Features of the Cheswick's Digital House

Digital House Features

Telephone services

  • Caller identification announcement. Announcements are either predetermined text or recording, or text-to-speech of the telco-supplied string.

    This has been wonderful, and especially useful with teens in the house. We generally know who needs to answer the phone, or whether to let the answering service take a message. We miss this service when we are in other houses.

    We've seen commercial products that do this. Ours is better: the whole house gets the announcement, which is only a problem if someone is taking a nap.

  • Caller identification logging. The logging service has been useful occasionally. Did the Do Not Call list cut down our unknown phone calls? Yes. Did the telemarketers actually tend to call at mealtimes? (No.) Did the plumber call five times this past weekend, as he claimed? (No.)

  • Telephone messages. Currently the typical service, implemented in software on a server. That means unlimited recording time, and we can save messages forever.

    Messages are available on a secret web page, so we can check them from anywhere. They are also available at the push of an X10 button at home, though that service is seldom used. The X10 service includes a message-waiting light.

    They should be available on a small touch screen in the kitchen, for easy access. Also, some calls should not switch to this service. For example, grandpa hangs up before the message comes on, to save a little. We could also provide various touch-tone menus and further services, including a menu hell for incoming telemarketers.

  • Computer-processed faxes (deprecated). There is fax software available, and we used it for a while. Faxes were available on a web page, and announced on the home speakers (``a four page fax from XXX has arrived.'') This was convenient, but flaky, in part because the software wasn't working very well, and party because we shared the fax line with a voice line.

  • Plans. Using asterisk we can implement a combination of IP- and traditional telephony in our house. We expect to cut our phone bills substantially and provide several extensions and perhaps fax service with a software intermediary.
  • Lights

    We use X10 extensively---it has been installed incrementally over the years. When X10 works, it is great. When it doesn't, it is mysterious and useless. We have several recepticles in our house that do not seem to receive X10 signals. We have no idea why. In any case, very occasionally, X10 signals do not get through on a normally-working circuit.
  • Timed light controls. When Ken Thompson's software thinks it is sunset, our outside front lights go on. So do the Christmas lights, when they are up (see below). The lights are turned off around our bedtime, as are various internal lights, in case the kids left them on. Lights are also turned off at dawn, just in case.
  • Christmas lights. The outside Christmas lights are computer controlled to change colors in a non-tacky manner. The tree is decorated with five separate strings of LED lights, each of a single color. The new LED lights are stunning. The X10 lamp modules have a dimming function, and the five strings are controlled by computer. A maximum of two strings are on at a time, and one is slowly dimmed and may be replaced by another. Changes are made over a minute's time, and last several minutes.

    This tree has received a lot of comment. Some people would see the tree once a night as they drive by, and thought we had redecorated the tree during the day. Our neighbor interrupted his own party, and phoned us to make the tree change faster, so they could watch.

    The whole idea was inspired by an engineer on Lorette's street when she was a child who implemented this idea with custom electronics.

    Oh, yes, the window candlelights are also controlled by the computer.

  • X10 light controls. We have X10 switches in the house for the usual light functions, but some have wider effect. In particular, we have separates switches by the master bed to control all the X10 lights on each floor, and outside. This is very convenient.
  • House announcements

    Our house was built in the late 1970s, and included an intercom. (I remember wanting an intercom in my house when I was a kid, but now realize that it is a pain in the neck if the person you want to talk to isn't near the speaker.) We didn't use it much until I connected the sound output of a PC to the AUX input of the home intercom. Now it is an important feature of our house.
  • Chime! With the help of a Unix cron job, and the Network Time Protocol, we have a very accurate if invisible grandfather clock. At the top of the hour, during waking hours, the house plays a recording of the word "chime" sung by a friend of ours. If the Internet connection happens to be down, it sings my own abrupt "chum", a subtle but useful auditory clue.

    At noon, it plays an actual recording of what's heard in London: the chimes and Big Ben. I learned on a visit to London that I should start the chimes at 11:59:43, not noon as I had been.

  • Morning wake-up information At 7:03 weekdays, and an hour later on weekends, the house announces some astronomical information, the weather for the next several days, and the headlines. It also tells us if it is trash day, recycling day (which is also announced the night before as a handy reminder), and birthdays and anniversaries. It also plays overnight breaking news from CNN.
  • Events in the sky. Our house checks for and announces some events in the sky, if they are high enough, and don't occur when we are sleeping. Events include eclipses, occulations (when the moon blocks a star), transits (when a planet passes in front of the sun), passes of the International Space Station, and Iridium flares.

    The space station is fairly bright in the sky, and takes several minutes to pass overhead. The house announces it with a little satellite sound effect and details of the pass. For this old Echo I observer, it is still exciting to see something like that pass overhead, with two or three people on board. Sometimes it passes into shadow, disappearing from view.

    Iridium flares occur when the sun reflects off the solar panels of one of the Iridium satellites. It lasts for just a few seconds, but can be so bright that you can see them in the daytime. Iridium flares are announce 3, 2, and 1 minutes before the flare, along with the location in the sky. You can often see the satellite approaching long before the flare.

    We have had parties stop and empty out onto our front lawn to see one of these events. They typically happen a couple times a month.

  • Breaking news from CNN. When CNN has breaking news, our house erupts with a fanfare, and reads the news. Sometimes it is actually interesting. Overnight announcements wait until morning. You can imagine some announcements that should come out immediately (tornado!), but it has been hard to find an appropriate news service. There is a future business opportunity here.
  • Special email. Email to a special address is read aloud to the house, regardless of the time. This is occasionally used while one of us is travelling, usually to point out that important email needs to be read.
  • Not time to feed the cats. Once a day, at a random time, we point out that one of our cats probably thinks it is time to eat.
  • Radio show reminders. A one-minute warning for a couple of favorite radio shows.
  • Other alarms and events

  • We have mail. A motion sensor in the mailbox tells us when the mailbox is open. We have logs of when the mailman has arrived over the years.
  • Garage door status. The house tells us when the garage door is opened or closed, and also reminds us when it has been open for a long time.
  • Flood. A water sensor in the basement detects flooding, which is announced to the house.
  • Fire. A smoke detector has been hacked in the basement to report fire to the house. (We also have a standard, unmodified detector in case all this cleverness fails for some reason.)
  • Pestilence. No announcements for this, except CNN breaking news, I hope. Similarly for radiation hazard, though I plan to detect and announce that someday.
  • Stock report. At the end of the trading day, a summary of the important moves and stocks in our portfolio is played.
  • Manual controls

    It would be nice to talk to the house, to ask for playbacks, set timers, etc. for now we have a few special X10 inputs:
  • Replay phone messages.
  • Clear phone messages.
  • Replay last message. Sometimes the house's interuptions are obscured by interuptions.
  • Play current weather forecast.