The internet of things

NEST is the  first company to really cash in on the "internet of things"  thanks to a $3.2 Billion buy-out from Google

NEST is the  first company to really cash in on the "internet of things"  thanks to a $3.2 Billion buy-out from Google

I’m frequently asked, “What's the next big thing?” Well, the next big thing is actually a collection of little things that has coined the phrase 'the internet of things'. In a nutshell, the 'internet of things' is a collection and connection of unrelated devices across the internet.

If you’re wondering why the phrase the 'internet of things' is suddenly appearing in the collective conscious, the folks at Google can give you 3.2 billion reasons. They just spent $3.2 billion to acquire Nest, the maker of a neat web connected thermostat and, more recently, a combination smoke/carbon monoxide detector.  People hate trying to program their thermostats, they’ve taken over the scorn once reserved for your VCR.  We all know that we can save energy and money by using a programable thermostat but the technology was so bad few of us could use it. NEST introduced an attractive thermostat with some terrific ergonomics, a great app to control it, and additional intelligence for the device to actually monitor and learn our living patterns. Perhaps most importantly, the app actually measures your monthly savings.

The buzz surrounding the Google/NEST deal fell right on top of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show where manufacturers across a broad range of categories were showing their wares connected by apps.  In addition to thermostats there were devices for the home like locks, garage doors, appliances, and even light bulbs controlled by apps. The health and fitness category were seen as explosive growth areas with major players Fitbit and Jawbone demonstrating wristbands that track your heart rate, calories burned, and distance covered amongst a number of variables.  From the non-wearable department, Blue Anatomy had a wireless body scale that tracks not only weight but body mass index, muscle mass, fat, bone and water.

The automotive sector was also present in a big way with connected technology.  In the “here and now” category Audi and Chevrolet announced that the 2015 model year will see their cars with mobile internet connections to facilitate streaming video for backseat viewing, streaming audio, and real time traffic and weather reports. QNX, the software company acquired by Blackberry, has been developing operating systems for vehicles that enable Android apps to be installed directly in the infotainment (information/entertainment) systems for dashboard based control instead of fiddling with your phone.

BMW and Samsung have merged automative and wearable technology with the Samsung Galaxy Gear Smart watch monitoring and controlling the new BMW i3 electric car.  Need to know if your car is fully charged? Just check your watch.  The smart watch will also allow you to remotely heat seats, enter navigation information and of course lock your vehicle.

As we enter the earliest stages of "the internet of things" there are of course some concerns that need to accompany the wonders of these new technologies. Privacy and security are at the top of the list. If your NEST thermostats knows when you come and go from your home, so does Google, and presumably so does anyone that could hack their systems. As for hacking, we now have millions of devices with potential vulnerabilities.  If you are keying your credit card number into the dashboard of your Chevy to pay for your on-demand movie, are you safe from spying? With the number of security patches necessary to keep systems safe how long will manufacturers continue to support your car, fridge, watch or robot vacuum cleaner?

From a practical standpoint we are also faced with the question of compatibility.  What if I don’t want to use Rogers ATT as the mobile carrier for my new Audi and I would rather have the shiny new iWatch when it finally arrives rather than a Samsung?  From a practical standpoint its hard to say if any of these problems will ever be fully resolved but the wheels for progress will continue to turn and connected technology will permeate every aspect of our lives.

The Samsung Smart Gear Watch will  control your shiny new BMW i3.

The Samsung Smart Gear Watch will  control your shiny new BMW i3.

Eye spy with my little eye

Some one came knocking

At my wee, small door;

Someone came knocking;

I'm sure-sure-sure;

I listened, I opened,

I looked to left and right,

But nought there was a stirring

In the still dark night;

Only the busy beetle

Tap-tapping in the wall,

Only from the forest

The screech-owl's call,

Only the cricket whistling

While the dewdrops fall,

So I know not who came knocking,

At all, at all, at all.

Walter de la Mare

This famous children’s poem by Walter de la Mare comes to mind every time we install a residential closed circuit video camera.  There was a time when those that came a knocking were just nuisance peddlers. Unfortunately these days a caller at your front door may just as easily be someone casing your home for a daytime break and enter. Closed circuit cameras around the home also serve to alert us to much less nefarious events. Your children arriving home from school, the landscaper arriving to mow the lawn or a courier package being dropped can all be great reasons to get a modern camera system.

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The proliferation of smart phones and the introduction of IP (internet protocol) video cameras has completely changed the landscape in the closed circuit camera industry.  Traditional analogue cameras required a video and power cable be home run back to a central location for connection to a multiplex video processor and recorder. Originally tape based and then hard drive based video recorders have now been rendered obsolete.

Modern security cameras connect to your computer network enabling you to connect remotely with your computer, tablet or phone to view them live or for playback.  Since cameras are now intelligent computers of their own, they can actually reach out and contact you.  If someone walks up to your front door while you are not home, your camera can email you a still or video image. You’ll know if your package arrived or your kids got home from school just by checking your phone.

The price range for modern video technology can vary dramatically. Entry level cameras under $250.00 are typically low resolution “VGA” cameras designed to record still images or short video clips of ten seconds or so.   For quick verification during an alarm or to let you know the gardener showed up they work just fine.  The image quality is on par with conventional video cameras but you are not going to be wowing anyone with CSI-style video enhancements.  The low hardware cost however is offset by the need to pay a monthly subscription fee for services like Rogers Smart Home to host the video stream and manage the email notification services.

For a few extra dollars spent on hardware you can cut the chord from a service provider and host your own video feed. For about $350.00 you can monitor your home in hi-definition and record the footage to an internal SD memory card just like the kind you have in your digital camcorder.  The cameras can be equipped with motion detection, electronic trip wires and other features that could allow you to monitor a back yard pool and alert you if your kids jump into the pool unattended.

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The Axi P3367VE camera offers state of the art, NSA grade surveillance for your home.For those looking for the ultimate in home security, the best IP cameras can provide auto tracking and auto zoom. When they detect motion of a person in their field of view they can automatically zoom in and will track a person as long as they are in the field of view. With multiple subjects it will automatically zoom out to cover all the subjects. The cameras are smart enough to differentiate between people and  random motion in the background to insure you are always getting the shot you need.

The next time someone comes knocking at your wee small door you’ll be able to see who it is... even if you aren’t home.

Back yard entertaining

Back yard entertaining encompasses more than a game of lawn darts these days.  Properties are literally turning inside-out as we create kitchen and living room spaces in our back yards.  The hardware store hibachi has given way to built-in stainless steel grills and our folding patio chairs have been replaced with outdoor sofas and lounges.
 
As we spend more time enjoying our back yards the demand for advanced outdoor electronic entertainment has increased. A transistor radio playing the ball game will no longer suffice.  The electronic systems can include simple background music, outdoor televisions, landscape lighting, architectural lighting, pool and spa control and even outdoor home theatres.
 
Outcast Speaker- The Outcast wireless speaker is the life of the party. It can fill most back yards with full-range sound for an entire day on a single charge.The appropriate audio solution for your back yard will depend on the size of space you wish to cover and the fidelity you desire.  The smallest and simplest solution would be a battery powered wireless speaker like the Jambox by Jawbone. This Blue-Tooth equipped speaker can stream music wirelessly from almost every cel-phone, tablet and iPod made today. With a 10 hour charge it can last the whole day. It is best considered a “personal” audio solution and  cover a table or pool-side lounge with music.
 
If you wish to cover a complete patio the Outcast wireless speakers are capable of covering over a thousand square feet with their omni-directional sound.  A small column the size of a scuba tank, the Outcast is equipped with high frequency speakers in a circular array. An eight inch or six inch downward firing woofer (depending on model) provides rich deep bass for a broad area. Outcast is capable of streaming music from inside your home for analogue sources, a computer or iPod. An optional Bluetooth adaptor makes Outcast compatible with almost all personal audio devices.
 
If you wish to cover a REALLY large space Sonance has introduced their Landscape series of speakers which provides a number of small satellite speakers that look like landscape lights paired with a subwoofer that isFor really large yards the Sonance LS series landscape speakers can be distributed amongst the plants and gardens to provide rich sound everywhere concealed underground.  Using direct burial wiring the Landscape system can expand to cover a yard of any size with even, rich and detailed music. Best of all the speakers completely disappear into the gardens and foliage.
 
The demand for outdoor entertaining has expanded to include outdoor video as well as audio. You can enjoy a double-header from the comfort of your hot-tub, keep up with the Canadian open while you entertain your golf buddies.  Truly waterproof TVs are available in sizes from 15 to 65 inches. They can be mounted outdoors and left fully exposed 12 months of the year. They are designed for maximum light output to provide daytime viewing and maintenance requires little more than hosing them off.
 
You can create mamoth building- sized images in your back yard with today's projector and screen technology.When the sun sets you can expand your video offerings to gigantic proportions. Do you still reminisce about your visits to the drive-in?  Create your own outdoor cinema with a high output projector and weatherproof screen.  You can enjoy barn-sized images right in your back yard. Outdoor screens are available in several different flavours. The most popular is a retractable screen with either crank or motorized operation. If there is no soffet our wall to mount the screen then motorized pop-up screens can provide a dramatic picture rising out of the ground. For a portable solution inflatable projection screens with tethers allow you to pop up a temporary image anywhere you can find power.  Your back yard allows you to enjoy the cinema in even greater scale than your own home.
 
Entertaining in your backyard  now includes not only furniture and appliances that are the equal of what you have in your home but electronics as well.  You can enjoy your music, sporting events and movies with the same fidelity and comfort as your living room.

 

Coming in Loud and Clear

The first regularly programmed radio broadcast in Canada came to life on May 20,  1920 from the station XWA (Experimental Wireless Apparatus) in Montreal. From that point on Canada's love of radio began, with now an estimated 4.3 million listeners a week tuning into just CBC Radio One alone. In your car, at home in the kitchen and outside on the deck it is more than likely that you will have the radio going. The sound of the radio, whether just in the background or concise listening, is something that we have all grown up with.
 
One of the ever growing trends for radio and its listeners today is the advent of internet radio. While writing this article I typed in "online radio stations" into a search engine and it came up with 228,000,000 relevant finds. I am sure some of those pages had something to do with cats in funny costumes but you can see that it is not a small trend. It is almost always a choice that any station that you tune in on your car or home stereo can also be found streaming over the internet. 
 
It is stated that from 2001 to 2011 the percentage of those listening to online radio has nearly doubled and is expected to increase even more dramatically by 2015. That increase is going to be helped by the now multiple ways you can stream your favourite radio stations. No longer is it tied down to only  listening from your computer which is rather limited on its sound quality and portability. From the diminutive Scansonic R4 Internet/FM Tabletop Radio or the Sonos Play3 to built in tuners in a receiver like the Pioneer's SC-67 you can now access not only to your local stations but also tens of thousands of stations worldwide. You can even stream over your smart phones and tablets if you like. 
 
tunein apps and website allow you to access thousands of free internet radio stationsOpening up your listening world is just a click away. You can catch the latest music trends in Japan while you make breakfast and find out the news from England while getting ready for bed. Unlike traditional radio you are never out of range of the signal. As long as you have internet connection the clear sound of the world is available to you. No more static or drop outs during your favourite song. No more playing with rabbit ears hoping to get the best signal while standing on one foot holding them above your head at a 45.6 degree angle off axis from your fichus. If you visit sites like tunein you can browse through their stated 70,000+ radio stations, all of them not affected by your fichus. 
 
Some of the stations you find online are only available online and are not broadcast in the traditional way but the majority are your live over the air broadcasts you grew up with. One of the major advantages of sites like tunein is the searchability of it. Say you are in the mood for a certain genre like Reggaeton or bluegrass, they are broken down into categories that you can go through. You can even micro-search to a certain song that you really want to hear and it is more than likely that one of the thousands stations is playing that song right at that moment. Almost gone is the hoping and waiting that your favourite song is going to come on soon. 
 
The Scansonic table radio lets you tune in internet radio as easily as a local FM stationA great aspect of internet radio is the ability of expanding your musical tastes. At London Audio we are always looking for great music and sometimes browsing different stations on the internet we can come across a gem we would never have heard if it wasn't for the online accessibility. Free to listen to you can surf through the online airwaves in search of the next favourite song of the household. Will internet radio replace your traditional radio? It could sooner than you think and that will be a step in the right direction for some of us. But for those who love your rabbit ears do not fear, you will still get to strike a pose with your fichus for years to come.

 

Nearly every modern AV receiver now contains internet radio tuners.

Speakers-The last link in the chain.

Our cup runneth over with options for music and cinema media. We can consume CDs, mp3s, Blurays, DVDs, broadcast, streaming, LPs, and even movies and music of our own making. But regardless of your content, in the end you will need to play them back through a  set of two or (many) more speakers. Your speakers are the translators from the electronic medium to the acoustical world that humans live in.
 
The task of a speaker is straight forward: reproduce an original acoustical event exactly as it was recorded without altering it’s timbre or spacial quality. Unfortunately in practice that’s impossible.   Every speaker alters the sound it reproduces no matter how much money you throw at it. In the end, your choice of speakers boils down to which set of compromises you can live with.
 
I am going to acknowledge a bias that should not come as a surprise to anyone, I’m a purist.  For me the ultimate priority is the quality of audio reproduction. I’m willing to give the speakers in my home the correct placement, space and surroundings so that they will sound ideal. Our best speakers are typically floor-standing models with multiple  drivers that will take up as little space as little space as a floor lamp and as much space as a refrigerator.  There has been much work done in the last 50 years of hi-fi to reduce the impact of speakers on the room but in the end,  those dedicated to getting the best sound possible will spend thousands of dollars on some pretty imposing lumber.
 

At the other end of the spectrum there, are music and cinema enthusiast that want to enjoy their tunes but can’t put up with totem pole sized speakers in their home.  For those more concerned with aesthetics one of the most popular options is to opt for speakers installed in their walls and ceilings.  With in-wall/ceiling speakers only a small grill is visible in the room and they can typically be painted to match the wall. 
 
The big compromise with this option is that we rely on dry-wall and stick framing to make up the enclosure for the speaker. Conventional floor-standing speakers use extremely carefully engineered enclosures. That all goes out the window as soon as we screw a speaker baffle into a wall  There are of course in-wall/ceiling speakers that make use of a complete engineered enclosure in the wall. They can work pretty well but at a high cost and we still run into the problem of vibrating the whole wall or ceiling when we install a speaker into the drywall.
 
A popular compromise is to use miniature “satellite” speaker with a subwoofer. The speakers could be small enough to hold in the palm of your hand while a separate subwoofer which reproduces the bass can be hidden almost anywhere in the room.  This format has been hugely popular for the last two decades especially for home theatre systems that require five or more speakers in the room. The key to success is to insure that the satellite is capable of reproducing enough bass on its own so that  no human speech/vocals  is reproduced by the subwoofer.  The illusion is shattered if Darth Vader’s voice is coming from the subwoofer under your coffee table and from your speaker at the same time.  
 
Many of the Sub/Sat speaker combinations sold over the years that used satellites were far too small to provide a convincing performance. Thankfully the desire to have satellite speakers match flat panel TVs in appearance led to satellites that were large enough to provide a convincing performance. It is ironic that improving the look of the speakers around our TVs has also improved their sound.
 
Even with all the advances in technology we have enjoyed over the last decades we still can not overcome the truism “you can’t get something for nothing.”  When it comes to speakers the continuum between invisibility and intrusiveness is inversely related to sound quality. In the end it is up to the individual to decide where they wish  to compromise between the cosmetic quality of their room or the richness of sound.

 

Vinyl Redux

The REGA RP-1 is the starter turntable of choice for today's audiophileThe holiday season seems to be a trigger for music lovers to dust off their turntables and return to those days long before downloaded music. Many of us never gave up our vinyl addiction, I picked up a couple dozen new albums just the other day. You’ll still find new displays of vinyl LPs appearing in most record stores as vinyl sales enjoy a current growth rate of 29% a year according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The growth is fantastic but it is still less than a single percent of total global music sales. Nonetheless, there is a growing interest in rediscovering vinyl, and for the newest generation, many are discovering it for the first time.

Proper cleaning and maintenance is a must to preserve your vinyl collection.If you are going to dive into your existing record collection you will need to literally dust it off. Record care and cleaning products are still readily available and can range from basic $20 brushes with carbon fibre bristles to motorized vacuum pump models that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. The needle (stylus) also requires cleaning as dust in the record grooves get picked up and accumulate. A good stylus cleaner needs to use solvent and a stiff bristle. Make sure your record cleaning products are specifically designed for records. Don’t use household cleaners, alcohol or cloths for cleaning your collection.

One of the challenges of playing records today is that most home theatre (or even stereo) receivers and amplifiers are missing a dedicated “phono” input. A phonograph produces about one-tenth the electrical voltage of a cd player or other audio sources. You will need a phono “pre-amplifier” that boosts the signal level of the phonograph while applying special frequency equalization. At one time, every amplifier was equipped with a phono pre-amplifier. However, as phonographs fell into oblivion the unnecessary circuitry was removed from amplifiers to reduce cost. Most modern amplifiers will require and external phono preamplifier to play back your phonograph Thankfully, out-board phono preamplifiers are readily available and can be used with any turntable and amplifier. The cost of an outboard phono preamp begins at $80.00 and can run up to many thousands depending on quality. Some phono preamps also allow you to digitize your records via USB with help of computer software.

If your adventure into vinyl requires you to acquire a turntable, there are plenty of choices in new tables and a huge wealth of used turntables available. Many turntables 30 years or older can be easily resurrected. An old Dual belt drive turntable is the garage sale find of choice for an aspiring record collectorIf you are scouring garage sales, I would recommend looking for proven belt-drive units from manufactures like Dual, Linn, Thorens or Rega. Typically, with a replacement belt, some set up, and a new phono cartridge, these turntables can perform like new. Try to avoid direct drive turntables from the mainstream Japanese brands. While they may be more readily available on the used market, they do not sound as good as the European belt-drive designs. Another potential problem is that the quartz speed control circuits and motors themselves can fail with age. Belt-drive turntables have proven to be a much better choice in terms of sound quality and durability.

Similar advice applies if you’re on the hunt for a new turntable. You can still buy belt-drive turntables built in Germany or the UK. The Dual turntables begin at $350 for a fully automatic belt-drive model and the Rega turntables begin at $450.00. These are heirloom grade products that will perform at their best for thirty or more years.

Dust off that collection of records and take your favourite album for a spin. Listening to vinyl is fun and often a trip down memory lane. I can still remember when and where I bought most of the records in my collection. I can’t make that claim for anything I’ve downloaded.

The Linn LP-12 Turntable continues to defined the state of the art in turntable design