Get Smart With Stacey: How Do I Set Up Automatic Blinds?

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The smart home is gaining ground, but it's still a muddle of confusing standards, competing platforms, and gadgets that don't do what you might expect. But the promise of products that can make your life a little easier is hard to resist, so I'm here to answer the inevitable questions that arise.

Whether it's figuring out the best connected door lock to assembling the right recipe to wake you up with a faux sunrise at the optimal moment based on your fitness tracker's data, I've got you covered. As the host of The Internet of Things Podcast, I install a lot of gear and spend hours testing hardware and software to see what works. Smart homes are still pretty dumb, but I want to help you feel smart.

If you have smart home questions you'd like me to answer, send an email to [email protected]

I have two girls who live with their mom in Idaho, and I live in South Carolina. My 6-year-old daughter will be turning seven near the end of this month. I want to get her an IoT gift that potentially helps bring us closer together even though we are miles apart. I don't get a chance to visit them often, and I know that they miss me a lot. Do you have any suggestions?

I love this idea. I travel a lot and when my daughter was seven I hooked up a disco ball to a smart switch and created a recipe on If This Then That (IFTTT). When I texted a number, the light would revolve. For my next trip, I told her that I had hooked it up so whenever I thought of her she'd know because the lamp would turn on. She looked very serious and then told me, "Mom, I couldn't sleep with the light going around all night."

It never occurred to her that I would ever STOP thinking about her. I felt like a jerk. So I never put that plan into action. But there are some things that might bridge the distance a bit using a connected light and a service like IFTTT. I would recommend a WeMo switch for $40 and a lamp for the cheapest alternative. Use this recipe to text from iOS and this one for Android to toggle a light on and off.

LIFX BulbIf you want more options, a LIFX bulb for $60 offers a wide range of colors that you could use to send messages (and doesn't require a hub for the girls' mom to maintain). You can also use the LIFX app to control the lights directly, as long as you are an account holder. You have to be on the same Wi-Fi network to set them up the first time, but after that, you can control them from afar on a different network.

If you connect the bulb to a Do button (it's software) from IFTTT, then you have a widget on your phone that will flash their light a specific color. You could also use a text sent to IFTTT for a similar effect. Pink could mean a hug, blue could mean you are available for a call and whatever else.

The Goodnight Lamp, which has a "parent" lamp and a "baby" lamp that turns on or off when the parent lamp is turned on, is nice because it could give your daughters a window into your life. Or you could reverse it and see when their lights are on or off. They are made by a friend of mine on a limited basis, but the idea could be copied. Those lamps use cellular tech so again, there's no Wi-Fi hub or hassle for their mom to deal with.

Another idea is this future-crazy intercom that should be out later this year (but it is already late) or the revamped version of Toymail, which will be out in fall. Toymail shipped an earlier version of the product that is now discontinued, which looks like a mailbox. You probably don't want to get that since support might be disabled. I generally try to recommend products that are shipping, but so far, there isn't a lot here unless you want to strap a wearable on your kid that also tracks them and allows for emergency calls.

Another idea is to connect with your kids through some kind of shared gaming experience on an iPad or even through calling them and reading them a story like this dad did. You could record it and send it over to your girls via email if you can't do it live.

I have two windows that need automatic blinds, and I want voice control or a wall switch so I can open and close them or even open them halfway. I was looking at something like the Somfy motorized shades, but they don't have Z-wave/ZigBee/Wi-Fi, so I would need a controller, I guess. I am open to ideas/recommendations from you!

I get so many questions about connected motorized shades! But I have bad news. They will cost you. I have Somfy motorized blinds, and I ended up buying a Z-wave controller that translates Somfy's proprietary protocol to Z-wave so I could control it with the Echo using a hub like SmartThings or Wink for voice control. Somfy does provide a remote, which you could affix to a wall as a switch.

My converter cost $340 and was a total pain to connect to both the Wink and SmartThings. If you want to do this, I recommend adding it through the generic Z-wave setting on both devices. (Wink has a Bali shades option that didn't work for me). Here are detailed instructions if you want to use SmartThings.

Somfy does have a new bridge for about $200 that connects the controller to an app, but it doesn't play nicely with anything except its own proprietary RTS standard. A year ago, Somfy said it planned to open up its MyLink ecosystem, but I'm still waiting.

Thus, if you have an immediate need and no existing Somfy blinds, the Lutron Serena shades are probably the way to go, because you can go direct to the Echo and control them with your voice (with the Lutron or a Wink hub). I've not tried the Lutron Serena shades, but here is CNET's perspective. Using Lutron also means that if you buy the HomeKit-compatible Lutron bridge, you can link them to other devices through a HomeKit-approved app.

As a note, there are several projects for automated blinds that have appeared on crowdfunding sites, but so far, none of them have made it to reality. A quality motor for your window coverings has to be reliable, quiet, and able to open and close for years. This is not something you can do on the cheap it appears.

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