Sensors and sensibility: Quirky’s Spotter multi-purpose monitor module
Introduction to the ‘Internet of Things’ for folk scared of soldering irons
Review It sounds such a good idea: a compact, battery powered general-purpose sensor pod you can stick pretty much anywhere there’s a Wi-Fi network you have access to, and which will ping you temperature, humidity, sound, light and movement info over the internet to your smartphone.
Quirky’s Spotter: internet-connected sensor for World+Dog?
Heck, it is a great idea, and it’s one that Spotter, a joint offering from General Electric and US-based maker of crowd-voted products, Quirky, was created to realise. Think of it as an ordinary Joe’s easy-to-use introduction to the Internet of Things.
Sceptics will have already started slowly shaking their heads and muttering to themselves about fools and money being easily parted. But the Internet of Things is going to happen, and it will be products along the lines of Spotter which will take the notion of internet-connectible and remote-controllable systems to the masses.
Or, rather, it will if Spotter’s developers spend a bit more time on the software.
I wanted to try Spotter because it’s based on the Imp IoT platform developed by Electric Imp. I recently reviewed the developer version of Imp, but I wanted to see what commercial entities were making with the platform. Electric Imp makes a solder-on alternative to the developer kit’s SD card-format device, and it’s what is used here.
Spotter can run of a pair of AAs, kinda, sorta
Quirky is a website that allows punters to suggest ideas for products. Think of it as a kind of nerds’ version of Britain’s Got Talent. If a showcased product concept wins a big enough round of applause from the stalls, the concept gets made and - hopefully - stardom beckons.
Quirky’s partnership with GE is called Wink, which isn’t an abbreviation but is meant to make you think of wireless interactive connectivity. There are five products in the Wink portfolio, including Spotter, all managed through a single Wink app that’s available for free on both iOS and Android.
I tried the iOS version, but the approach is the same whichever platform you favour: run it and a wizard walks you through the process of connecting the Wink device to the app over the internet by way of your local wireless network. There’s no direct sensor-to-smartphone link - communication between the two always goes through a server.
Inside, a small circuit board...
You’ll need to set up a Wink account, but that’s a trivial process and one handled within the app itself. Power on Spotter and it’s ready to be “blinked up”, what Electric Imp calls its mechanism for optically transmitting your account details and your Wi-Fi network’s configuration information from the phone’s screen to Spotter.
That done, Spotter connects to the network and then established its bona fides with the Wink server. This process went smoothly for me, but it takes only a few moments to reblink the device if it isn’t connecting. Gotchas include try to access a wireless network that’s not operating in the 2.4GHz band, moving either phone or Spotter while blinking, or not holding the two devices together during the transmission process.
The Wink app’s Spotter section has an intuitive interface that lets you define sensor values that trigger actions. Wink sensibly uses an If... then... method for defining triggers. The problem is, the range of actions is currently very limited indeed, and the number of possible trigger settings not much broader.
...which, flipped, reveals the Electric Imp module
The only light triggers available, for instance, are when it goes on or it goes off. There are no intensity level triggers. The only actions either of these events can be used to initiate are to present a notification on the phone or to send an email.
The app’s only audio-related trigger is “detects a loud noise”, and it will only respond to “detects movement” and “detects movement has stopped” signals from the motion sensor. The temperature and humidity options are better: the app will respond if either go above or below set values listed in one degree or one percentage point intervals.
The Wink app has an intuitive interface (left) but the options it offers are limited (right)
The temperature values are in US-friendly Fahrenheit. You might think that’s fair enough given that the Spotter is currently pitched primarily in the States, but some Americans like to work in Celsius. Quirky will ship internationally for an extra $30 (£18), and how hard would it have been to allow the user to choose a preferred unit? It wouldn’t be difficult at all.
What we have then is some interesting hardware being limited in applicability by the supplied software. The advantage of the problem being this way round is that the software can be improved. I’d like to see much more granularity on the sensor data. This doesn’t have to be up front where it might bamboozle a less technically savvy user - stick it behind an "Advanced Options" button if necessary.
The Spotter isn’t useless as it stands: the options the Wink app provides enable some basic remote monitoring of events for security or information. But it is basic. And without a better range of actions, you’ll still need to do respond to notifications from app manually. If Wink tells you the temperature in your garden shed has plunged, you’ll need to turn the electric heater on with a separate app - unless it’s plugged into Quirky’s own net-connected power strip, Pivot Power Genius. This is operated with the Wink app too.
Setting up heat and humidity triggers
I’m not a big fan of the app IFTTT because its if-then mechanism monitors far too many things that I can monitor manually simply by looking at my computer’s screen. But credit where it’s due: IFTTT does provide a very wide range of possible triggers and plenty of actions it can be set to perform in response to those triggers.
Quirky needs to take a leaf out of IFTTT’s book or, better, work with IFTTT and others to tie its hardware into their software. But since Spotter is a 30-quid offering, I suspect Quirky won’t.
As for the hardware, it has possibilities. Out of the box, it can be powered by a pair of AA batteries - two are included - or a dinky (US pin) AC adaptor. Alas the temperature, humidity, sound and light sensors require mains power to operate, but the motion sensor seems fine on battery power.
Basic triggers initiate basic actions
A pair of magnets have been built into the Spotter’s battery cover to allow to mount it on ferrous metals, and there are wall mounting screws and an adhesive pad in the box to allow you to stick Spotter elsewhere.
Opening the battery hatch reveals four screws which provide access to the business end of the hardware, though the manual makes it clear you really shouldn’t do this: “Changes or modifications not expressly approved by the manufacturer could void the user’s authority to operate the equipment.” Excuse me? I need authority to do what I want to do with a device I’ve bought and paid for? I think not.
Fair’s fair: there’s not much in here for the kind of non-technical users Quirky and GE are targeting, and they have to make sure the unwary don’t electrocute themselves. Real hardware hackers will want to build it themselves.
Spotter’s inner Imp
The Reg Verdict
Quirky’s inexpensive sensor pod brings a taste of the Internet of Things to folk who don’t field comfortable wielding a soldering iron. It has the potential to be useful - I’ve put it to work measuring the level of moist air in one of my rooms, so I can tell the other half to switch the dehumidifier on - but its command and control app needs a much expanded range of events to monitor and actions to trigger if Spotter’s hardware is ever to be much more than an IoT toy. ®