your internet router. All this is exactly the same as before. But because the bulb is “wi-fi”, it can talk directly to your router. No translation (i.e. another box) required. Alongside this, less hardware meant that prices came tumbling down. From £200 to £10!
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the value in having a bridge in there to make the bulb work independently of the precise internet protocol. I spent my life building such safeguards into the solutions I defined for clients. But when you’re on a budget… The downside here is that the solution is dependent on the internet being up. But, if the internet is down, most likely the electricity is out anyway.
So feeling pleased with myself I have ordered my £10 light bulb from eBay. But it set me thinking, what else can I do with this thing?
One of the other obvious things is that these things can play music. Great, but these streaming services typically cost £10/month. Especially when I already own 99% of the music I will listen to, why would I even want to pay a penny? I mean, I tend not to buy music any more, but over the years I must’ve accumulated something approaching 200 GB! Especially when my format of choice is FLAC, the highest-quality format, and therefore the biggest size.
Some of these services do offer free versions, however. They’ll get you started, but they’re restricted. However, the device is also a Bluetooth speaker, so I can play all the music I want, just so long as the file is already on my tablet. The Home Mini will even connect to internet radio stations.