Monday, February 9, 2009

A problem only I would have (or "How to build the most overengineered lightswitch possible")

Tonight I decided I should blow the dust off the machine I got from Dell a couple of years ago so I could achieve my longstanding dream to have a giant programmable lightswitch. I've lived in at least six apartments over the past two years (protip: keep track of old addresses by checking where you've shipped stuff on Amazon), so I've never been in any place long enough where it was worth trying to set this up. With my 13-month lease in hand, it seemed like it was finally time to try this out.

The key elements that I've acquired along the way are a Dell touchscreen monitor (2005), Windows XP machine (2007), and the X10 ActiveHome Pro 9 Piece Kit (2004?). My plan for stringing these things together seemed pretty simple:

  • Plug monitor into computer
  • Install ActiveHome software
  • Press giant virtual button

Simple, right? Actually, it had far fewer snafus than some of my other projects. Step one was to get the touchscreen working even though I didn't have the CD with the drivers. Despite my repeated Googling, the drivers were pretty hard to find until I discovered that somehow I was being sent to Dell Australia instead of Dell US (work VPN playing games, maybe?), but once I got that straightened out, I got the monitor live and responding to touch pretty easily.

The next step was to get the ActiveHome software running. Fortunately, I backed up the installer for the SDK on a few years ago because I figured I would lose it otherwise (I was right!). Installing the SDK was no problem, but I couldn't seem to find the thing that launches the ActiveHome GUI pictured on the web site. This wasn't a big deal because the SDK comes with sample code in a bunch of languages, including JScript, which you can just load in IE if you allow ActiveX to do its thing. I even got the JScript sample to stop giving me ActiveX warnings every time I loaded it by sharing the folder and adding it as a Trusted Site. (The Trusted sites thing in IE doesn't let you trust local files unless you serve them from as a shared folder -- I'm wary of what I've opened myself up to as a result of this.)

Now I was up to step three: "press the big red button." I pressed. I pressed again. I pressed several more times and exclaimed some things I do not care to repeat. My X10 components had been working fine via the remote from the Kit until a few weeks ago when I bought some new components (uh-oh) and tripped a circuit breaker while trying to install a Socket Rocket in my apartment. I was hoping that maybe the x10 modules would respond better to the software than to the remote (what the hell do I know?), but obviously they did not, so I checked out one of the x10 troubleshooting pages. It said something about opposite-phases-blah-blah-don't-you-know-I-got-Cs-in-my-EE-courses-because-I-couldn't-be-bothered-to-go...

I really had no idea what I was reading, but I made up this hypothesis that tripping the breaker had knocked things out of phase and that turning it off and on again would magically realign my outlets. Believe it or not, this actually seemed to work! That was, until I realized that once I plugged anything else into the outlet next to the one that had the x10 module plugged into it, the x10 module would stop working. This is a problem since I don't have too many options when it comes to outlets in my apartment, so I'm not sure how I'm going to resolve this. Currently, I have to choose between the possibility of controlling a lamp via my iPhone and plugging my laptop into the wall. It's a toss-up.

Since I've come this far, I'm strongly considering reworking the outlet situation in my apartment to accomodate my fetish for automated lights. If any of you circuit jerks out there can tell me how to do this without making a trip to the electrical section at Home Depot, I'd be much obliged. I only have 10 months until it's time to setup the AIM bot to control my Christmas lights again!*

*I actually did that in 2005 using the SDK and an existing AIM bot library written in C#. I went with the AIM bot because it seemed a lot simpler than running IIS. It was also more fun, though I guess nowadays I'd do it over Jabber instead. When was the last time I logged on to AIM?

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