How-To: Automate Your Home with Indigo

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Here at TheAppleBlog, there’s been plenty of instruction and discussion about using Smart Folders, Playlists, Albums and so on, as well as Automator and Folder Actions and other products like Hazel — all of which serve to make your Mac work a little harder to simplify your life a bit.

Hopefully we’ve led many of you in the right direction in using these great bits of technology. If you’re willing to follow us down the rabbit hole again, I’d love to show you how to use your Mac and a product called Indigo to start making your home work for you as well. It’s home automation time!

A Brief History

Some of you probably remember — from a long time ago — those wall plugs with the big timer dials on them. You could plug the living room lamp into it, and auto-magically it would turn on at 8PM for you. Since then, a standard (probably limited largely to tinkerers and geek types) called X10 became available. It allowed for communications to occur over the power lines within homes, to control lights and appliances via some programmable unit.

That technology hasn’t changed a great deal (to my knowledge that is), but other products and technologies have come along that work along with X10, and it’s this combination that has made home automation much more accessible (and interesting) for the masses.

Whetting Your Appetite

Needless to say, we’ve come an awful long way from lighting that lamp at a given time each day. One of the more main stream examples come toward the end of the calendar year, when the Alpha Geeks start showing off their holiday lights, controlled by computer. In fact, a couple years ago here in Denver, there was a guy who claimed you could control his lights via his webpage. It turned out to be a hoax at the time, but the technology is definitely there, as you’ll see below.

But people are doing awesome — and, gasp!, practical — things with home automation.

  • Turning on certain lights in the house when the car pulls into the garage
  • Announcing when the mail has arrived
  • Readying the blinds and lights for a proper movie-watching experience (via a single switch)
  • Security monitoring
  • Conserving energy by automatically turning off unused lighting
  • And the list goes on.

Hardware

Besides your Mac (an older G4 would do the trick of you don’t want to use your MacBook) to run the software, you’re going to need some basics to get started. First, there’s the device that allows your Mac to interface with the Insteon/X10 modules you install in your home. This is called the Insteon PowerLinc Modem USB. You’ll also want a couple of Insteon Access Points, which enable mesh communications of commands sent to different devices within your automated home. That’s it! Those are the basics to tap into the power (pun intended) to automate the stuff in your house.

You’ll need to add some controllable modules so there’s actually something to control, otherwise, what’s the point? You can start on the cheap side, with the wall-wart type of products, and later move into the replacement outlets and switches if you really get the bug. On the starter side, you have the LampLinc Dimmer and the ApplianceLinc (which is an on/off current, rather than the dimming style). You can get all of these modules (plus Indigo Server Lite) in the Starter Package for about $250. It’s not the cheapest hobby in town, but what is? (Hypothetical question…)

Software

Indigo Server is the brains of the operation. With it running on your Mac and plugged into the PowerLinc Modem, you can control nearly anything connected to your home. Indigo, depending on the version you get, can key off of such things as timers, time of day (adjustable by season), ambient light, remote control, and so forth. Also, you can setup zones in your home, or “control groups” which can cause several things to happen from one trigger. Indigo is also scriptable using AppleScript, so the sky is truly the limit if you really want to get crazy. Oh, and there’s also Indigo Touch, which gives you the ability to control your home remotely from your iPhone. So you forgot to turn off the furnace before fleeing the cold for a warmer destination? No worries, just bring it up on your iPhone from the Fiji Islands and make it so.

I can honestly say that this stuff is addicting. My own uses are still modest, but suit my needs. One of the things I love about home automation — if you read the Perceptive Automation boards — is how some people seem to approach their home automation problems like MacGyver. So if the geek-factor of controlling your home isn’t enough, you can enjoy the problem solving exercise as your home automation-fu grows stronger (and more complicated).

You can find all the information you need to get started at Perceptive Automation and the Mac Home Store websites. And, if you’re already eye-balls deep into this home automation thing, share with us what you’re working on!

Related GigaOM Pro Research: Is Energy Management the Killer App For the Home Automation Market?

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