Home automation: they owe us more

There's a single thread that ties much of my life and career together; I want to see technology work for people, not against them. I want technology to make our lives better.

When I was a kid I would dream of robots who helped, saved, made the world a better place. Isaac Asimov was my hero. I wrote stories about a world where computers and robots and intelligent technology changed our world for good. During my career I've seen fragments of that dream come true and I've loved every millimetre we've moved towards it, I've loved being involved to the tiny degree I have.

The last few weeks I've had the honour of researching unpaid carers - usually partners and family members looking after a loved one with a physical or mental need to be cared for - and saw how heavy their burdon is, how much they have to cope with. Technology has a huge supporting role to play here, and I'm pleased I can be involved to help shape that too.

But equally I've had a taste of life on the other side of the technology fence.

Home automation is a simple concept. Our lives are filled with things to do, technology should be able to step in and help. Technology should be able to lighten the load. And again that load isn't too light. I researched this field a year ago for a client, and speaking with families couples and singles, there is a lot that technology can help with.

I'm starting the journey myself and this week has given me a pretty miserable taste of what's out there. The first cab off the rank for me is basic security, a wireless camera that can help me to see what's going on in the office when I'm not there. There are several cameras out there, and I started the journey with an impulse buy of a Dlink wireless camera.

What started out as a relatively impulsive purchase and the thrill of a new toy quickly turned to dismay. I got the camera to the office, plugged it in, downloaded the app, scanned the camera - and nothing happened. The box it came with held very little other than the camera itself, the instruction was to merely download the app and scan the code to get started. The online service from Dlink is designed such that you can only create an account once you've registered your camera; and since the camera wouldn't register, I was stuck.

I went online but found nothing to help, so contacted Dlink support. The extensive support page asked me for everything down to my operating system version and browser, even though I was only using their app and their camera - but I persisted and filled out the form and asked for some guidance. More than a day later I received a response, telling me to reset the camera and to reinstall it from the disk.

To paraphrase Kryton from Red Dwarf this was an excellent plan, with just two major flaws. Firstly there was no reset button on the camera, and secondly there was no installation disk in the box. Despite knowing the camera, brand, app and every detail about me down to the current colour of shirt I was wearing, support seemed not to know their own product very well.

Having tried to install the camera on two different android devices and an iPad I gave it up as dead-on-arrival and returned it to the store for a replacement. 

The replacement had just a little more luck. This time it failed to install on my phone and my iPad, but a native Android phone with the same app did manage to see the camera and connect to it, configuring it to see the network. Success!

Except for the app.

The app failed to connect to the camera, and kept telling me there was a 'problem'. Most helpful.

After almost a week of struggling to get this thing connected I finally gave up, returned it and replaced it with a Swann wireless camera - cheaper with twice the features. 

This time there were a few minor hiccups getting it installed but after less than 20 minutes it was connected and visible through the app. I'm sure there are better cameras out there, but for me it does the job.

However - and this is the reason for the blog - the app once again lets down what could be a great piece of kit.

I have no idea who has developed the SwannEye app, but it's a miserable thing to play with. And here are just a few of the reasons why it's like a rude teenager with an attitude problem:

  1. It forgets you the moment you walk away
    Every time I access the app it asks me to log in - despite the fact that it's sitting on my phone, I've given it my details and I've told it to remember me. Sure my details sit in the fields, but I have to hit Login each and every time I look at the screen, to remind it who I am. I have to wait 10 seconds while it thinks about this, and then lets me see my own camera. Oh, it's you.... sigh.
  2. It can't keep it's crap in one place
    I have a son who seems to think he has five unique laundry piles, depending on the position he's lobbing his underpants from at the time. It's frustrating to see the messy piles in all different locations. The app is the same. Access the app and there's a settings feature. If you want to change the video codec, that's where you'll find it - though good luck trying to change it, the app helps you not one single bit. Want to set up an alert? Oh, that's somewhere entirely different. Want to change your login details? Oh, somewhere else again. Set camera positions? You guessed it, move along buddy, nothing to see here.
  3. It sulks
    The first time the video screen loaded there was a toolbar at the base which quickly slid off view. I had spotted it though and understood that's what I needed to acess functions like recording. Touch anywhere on the (now full-screen) video and the camera pans and tilts to follow, which is pretty cool. But - try and swipe or touch to bring back the toolbar, and nine times out of ten you'll get the camera tilting down instead of the toolbar you want. 'Toolbar please' you swipe, and the app ignores you and pans down. 'Toolbar - please?' you swipe again - but the app is determined. 'TOOLBAR, TOOLBAR!' you screamingly swipe, but pan and pan are all you get. It's ignoring you, it's sulking, and you're getting a pan down whether you like it or not. By the time it eventually (and grudgingly) displays the toolbar your camera is staring at the floor and you've got to completely reset it.
  4. It (almost) never does what you ask
    As a parent I can live with the messy teenager who sulks - but when they don't do what needs to be done, life sucks. Equally, the app has a teenagers ability to completely ignore you. All I wanted was a simple alert to tell me that someone had walked into the office. When I eventually found the alert options I switched it on. There's a nice scale of 1 to 10 for sensitivity (and I'm assuming 10 is most here, though that's a guess) - but whatever I set it to no alert ever arrives. I've walked, sidled, waved and jumped around to no avail. I had my son parade past in daylight and night - and yes, I saw the moon, Mr J - without ever being informed of an event. 
  5. It likes to be untraceable and inscrutable
    There are functions in the app to take screen shots and videos. Not that these are of particular interest to me, but I tried them out. Videos seemed to be recorded. But to where? There doesn't appear to be a cloud service attached, there is a SD card slot in the camera but it's currently empty. And the app interface doesn't appear to have any functions for seeing or playing back videos that I can find. I did discover that I could talk through the camera - which, of course, is what we all want to do when we switch on (at random of course, since the alerts don't work) and spot our homes being cleared out. Since the audio is extremely low, I assume we'd all love to quietly demand from the corner of the room that the burly men put our laptop and tv back IMMEDIATELY. However this feature itself was only discovered through trial and error - it's a bizarre interface choice that takes fumbling and bumbling to learn.
  6. It lies to your face
    And of course this is a killer. Whilst trying to test out the alerts I set the camera and left the building. Upon returning in the dark I loaded the app, looked at the camera view (showing a closed and quiet doorway) and then watched as I entered to see how long the delay would be - hoping it would be relatively real-time and perhaps only a second or three out of sync. I walked in, waited a few seconds, then a few more - and then more. In fact I walked right past the camera, into the office, up to the laptop - and still saw a closed door. Eventually I realised that either I was in the process of being robbed by criminals who'd got a looped signal fed in to confuse me - or the app had simply lied to me and lost signal without bothering to refresh or tell me.
  7. It refuses to conform
    This app isn't as familiar as it should be on Android - but on the iPad, prepare to be disappointed. It's not large-form friendly and instead scales up from the iPhone version - which is messy, and in todays world pretty unforgivable. On top of that the iOS version is missing key features you can obtain on Android - and as much as I love Android, iOS is going to be a huge chunk of the usage market. 

I'm a realist and I really don't expect perfection. In fact I'm usually forgiving of the small flaws and compromises that technology requires. But I find it hard to accept situations like this from people like Swann security, who should know better. The camera itself appears to be a nice piece of equipment with relatively reasonable features. It could certainly do the job I want, with even a relatively basic but trustworthy app.

So it is certainly the digital experience that is letting this product down. To be honest - and since this is the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future hitting the screens it's kind of funny in a sad way - it was like going back to the early and horrible days of software design. Back to the days when anything was good enough, when messy and sloppy interfaces were everywhere.

I'm not calling out Swann as the only bad guy here, my experience with others hasn't been much better (Dlink you get a special mention), but this is a new field and it'll be killed by poor experiences like this. However this happened, whoever is responsible, please listen. 

You need to do better.

Oh, and if anyone out there is thinking of robbing the joint, don't do it - I'm growing a huge Venus fly trap near the door. Now I just need an app to control it...