Tuesday, 24 April 2007

AlertMe moments at the weekend: Freezers and Cats!

Last week was my wife's birthday, so on Thursday we took the family up to London for a long weekend at my sister-in-law's house. On Friday I got a call from our cleaner, who'd arrived at our home that morning to find our freezer door ajar ... and most of the food inside spoiled.

"If only we already had AlertMe!" I thought - we'd have known about the problem and asked someone to come and close the door before any damage was done. This alone would have been worth the cost of a year's of AlertMe subscription, to say nothing of all the hassle.

This is a classic example of a device in the home knowing that there's a problem (our fridge-freezer beeps if either door is left open), but not having any way to tell its owner.

So we were house-sitting my sister-in-law’s house. They have a cat, and were reassured to know that we'd be around to check that it was getting in and out of the house OK, getting fed and watered. I wondered - could one of our AlertMe door/window sensors on the catflap give some peace of mind for cat users? In 2004, 4.5 million UK households owned 7.7 million cats.

Can't wait to get the system launched!

Friday, 20 April 2007

Happy Birthday to AlertMe.com!

AlertMe had its first birthday this week -- turning the company into a jolly one year old.

We've achieved an amazing amount in one year:
  • incorporating as a "we're really going to do it" business
  • growing the team with many new superstars
  • moving into our new headquarters in the heart of Cambridge
  • defining and adopting our brand and identity
  • closing our first major round of venture funding
  • finding great partners to help us with design and development, manufacturing and marketing
  • and most importantly, prototyping and developing a revolutionary new home security and monitoring system
We look forward to moving from infancy to toddler-dom in the next year...watch us grow!


Thursday, 19 April 2007

ZigBee: at home in Cambridge

This month, AlertMe has performed a variety of tests using our own ZigBee hardware, to make sure that it performs well in real houses. Following on from previous test phases, we went out into a wide range of homes, of differing sizes and construction types, in the Cambridge area and beyond, and explored how our kit would work in these homes. As well as checking that ZigBee has the range to reach everywhere in these homes, we also tested the potential for interference with operating Bluetooth and WiFi networks in the home. I'd like to take this opportunity to say thanks on behalf of the technology team to Preethi Kalimuthu and Sean Warren, who joined AlertMe to help with this study, and who were rigorous and insightful.

We used our hardware to simulate real user installations of AlertMe equipment, and generated heavy network traffic on the other wireless networks present in the homes where they existed. From nineteenth century large family homes to new build townhouses, with all kinds of electronics already installed (microwaves, DECT and mobile phones, and even giant plasma TVs and huge fridges!), we found great performance using ZigBee. This is excellent news, confirming our previous conclusions. We're looking forward to getting real systems out into houses soon!

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Champagne moment #4

The champagne flowed at AlertMe last Thursday, as the team celebrated the major achievement of "System Alpha" - a demonstration of the integrated system working from end to end.

We're all thrilled to see our system working. We even exceeded our aims for this demo, so a very successful milestone passed!

A MySpace party and a wrecked home

It's long been conventional wisdom that a major benefit of programming computers is that this allows you to do a task many times over with ease. It's also been noted that if this task isn't well thought through, any bug is repeated many times over. The computer does what it is told, and the result may be much less or much more than desired. Networking on the internet can probably be said to escalate this effect by distributing the result far and wide.

In this case, we have a simple task: "Invite people to a party", that contained a small error of judgment "the party was unsanctioned by the parents and uncontrolled by the teenage host", and led to a disastrous result of "more party than desired".

Web revellers wreck family home

About 200 youngsters caused damage put at £20,000 to a family home after a party organised on a website.

Police said a teenage girl used the social networking site MySpace to advertise the party while her parents were away from home on Easter Monday.

The full article is available here.

So what does this have to do with AlertMe?

Well, our service monitors activity in the home. It could easily be set to report unusual volumes of activity, for instance the front door opening 200 times in an evening and ceaseless motion in the lounge, kitchen, or any other room. If the parents were alerted of this unexpected and abnormal circumstance, perhaps they could have responded in time to avoid the result, even calling the police to break up the party if necessary.

Monday, 16 April 2007

ADT adds daily premium rate phone charges

Another interesting news article, from the Guardian on Saturday:

'Phantom' calls raise the alarm

Premium rate lines: Patrick Collinson on a lucrative security mystery

(Saturday April 14, 2007, The Guardian)

Ben Whitney's father just could not work out why his phone bill was so high. He's retired and recovering from a stroke, so he asked his son to take a look at it. The thing puzzling him most was a 20p or 23p call every day, sometimes twice a day, to an 0906 number at 1.17am each morning. The calls had started months ago, and if they carried on were likely to add £100 a year to his bill.

The calls lasted only a few seconds, but the high cost alerted Mr Whitney to the fact that they must be premiumrate lines. Had some rogue dialler or trojan software hijacked his father's phone? He contacted industry regulator Icstis for help - and was astonished to discover that the premium rate calls were being auto-dialled from the family home's ADT burglar alarm as it made a daily registration contact with the ADT monitoring centre.

Mr Whitney and his father were flabbergasted. The alarm had cost more than £1,000 to install, plus monthly service charges . The last thing his father had expected was another £100 or so a year in premium rate phone calls. "I traced the number via the Icstis website to ADT alarms," says Mr Whitney. " I made some enquiries and was told that this type of ADT alarm has to 'check in' every day by calling in to their system. The units come with an expensive revenue-generating number as default but I was told they can be modified to call a cheaper 0870 number by an ADT engineer."

The ADT call centre assured him that on the next inspection visit by an ADT technician, the line would be changed.

"However, the engineer who called knew nothing about this or how to change it. I was astounded that this information had to be uncovered by me and was not something that the company tell their customers when the unit is fitted, " says Mr Whitney.

The article continues on, you can see the rest of the story here

It's well worth noting that AlertMe.com's service will continuously monitor its status through your home's broadband connection at no additional charge, not just once a day over a premium phone call as ADT's does.

"Police take action as burglary rate increases"

I'm back from a two week holiday in the USA - not surprisingly I spent a fair amount of time there wishing I had a way to check in on our house in Cambridge....

I did return to find an interesting article in the Cambridge Evening News about local police efforts to stem burglaries. Seems to be a bit of good news/bad news - I'm very glad the police efforts are meeting some success, but it's a shame the burglary rate was almost triple last years' numbers.

Here's the first bit of the story:

SEVEN people were arrested and stolen property was recovered as police launched a bid to stem a sharp rise in burglaries.

The move, called Operation Onslaught, saw police swoop on the Arbury and King's Hedges areas of Cambridge in a crackdown on break-ins.

Between November 2 last year and February 23 this year there were a total of 128 burglaries in the two areas. In the same period the previous year 44 offences were reported.

It was also reassuring to hear that "All reports of burglary are taken extremely seriously and are fully investigated."

You can read the full article here.