myDoorbell: A Learning Adventure

Introduction

After being a university chief information officer (CIO) for more than a decade, I decided to refresh my technical skills acquired through formal education and practice as an electrical engineer. I learn best by doing, so I picked a project I was interested in pursuing with the end goal being the learning, and not the finished product. I intend to share several posts that I hope illustrate the things learned and hope they are of value to the reader.

My Project

I have interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) movement and wanted to make strides towards making this practical, simple, and secure. I believe connected devices should be simple and consume little power. This likely requires devices that wake periodically, connect to some sort of network, and then go back to a low power state. After some experimentation it was clear, at the time, that WiFi was a real power hog and wasn’t a likely candidate. However, this realization led me to believe that another router, hub, or coordinator device would be necessary. I recall the effort required to convince homeowners to acquire WiFi routers and looked for an approach that would make this palatable.

I decided the answer was to create a product that homeowners would want to purchase because it excited them, and by the way it contained a network router / coordinator. Once acquired on its own merits, the product would facilitate the inexpensive and simple acquisition of other devices that connect to it. Products worth considering would be interesting to households and would connect to household power:

  • Lamps
  • Televisions or other audio / video (AV) equipment
  • Thermostats
  • Doorbells

Lamps seem simple and boring. However, after implementing my first choice, I know I should have chosen a lamp because it would have been boring, simple, and done! I decided embedding anything in televisions or other AV equipment would require skills and resources I didn’t have. Nest took the thermostat direction and while I disagree on the approach of putting so much technology in a tightly coupled system, I didn’t want everyone to judge my work against a commercially available product. I chose to implement a doorbell because they are ubiquitous, simple and meet my requirements:

  • They are in nearly every U.S. household.
  • Power is available where the indoor ringer is found.
  • They do one thing and no one cares if they do anything else.
  • They are in a good physical location for a network router.
  • They are out of the way, aren’t moved, never unplugged, or inadvertently reconfigured.

I chose to create a doorbell that would function as a replacement doorbell, would act as an IoT network router, and connect this network to the Internet by also connecting to an existing WiFi network. A quick trip to Home Depot revealed that an inexpensive doorbell cost about $13. Even with no experience in product development, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to build a doorbell that also acted as an IoT to WiFi gateway for $13. To be compelling enough to get households to acquire my doorbell it would have to be feature rich:

  • This doorbell would play ringtones uploaded by the user to celebrate seasons, holidays, birthdays, etc.
  • Each time someone rings this doorbell the time and date should be logged.
  • The owner can configure the bell to text them when someone rings.
  • The bell should be easily configured not to make noise when babies are sleeping, pets shouldn’t be disturbed, or the owner just doesn’t want to know you’re there.
  • When the bell is rung it should be configurable to access other Web resources such as APIs, webhooks, etc.
  • The system should be controlled and configured using a mobile app.
  • The doorbell must be a simple replacement of the original doorbell ringer.

While these features increase the likelihood of making it compelling enough to overcome the necessary price point, it certainly eliminates any chance of it being simple.

Summary

In this post I declared my intent to refresh my technical skills through the development of an IoT product, an amazing doorbell, myDoorbell. In the next few posts I will describe how a typical doorbell works, illustrate the general system layout for this new doorbell, describe how to create it so it fits into existing doorbell systems, and discuss many details of the techniques and technologies that make this possible. It will be a fun journey with many twists and turns, but that’s how learning happens!

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