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Aug212015

Podcast #701: DIY Automation Controls

Amazon released a new little product a couple months ago, to very little fanfare. The Dash Button is a tiny device that allows you to instantly order a specific product for Amazon Prime delivery. We thought it was a bit of a novelty and didn’t see much use for it, but as with just about anything in technology these days, give it time and someone will find a way to repurpose it and put it to better use.

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DIY Automation Controls using Amazon’s Dash Buttons

Amazon released a new little product a couple months ago, to very little fanfare. The Dash Button is a tiny device that allows you to instantly order a specific product for Amazon Prime delivery. We thought it was a bit of a novelty and didn’t see much use for it, but as with just about anything in technology these days, give it time and someone will find a way to repurpose it and put it to better use.


About the Dash Button

Each button is about the size of a portable USB drive and, in Amazon’s own words, it “...comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it. Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favorite products. When you're running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.” They are currently available in limited quantities to Prime members only.

 Each Dash Button costs $4.99. Not bad for the convenience factor. When we first heard about them, we thought it could be pretty neat. Buy a button, tell it what product you want it to order for you, and place it in a convenient location. Do you use a lot of AA batteries for remote controls, kids toys, etc? Place the Dash Button by where you store your batteries and when you’re running low, click it and you’ll have more on your doorstep in two days. But that’s not exactly how it works.

The idea is the same, but the Buttons aren’t nearly that configurable. Each Button corresponds to a predetermined product, and includes that product’s logo on it. If you find yourself constantly ordering and reordering one of the available products, it could be great for you. If not, the Dash Button may seem useless. That is, unless you find your own unique way to hack the Dash Button to get it to do something else that makes sense for you.

Right now there are 18 Dash Buttons available: Tide Detergent, Bounty Paper Towels, Cottonelle Toilet Paper, Glad Trash Bags, Gillette Razor Blade Refills, SmartWater Water Bottles, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Gatorade Sports Drinks, Huggies Diapers, Larabar Nutrition Bars, Izze Sparkling Juices, Wellness Natural Pet Food, Amazon Elements Baby Wipes, Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, Maxwell House Coffee, Olay Skin Care, Gerber Baby Formula, and L'Oreal Youth Skin Care.


Repurposing the Dash Button

The whole idea comes from a post at Medium.com by Ted Benson called How I Hacked Amazon’s $5 WiFi Button to track Baby Data. Which, we’ll admit, sounds a bit creepy, but it isn’t. It was a dad’s quest to track when and how often his baby woke up at night. You can get the full details if you read the post, but he had tried baby tracker apps, but wasn’t satisfied, so he decided to put the Amazon Dash Button to use for just that purpose.

Those familiar with networking know that any devices you connect to your home network must have a unique identifier so your router can tell it apart from all the other devices on your network. This identifier is called a MAC address. The Dash Button is no different. Each one has a Mac address so it can connect to your home Wifi, then connect to Amazon over the Internet to make your product order. That MAC address, and the Dash Button’s ability to connect to your home Wifi are the secret to unlocking the device’s full potential.

To save battery life, the Dash Button completely shuts off when not in use. This means that when you click the button it has to wake up, connect to your Wifi network, then place the order. So if you can track when it connects to your network, you can get an alert every time the button is pressed. The author decided to monitor his network with a simple python script running on his computer. The source code is available at the post if you want it. But if you’re inventive, there are multiple ways to detect a new device joining your network.

Since each Dash button has to have a unique MAC address, you can have as many as you want and detect each one independently when they’re pressed. The author went on to enhance his python script to add a line to a google spreadsheet. He was able to use two different Dash Buttons to track two different baby activities at night, without having to turn his phone on, launch the app, track the activity, etc. Just click a Dash Button and you’re set. Of course, as he points out, you want to make sure the Dash Button isn’t actually associated with an item at Amazon so you don’t end up ordering something every time you click it.

But instead of writing a line to a Google spreadsheet, this is where the world becomes your oyster. Yours can do anything you can script to occur from the computer tracking the network for Dash Button activity. If that computer happens to be your automation server, imagine the possibilities. Do you have an automation activity you perform constantly that a single button press would make so much easier when a light switch isn’t within reach? Lights on or off from the bedside table. Air Conditioning on or off from the couch? Lights on or off from the car? Music on or off from the patio. Unlimited possibilities.

By now, if you’re a DIY automation enthusiast, you’ve probably come up with at least one or two ideas for the Dash Button. Sure, they’re all things you can do from your phone if you wake it up, open the right app, click the right action. Or from a wall switch if you get off your lazy butt and walk over to click it. Or from any of a plethora of other automation interfaces. The point isn’t that this a new or novel concept, it’s a new or novel way to put a $5 device from Amazon to work for you in creative and unique ways.

If you don’t want to do it yourself, there are options for tabletop controllers so you can get the simplicity of single click without having to repurpose a Dash Button. For example, if you’ve got an Insteon based system, you can pick up the 6-button scene control keypad in black or white for around $100. Not a bad deal. You get 6 buttons instead of having the keep track of 6 different Dash Buttons, but you pay quite a bit more as well. But, on the upside, it’ll be an instant addition to your automation system, so there’s still programming work to get it to do what you want, but less DIY work to get it into your ecosystem.

If you end up hacking up a Dash Button, we’d love to hear your story. If you’ve done something similar, hacked a device to automate your home or otherwise enhance your life, we’d love to hear about that too. Our listeners are quite sophisticated and inventive, we’d love to share your successful automation or home theater life hacks with the rest of the listeners.

 

Download Episode #701

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