What If There Were Webcams in ‘Home Alone’?

12:00 minutes

In the 1990 movie Home Alone, Kevin McCallister (played by Macaulay Culkin) improvises a series of booby traps to keep burglars at bay. While setting up trip wires or covering your floors in tiny toy cars are methods of do-it-yourself security, a growing cadre of smart devices and apps also allows you to manage your home security on your own. One of those is Canary. The company describes itself as an “all-in-one home security system you control from your phone.” Other products include Piper NV, Nest Cam, and iSmart Alarm, and, among other features, each allows you to view video footage of your home from your phone. In the latest installment of our App Chat series, Ry Crist, an associate editor of smarthome and appliances at CNET, talks us through each of these security devices and their associated apps.

Segment Guests

Ry Crist

Ry Crist is the Associate Editor for Smarthome and Appliances at CNET. He’s based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In the 1990, Christmas comedy film Home Alone, a little boy thwarts a couple of bungling burglars by cleverly booby trapping his home with household items. You remember, the tiny toy cars scattered across the wood floor, a prime spot for slipping, and that red hot door knob set to singe the hands of the unsuspecting invaders.



Yeah, it worked for Macaulay Culkin. But if this isn’t quite your idea of holiday home security, how about a 21st century update. In this installment of our App Chat Series, we’re going to be talking about the latest smart security devices that let you monitor your home from your phone. Joining me now to talk about some of the gadgets that are out there is Ry Crist. He’s the Associate Editor of Smart Home and Appliances at CNET based in Louisville, Kentucky. He joins us today from WFPL. Welcome to the program.

RY CRIST: Hi, Ira. Thanks, for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk home security, smart home security. What are some of the most popular smart home security systems out there right now?

RY CRIST: Well, we’ve seen a whole bunch of them in the last few years. It’s kind of a disruptive part of tech right now, and that word gets thrown around a lot. But home security definitely has been disrupted with these gadgets. They have replaced a lot of the traditional approaches, the call center method– ADT, systems like thaT– with systems that just put you in that position. They alert you when there’s a problem, and they let you make the decision to call the police.

Some of the big names right now, we’ve seen Nest, the popular thermostat that’s owned by Google Now, get into the game with a new camera. They acquired Dropcam, and then replaced it with the Nest Cam. And that’s a little wireless camera that you can stick on the wall or put on your desk to keep an eye on things.

And there are also some other camera devices that do a little more than that. There is Canary and Piper NV. They’re a little bigger. They sit on your table or on your countertop, and they keep a watch on things. But they’ll also monitor conditions in your home– things like temperature, and listen for noises, and keep an eye on the humidity, things like that.

IRA FLATOW: And so it’s a little canister or a device that sits there as your police force, your monitoring force, and sends out a Wi-Fi signal to your local internet?

RY CRIST: That’s right. So it’ll connect with your phone over Wi-Fi using your router, and you’ll be able to look at it on the smartphone app to take a look at the camera stream and see what’s going on at home. It can be a fun way to keep an eye on your pets while you’re at work. And if there’s anything going on that shouldn’t be going on, if someone is coming in when the system’s armed, it’ll start recording and keep a collection of clips in a timeline. You can see what happened and, hopefully, get a good look at who came in.

IRA FLATOW: Sometimes these systems get fooled a little bit, don’t they?

RY CRIST: There can be plenty of false alarms. With any security system, you’re going to have a worry of false alarms. If the cat you’ve got knocks a vase over in the middle of the night, it’s probably going to set the alarm off if it’s armed. But that’s the same with a security system in a lot of cases, a more standard one. So it’s nothing too unusual, but certainly, there is the risk of the alarm going off when you don’t want it to.

The good thing is, with a lot of these kits, they most of the time won’t alert the police automatically like a system like ADT or another larger system will. They’ll alert you first and let you make that decision. So if you look on the app when the alarm goes off at 3:00 AM and you see it’s just the cat getting into trouble, you can go and clean it up and not call the police.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the differences between the different systems. So the Canary versus the Piper NV. What are the main differences in them?

RY CRIST: Well, the two of those are very similar. They’re both camera devices with additional sensors packed inside. It’s a single unit about the size of a coffee that you can put anywhere you like in your home. And if you have a big home, you might need more than one of them to monitor different spaces.

The things that separate them are the other sensors inside. Canary doesn’t have any other radios for connecting with other devices, whereas Piper does. Piper has a Z-Wave radio. And why that’s good is that it can connect it with a Z-Wave smart lock or a Z-Wave sensor on your door or window that monitors when it’s open and closed. And you can monitor and add all that in your Piper setup so that you’ve got a more comprehensive system that way. And that’s one thing we like about it.

IRA FLATOW: How well did Canary function when you first tested it out?

RY CRIST: Canary had a lot going for it. It was a very attractive product when it was crowd funded. It raised over two million and did very well in the early stages of development. It took a little while to get it to market, but it arrived. And people were pretty excited for it.

The hardware tested very well. The camera’s excellent. It’s got a very nice night vision camera, so it can see in the dark just fine. And I was impressed with all of that.

It had some sensitivity issues, though. It was a little bit oversensitive with motion, and so we tested it out. And the motion sensor at night was pinged about every minute or so. Every time a car would drive by and the light would pass through the room from the headlights, it would set the system off.

It wouldn’t raise the alarm. We didn’t have it armed, but in the morning, we had just tons and tons of alerts. And that’s not very helpful if you’re trying to keep an eye on things.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, as you say, they’re not 100%. I saw a commercial the other day for like an interesting video doorbell.

RY CRIST: There are certainly a lot of video doorbells now, yeah.

RY CRIST: And this one has to keep burglars away, to let them think that you’re home when you’re not really home.

RY CRIST: Yeah, this is kind of a new trend in the DIY smart security market. There are a lot of new gadgets and different types of gadgets that are designed to fool people into thinking you’re home when you’re not. And the doorbell is one of the obvious ones.

We’ve had a product called Ring that we’ve tested that it replaces your doorbell all together. It’s got a camera and Wi-Fi to connect with your home network. So if someone rings your doorbell, you’ll get a notification on your phone wherever you are.

And you can open the app and look at the camera, see who’s there, and even talk through the doorbell to use it as an intercom. And if someone’s who you don’t know, you can just sort of pretend you’re home and say, “Hi, can I help you?” And if that’s a potential intruder trying to test the water and see if you’re maybe on vacation, that can be a good way to fool them into thinking twice.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, back in the day– and that means two weeks ago– we used to leave lights on around the house. So you know, leave a light on upstairs, downstairs. They’ll think they’re people home. Are we now in the internet of things where that’ll happen more automatically?

RY CRIST: That’s true, yeah. A lot of people like that about smart light bulbs that you can program to turn on at certain times. And and you can do a lot of that with a much more simple timer switch that you plug into. But there are some light bulbs that take it a step further.

There’s a set that I just tested out about a month ago called the “BeON” starter kit. And it’s a set of light bulbs that have batteries housed inside. It looked like little yellow mini Twinkies that you stick into the middle of the bulb. And what that does is it lets the bulbs turn on even if there’s no power, which is good. You can leave your lights on at night, and they can turn on automatically when you need them.

The cool thing, though, is how they turn on automatically. They also have microphones, and they listen for the sound of your alarm system or your doorbell. You’ll actually use the app to train them for what that sounds like. And then when they hear those sounds, they can turn on in a way that you program. If you want the downstairs light to turn on and then a few seconds later, the upstairs light or vice versa, you can program all of that and create a pretty convincing look that someone’s home anytime the doorbell rings.

IRA FLATOW: Can these devices watch you, detect you moving around the home, and then learn your habits and collect information about you over time and then be more like self-functioning?

RY CRIST: Some of these devices try and have something like that. The Canary actually has a function where it’s going to learn your patterns a little bit. But we didn’t detect that actually worked too well. But there’s a growing effort to make these devices learn about you and be able to function in an automatic sense. And there’s definitely an emphasis on motion detection and smart security right now. That’s a big, big part of it. A lot of people want to be able to monitor when things are moving around in their home, and most of the devices we see have some way to do that.

IRA FLATOW: A lot of people want to monitor their kids– put some camera in the kid’s bedroom. Are anything new about that whole area?

RY CRIST: Yeah, sure. There’s actually a camera called “Ulo” right now that just had a very nice crowdfunding campaign. It’s U-L-O. And that’s a funny one, because it looks like a little toy cartoon owl. And the camera’s hidden in its beak, and its two eyes are cartoonish LCD screens. And the eyeballs actually move around to follow you around the room with motion detection as it’s recording.

And you can use that to keep an eye on your home and all that. The eyes also sends you alerts and let you know in a very subtle way how the camera’s doing. If the battery is running low, the eyes will become very sleepy looking. It’s very fun and cute.

And if you’re taking a picture with the app, the eyes will blink. And if you’re focusing the app, if you’re recording something, the eyes will squint. So it’s kind of a unique and a little bit endearing. We kind of like that one.

IRA FLATOW: How do you know whether it’s better to go with a lot of small sensors spaced around in your home or to go with the all-in-one camera and sensor that sits there in the middle of the room?

RY CRIST: Right, I think most of it comes down to the size of your home. We really like those all-in-one sensors when they work well. Piper NV is one of our favorite security products.

But if I had a big home with a lot of rooms, a couple of different entry ways, I don’t know that it would be the best approach. It’s an expensive device. It costs almost $300, and you need more than one of them to cover a large space with a kit like, iSmartAlarm comes to mind or something else where you can stick up motion sensors and door open-close sensors around the house. You can spread those out a little more, because it’s a lot of little parts that come in one kit. So for–

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry, go ahead.

RY CRIST: Sorry, go ahead.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any sensor yet or any device that if your home is broken into, it makes the burglars fearful to be there, like the home alone stuff? As in the movie, is there a noise or a voice or anything like that, yet?

RY CRIST: Yeah, most of these devices have some sort of alarm at least that can at least make them quite aware that you are home or you are aware that they’re in there. There’s nothing yet that will blow torch their head or send a paint can down the staircase at their face. But maybe a couple of years tech will catch up.

IRA FLATOW: But is it possible– because these are a Wi-Fi things– for people, anybody to hack into your system?

RY CRIST: Sure, that’s certainly a concern. That’s something that we are kind of watching evolve as security device makers try and find ways to ensure the safety of their systems and make sure that people feel comfortable trusting them. And we’ve seen problems in the smart home space.

Some devices that have shipped out have shipped out with a default password that’s very obvious or very easy, something like “admin” or “1234.” And if people don’t change that password in the set up process, they’ve got a device that’s very easy for someone else to join up with and take control of. So that’s not good if you’ve got a camera looking inside your home or a security system that you arm and disarm on your phone.

So you need to be a little bit smart about it and make sure that you take the steps to put a password on and check to make sure that your system is encrypted. Almost every one of these smart systems is going to offer some form of encryption. But it’s not totally clear to consumers all the time what is safe and what might be vulnerable. So that is a problem area.

IRA FLATOW: When you reviewed all of these, was there one thing that was missing from all of them that you say, “Oh, I wish they had put x in there.”

RY CRIST: That’s a great question. I don’t know. There’s so much variance. We’ve got cameras, and light bulbs, and sensor kits. I think that I’m waiting to see sort of more of that learning function that we talked about. I want to see systems that really learn to adapt and can do a better job of discerning from real problems from just the everyday situations that we talked about– the cat knocking the vase over.

And we’re seeing face detection emerge as a really big part of these connected cameras. A lot of them are starting to trend in that direction and find ways to tell who it is that it’s actually looking at. And no one has perfected that quite yet on a accessible level for consumers. But that might be coming in 2016.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, thank you, Crist. We’ve run out of time. Ry Crist is Associate Editor of a Smart Home and Appliances at CNET. Have a happy holiday Ry.

RY CRIST: All right. Thanks, you too, Ira.

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