There’s a new battle going on in tech, and the coveted prize is a spot in your home. Companies like Roomba and Nest, who put innovative spins on mundane gadgets, have spurred a new wave of “smart” in-home hardware. Intercoms, door locks, albino Grimaces, and egg trays are scrambling to squeeze in sensors and some sort of communication component, usually in the form of a mobile app.
We’re currently in the frontier days of this next-gen hardware boom, which often means five pieces of hardware and five different apps to control our lightbulbs, our smoke detectors, our security cameras, our coffee machines, and our e-fireplaces. The hope is that convergence will eventually win the day, bringing with it less clutter, both on our phones and in our homes.
That’s the scenario Blacksumac is envisioning with its multifaceted Piper device. Indeed, it’s trying to win a spot in your home by being a few steps ahead of the competition. Piper is not just a security camera that streams live video to your iPhone on demand. Itâs also a weather station, a programmable motion- and sound-detecting device, a data-visualization tool for your in-home habits, a wireless hub for controlling other devices, and a futuristic way to pull pranks on people.
It’s a good bargain for all it does, too. At $240 for the base package, it costs just a bit more than many of the single-purpose devices it might supplant — things like the Dropcam Pro, Netatmo Weather Station, and Z-Wave hubs or gateways. Paying $360 gets you a bundle that might also replace a Belkin WeMo system. That higher-priced package includes the Piper base unit and three Z-Wave accessories, including your choice of a door/window sensor, a module that plugs into a power outlet to make connected items remote-controllable, and a range extender. The Piper only works with Z-Wave devices.
The hardware itself isn’t all that exciting to look at, but it’s inoffensive and will generally blend in. It resembles a kinder, gentler, freestanding version of HAL 9000. Itâs about six inches tall and available in white or black, with a plastic main body housing its front-facing 180-degree camera and golf-ball-like motion sensor. The top and bottom offer speaker grilles, and around the back is a detachable aluminum stand that you’ll need to pop off to plug it in. You can leave the stand off if you want to wall-mount it.
Plugging Piper into a power source is all you need to do, because it doesn’t have an Ethernet connection; it only connects via Wi-Fi. Once you plug it in and press the lone button on the back of the unit, it readies itself for about a minute. Then, a light on the front turns blue, and you hear a slightly creepy-sounding “Piper is ready” in a robotic female voice.
To complete the initial setup, you need to install Piper’s free iOS or Android app on your mobile device. The Android version of the app is due out on February 14, but at the time this review was written, the app was only available for iOS. (It’s a little hard to find; the best way to find it in the Apple App Store is to search for “Blacksumac.”) To finish setup, you connect to “Piper” as your Wi-Fi network from the app. The app then prompts you to enter your home network password. After about two to three minutes of configuration time, you’re done.
From there, you’ll simply be using the app for everything. The appâs main interface shows you a dashboard of the current indoor and outdoor temperatures, an events log, and a Simon-like wheel of main settings: Stay mode, Away mode, Vacation mode, and an off switch. The Stay mode is designed for use at home, where you may not want the motion-detection sensor enabled. The Away mode is designed for when you’re at work or out for a few hours, when the motion- and sound-detection sensors might be more useful; like a home-security system, it beeps once you turn it on to give you a grace period for leaving the home. Vacation mode is designed for use when you’re totally out of town, so the alerts are also sent to neighbors and other trusted friends that can check on your home.
Along the bottom of the app are a few tabs. “Live Video” streams footage directly to your phone from Piper’s fish-eye lens. There’s about a one- to two-second lag between the live action being captured and when the video feed shows up on your device. Piper’s lens has a crazy 180-degree field of view, so setting up one of these units along the wall of a room gives you an outstanding field of view. Video quality is less outstanding — in fact, it’s the device’s overall weak spot. The murkiness might make it hard to recognize any burglar you catch on camera.
Those video-quality shortcomings are mitigated by the viewing options. The video controls and navigation are great: You can finger-scroll around a scene in real time, pinch-and-zoom, and break the feed into four separate screens. That mosaic view lets you frame and zoom each video window independently, which makes the Piperâs video feed seem like a multi-camera security setup. You also get a basic brightness adjustment for seeing things in the dark, as well as a light-bulb icon that lets you turn any Z-Wave-connected lamps on or off remotely while you watch live video.
A key difference between Piper and competitors like the Dropcam is that Piper doesn’t upload video to the cloud by default. Instead, it streams video over a P2P connection with the phone, so there’s no monthly charge for services and storage beyond the hardware costs. It also helps alleviate privacy worries. It’s not “always on,” either. Video only streams when you tap “Live Video” or when one of your rules triggers it. Piper has 256MB of built-in storage and AA backup batteries, so it stores footage locally if the power goes out or an intruder yanks out its plug.
But video is just one way Piper can let you know something is happening in your home. You can set simple rules for alerts every time one of the Piper’s sensors is triggered. For example, if it detects motion, sound, or a temperature change outside of a selected range, you can have it send you a text message, set off its loud siren, text or email a group of trusted neighbors, or start recording video so you can look in remotely.
I tested it with two Z-Wave components — a door/window sensor and a wall wart that allows for remote-control functions via the app — with success. You can create “if this, then that” rules with these components, such as “if the door is open, notify me” or even “if the door is open, turn on the bedroom light.” The interface for setting these custom alerts up is straightforward and logical, and my test runs worked without a hitch.
There was one fun feature I couldn’t test, because I don’t have a pet. The Piper Options screen of the app allows you specify whether you have a pet at home, which makes the motion sensor a bit less sensitive to movement. It’s an essential feature if you’re interested in buying a Piper and have a cat or dog, unless you want to be alerted to their every movement while you’re at work.
Piper doesn’t just monitor your home for intruders. It also creates charts and graphs based on your home’s activity patterns, noise levels, humidity levels, and internal/external temperature. They’re displayed in the app’s “Vitals” dashboard, where you can see how each variable fluctuated over a two-day span. As luck would have it, I tested Piper during New York City’s recent batch of snow storms, and I was pleasantly surprised when the app delivered messages that I didn’t expect it to: Severe-weather alerts, which were pushed to the app via the Weather Underground API based on my location.
At the moment, the “Vitals” variables don’t interact natively with things as complex as thermostats, but using the app’s custom rules to create parameters such as “if the temperature reaches a certain level, activate your siren or send me a text” is possible. Blacksumac CEO Russell Ure says more support for Z-Wave devices is planned in the near-term future, including things like door locks and other home-automation hubs. Ure also says that the ability to offload video footage to NAS drives and audio-recognition features — the ability to distinguish between a dog barking and a window breaking, for example — are also in the works.
That should make Piper an even-more versatile product down the line, but it’s already pretty impressive. The device’s video quality leaves a lot to be desired, but according to Blacksumac, the tradeoff is quicker streaming and fewer bandwidth constraints. Even with its video-quality limitations, Piper’s first-gen product offers a lot to like for apartment renters. It’s easy to set up, its fisheye lens is perfect for a small apartment, and it packs in versatile tools for alerts and “if this, then that” scenarios. It’s a hybrid security/hub/automation device that’s likely to influence the next wave of in-home gadgets.