Vera 3 - poor but promising home automation

I feel like the Grinch. Why? Because I'm massively disappointed in the product I'm reviewing this week, which makes two weeks in a row I've been "bah humbugging" (see last week's excoriation of an Internet thermostat).

The product in question this week, the Mi Casa Verde Vera 3, is a home automation system based on an operating system called MiOS that is aimed at the general premises automation market.

The Vera is a small box that you plug into your network to provide access and management of switches, sockets, plugs, sensors, and many other devices that can be interfaced to by Z-Wave, Insteon, IR, UPnP, TCP/IP and X10 networking systems.

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If you've not spent much time looking at these market standards for short-range networking, the variety of devices available is impressive. The old powerline X10 system is the most primitive of the lot offering a best effort, no acknowledgment, level of service while the other technologies provide features such as adaptive mesh networking and status reporting over powerline and or wireless connections.

The Vera aims to not only control devices on any of these network systems simultaneously but also provide complex programming support with plug-ins for data gathering, generating notifications, environmental data integration (weather, time of day and so on) and reporting.

The Vera is, in fact, a fairly sophisticated Linux platform running a version of MiOS which, it is claimed, can also support devices on ZigBee, PLC, serial, 6LoWPAN, BACnet and Wi-Fi Direct networks (these alternatives are not available with the Vera).

My problem with the Vera lies not in its hardware but rather its user interface and, more crucially, the metaphor or rather lack thereof used to configure and manage devices.

My first big problem with the Vera UI is that it's ugly. Really ugly. It uses several graphic styles with a passing nod toward a modern UI design but stops far short of actually being modern and polished. The "clunky feel" is highlighted by everything from the unnecessarily "techie" default names for devices (e.g. "_Dimmable Light") to numerous spelling mistakes and poor documentation.

My second big problem is that there's no obvious and easily understood metaphor for automating devices -- it took me the better part of an hour to figure out just how to switch on a light and have that event trigger switching off the light 10 seconds later ... it really shouldn't be that obscure.

Normal people would understand the idea of linking events (for example, sundown) or triggers (e.g., "hall light switch off") to devices, but instead Mi Casa Verde has created a labyrinthine system of "Scenes" (collections of grouped devices) that encompass "Triggers" and "Schedules" in a non-obvious way.

The Vera system supports a large number of plug-ins written by third parties (most are free) that can be added to the base system, but again, the method of adding them is unnecessarily laborious and the documentation for each one is, at best, poor (at worst it is nonexistent).

To do anything serious with Vera requires programming and here's where Mi Casa Verde goes out on a limb: Vera uses a proprietary programming system the company calls "Luup," which combines Lua (I discussed the Lua language last year) with Universal Plug and Play (UPnP).

While I'm sure that Luup has its good points it seems a pity that Mi Casa Verde hasn't embraced the huge trend toward using JavaScript or even Perl or PHP. From my scanning of the forums, the Luup language also has more than its fair share of problems.

Alas, I don't have space to slice and dice the Vera 3 in greater depth. The bottom line is that Vera 3 is very promising and, despite its current incarnation as a typical "engineers gone wild" product, it could easily be redesigned to do what users need as simply and elegantly as possible.

So, despite my somewhat harsh review, the potential of this system gets the Mi Casa Verde Vera 3, priced at $299, a Gearhead rating of 3 out of 5. If you're an end user, stay clear. If you're a geek, it's Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one.

Gibbs has mixed feelings in Ventura, Calif. Automate your response to gearhead@gibbs.com and follow him on Twitter and App.net (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).

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Tags home automationConfiguration / maintenanceMi Casa Verdehardware systemsMi Casa Verde Vera 3Vera 3Data Center

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