It began as a plan to keep me from inadvertently answering the door to the evangelicals and the backpackers, but it has since become more than that. Much more.
It’s now a plan that involves a wind chime that sounds every time someone walks down the street past my house. That involves videos that catch the tail end of those strolls down my street. And that involves the lights to my house coming on 10 or 15 seconds after I enter the house and stumble around in the dark for a moment or two.
I’m talking about the Ring Video Doorbell, which has just been released in Australia: a Wi-Fi-based, motion-detecting, video-camera doorbell that works with your mobile phone, that you can connect to your lighting system or your door locks, and that you might say belongs to the class of gadgets known as the Internet of Things (IoT).
Though if I were saying it, the Ring Video Doorbell belongs to the class of gadgets known as IoTTDWAWAOMH: the Internet of Things That Don’t Work As Well As One Might Hope.
Just like pretty well every other IoT device we’ve ever had here in the Digital Life Labs, the Ring has some shortcomings.
You set up the Ring by installing its app on your phone, just like most other IoTTDWAWAOMH devices, pressing a big orange button on the back of the doorbell and then using the app to feed the doorbell the password to your home Wi-Fi network. (We tested two Ring units. On one of them that initial step proved very difficult, but on the other it was a breeze.)
Phone chimes in
Once you’ve got it on your network, you mount it next to your front door, attaching it to existing doorbell wiring (if you’re lucky enough to have it), or just relying on its inbuilt battery.
It’s important to note that Ring reckons you need at least a 2 megabit-per-second internet upload speed at your door, due to the fact that the doorbell (inexplicably) uses the internet to send videos to your phone, even when the phone is on the same Wi-Fi network as the doorbell.
You can also buy Ring door chimes, which plug into power points around your home and which you likewise attach to the internet via your home Wi-Fi network.
Then, when someone presses your doorbell, several things happen. The doorbell itself and any Ring chimes you have installed will start to chime immediately, or maybe 15 seconds later.
One or 10 or 15 seconds after the doorbell has been pressed, any phones with the Ring app installed will also start to chime. And a solid 15 seconds after the doorbell has been pressed, a nifty fisheye video will be available on those phones so you can see who is at your door.
You can even press a button on the app and talk to the person at the door.
And if you’ve registered your Ring with IFTTT (the not-nearly-as-good-as-it-should-be IoT programming service), any actions you have associated with the Ring will usually start at that time, too. I have linked the Ring to my home lighting system, so I can press the doorbell to make the lights (usually) come on 15 seconds or so after I press the doorbell.
Response time lag
It’s a brilliant idea. In my case, it means that if I’m waiting for a courier to arrive I can duck out for a coffee, and if the courier arrives while I’m away (which invariably they do), I can get a notification on my phone and then tell him or her to wait a few minutes while I hurry back.
But you can see the problem, can’t you?
Or rather, you can see the back of the problem as it gives up and walks away from your door.
For some reason – possibly due to the Ring being in sleep mode to save batteries, or possibly related to latency on the Ring servers that the doorbell contacts whenever the button is pressed – the Ring isn’t as responsive as it needs to be.
Evangelicals could be at my door long enough for me to have accidentally answered it before the video appears and I can tell from their gleaming white teeth that I need to pretend I’m not home.
The same is true of the motion detection that’s built into the doorbell. You can program the Ring to detect motion in certain zones in front of your door, anywhere between a five-feet (1.5-metre; I’m using imperial measurements here because that’s what the app uses, despite Ring having been released in several metric markets) maximum distance and 30-feet (nine-metre) maximum distance.
When it detects motion in that zone, it records 40 seconds of video and also lets you know through a soothing wind chime sound that there’s something moving outside your door.
The trouble is the delay. It doesn’t start recording until a few seconds after it has detected motion, so in the videos it recorded for me there is either nothing visible (presumably because a car has left the frame before the camera turned on) or the back of someone as they walk out of frame.
Also, those zones don’t seem to work properly. I live in a terrace, with the front door exactly five feet from the street, so I’ve set the Ring so it only detects motion to a maximum distance of five feet.
Nevertheless, I get notified every time a car passes down the street (which is sort of fair enough because they’re only six or seven feet, or about two metres, away), and whenever someone walks down my street, even when they’re about 15 or 20 feet (four to six metres) away at the time the Ring triggers.
If you happen to have the Ring app open on your phone, the motion detection trigger will also open up a live stream showing you what’s going on outside, except that every time it does it for me, it comes up with a black screen with no video.
Oh, and there’s one other thing.
Because the Ring is in some sort of deep-sleep mode where it’s not attached to your Wi-Fi until it’s been woken up by motion or by someone pressing the doorbell, you can’t use it as a webcam on demand.
I’m going to have to turn the motion detection off – the constant “soothing” wind chimes are driving me crazy – but I’d still like to be able to use the camera to look out on my street whenever I hear anything dodgy going on out there. Or fun. But I can’t.
Still, even with all those problems, it’s nifty. The chimes almost always work immediately, so if nothing else it’s a $299 doorbell that can sometimes be used for other things. Internet of Things things.
I’m still waiting for the evangelicals to come, so I can ignore them. I wish they would hurry up.