Halloween Projection Setup on a Budget

I was strolling my local building supply store and ran across one of those pre-packaged window projection set ups for roughly $150.

I was interested because I like gadgets and I enjoy Halloween decorating. As I examined the contents, it was pretty clear it was a simple inexpensive digital projector, a projection material and a quality DVD for content. Incredibly simple. But, being the budget

I made a mental note to take a look when I got home to comparison shop and promised myself that if I could do it for less than $100, I’d do it.
Fast forward to that evening and I was YouTubing, Googling, and web shopping all over the place to do cost comparisons. The project seemed incredibly simple especially with the drop in consumer projector prices. The projector, the screen material and the content.

I found a simple digital projector that came in around $40 that seemed to have decent reviews. COOQI Mini Portable Pocket Projector Home Theater Support 1080p White/Yellow is the name of what I got and it was less than $43.00 delivered. By the time this blog entry gets out there, another make or model could be great at that price point.

For projection I bought a cheap frosted thin shower curtain liner large enough to cover the window I intend to use. That was less than $5.00.

For content, search on YouTube for ‘Halloween Projection Loop’. All kinds of options pop up and many of them are long or you can pile a bunch in a row in your ‘Watch List’.

Now, let’s go through the parts and put it all together.

I have a room in my house with no windows so I could do testing in a dark place. Testing the projector showed me it was just the ticket. It provides the option of connecting via HDMI, USB, Micro-SD card or via a pig tail with old style audio visual connectors. With that variety of options, you should be able to find some form of connection that works.

I mounted the Cooqi on a tripod and started projecting on one of my walls. I used a Raspberry Pi with Kodi, an Ubuntu laptop running YouTube, I used a USB stick on the USB port, I used a ChromeCast with YouTube and they all worked fine. My biggest challenge was maneuvering in the dark while switching things up. The image was good enough once it was focused.

Next I opened up the cheap shower curtain liner and suspended it on an old compression curtain rod. Not the perfect arrangement, but it was just the ticket.

Then I realized that Happy Halloween was displaying backwards as it would be seen outside. But that was easily addressed by using the menu to flip the video display and everything came out just right.

Next, was choosing YouTube videos. My preferred method of setting everything up was to use a Google ChromeCast on the HDMI port. I started the video up with my Chromebook casting the YouTube video and then just let it go. It worked great.

I did try using the ChromeCast powered by the built in USB port and that didn’t work. I used an external USB power supply and everything worked fine.

When Halloween arrives, I’ll fold over the top of the curtain, secure it with tape and cut it to size. I’ll probably take a few pictures when I have it set up.

Happy Halloween.

I Dream of Drinking

Yep, it’s true. With more than 450 days dry, it happens.

Does it mean, I feel conflicted about alcohol? I didn’t wake up tempted, so I guess not.

During the first dream, I felt the warming euphoria of the alcohol, in my dream. The spreading warmth and relaxing feeling was very reminiscent of the first good long pull of a tall strong one. Continue reading “I Dream of Drinking”

Security Camera ZModo Mini Wifi

Security
Camera Zmodo Mini Wifi

I’ve
been considering security cameras for a long time. 

Although
I do have a built in wired system, typically they aren’t any good
when it comes to identifying people or capturing events. To enjoy the
full features, it requires subscriptions for monthly monitoring. They
make a lot of noise, call emergency services and then you suffer
inconvenience charges. And frankly, they are moody (false alarms) and
depend on someone to arm and disarm the system, which I would be the
only human in my household that would take the time. 
So,
a normal wired system just doesn’t meet my household or usage
requirements. 

Let’s
face it. Video camera’s allow us all to move around normally without
interrupting our lives, they don’t force everyone to learn
complicated codes or create false alarms where the emergency services
charge for their inconvenience. But there can be a lot to learn. 

How
should I get started? Like any other red blooded American. Pick a
direction and see how it works out. Play that out for a while and
pick another direction. 

Over
a year ago, while browsing a Frys, I picked up a 
ZMODO
ZH-IXY1D 
.
As inexpensive as it was, my expectations weren’t very high. But what
the heck, give it a shot, right?

I
got it home and setting it up at that time was done between an
Android app over my house wifi direct to the camera. The app at that
time was MeShare and seemed unreliable and mounting it at that time
was troublesome. So I tabled it, but made a few notes. 

Fast
forward to a week ago and I pulled it out of my drawer and decided to
try it again. Zmodo had a more current Android app, now called ZModo
Zink. And I discovered from the support forums, that the firmware
needed to be updated. A quick download of the app, the app auto
discovered the camera on the house wifi and then gave me the option
of updating the firmware. I said yes and we were in business. 

The
app was vastly improved, very simple to use and seems much more
stable than the previous app. The camera provides alerts to the
Android app when something might have happened and you have the
option of receiving a notification and a video clip is sent that
gives you the option to download the video clip to your phone. 

I
mounted the camera just inside a window adjacent to my front door.

According
to the documentation, you are allowed access to clips for download up
to 36 hours from the event. That sounds decent for no subscription
fees and if you are a person that hangs onto your cell phone,
theoretically you should see alerts in 36 hours, but have to remember
that you must actually pick the correct clip and download it to your
android device. However, if you have a lot of cameras or your cameras
get a lot of traffic (notifications with video capture) or travel off
line or in questionable cell phone coverage, I can imagine that this
could become an issue with lots of alerts and lots of memory being
eaten up. 

The
business strategy is clearly enticing customers to their cloud based
subscription service to extend retention of footage. Nothing
gets done without the app, so ensure your happy with it as much as
the camera.

About
the Camera: 
Setup
was really easy. It has a normal lighting and an infra red (IR)
mode. Resolution is really good with proper positioning and
lighting. Put some thought into it and experiment, but I expect
that’s required for any installation like this.
The
app provides simple remote controls that allow you to switch between
four modes of operation which you can remotely control. By default
Zmodo has provided logic
to reduce false alerts
, but this algorithm may also exclude a
period of time when something won’t be recorded. Example: Based on
the logic, when there is an event triggered, it only captures 10
seconds. Great for someone showing up initially at your front door,
like package delivery. Any subsequent event from the first will
capture five second clips, so if there is a gathering of people and
something occurs outside that five seconds you might not catch it.
Ergo, their
cloud pricing plans
. I’ll leave it to you to determine if its
reasonably priced or not.

At
the time of this article for continuous retention in their cloud it’s
$99.90 a year. But they also have a less expeensive plan with seven
day retention of $49.90 a year. Additional devices can be added for
an added 50% per device. As an example two cameras on a 7 day plan is
roughly $75 a year. Two cameras on the continuous cloud would be
roughly $150 a year. It doesn’t indicate that it’s an
introductory plan. The superificial search I’ve done tells me there
are cost competitive alternatives.

The
camera works well for watching the entryway of the front door of our
house which is no wider than three and a half feet and no deeper than
6 feet. It actually looks across the doorway from one side with
minimal view of the street. I found that if it looked outward more,
it would video capture on vehicles driving by, which would be a real
waste of notifications. There is small sliver of the view that sees a
tiny bit of the street and I still get video clips of big trucks
maneuvering when nothing else happens.
I
mounted it inside a window so it can’t be tampered with but…..
what I didn’t consider is the glow from it’s ‘status’ light
caused a reflection off the glass and made it completely unable to
see anything in night camera mode except the reflection of the camera
itself.

I
covered the status light with electrical tape, which solved the
reflection problem, but really didn’t improve the performance. The
camera has an IR night mode, but unless there is some form of infra
red or normal light illumination, it really does no good at all. In
darkness you need infra red illumination. That’s why you see so
many outdoor security cameras with a ring of LED’s right around the
lens, but the LED’s give off no visible light. When the IR sensors
are set off, the IR illumination kicks on at a non visible spectrum
to humans.

Camera,
App & Service Issues: There are some times
when the clips appear to be absolutely empty. I don’t know if it’s
because of imperceptible things like the wind moving leaves or
traffic in the back ground. There have been instances where I know
someone walked by and the camera didn’t capture them in a clip. Of
course, with continuous footage captured in a loop in the cloud, that
should be a different story. The alert would notify me and I would
check in the cloud for near that time.

The
lack of IR illumination, which might be overcome with lighting
strategies, but adds to the complexity overall.

There
is no way to access the video feed without using the Zmodo app. This is not an IP streaming camera. Meaning I can’t use the camera or its video feed with any non-Zmodo
services. Why does that matter? I want control over my own data
without having to pay someone a monthly subscription fee that
averages out to quite a bit of money per device. It would be nice to
be able to integrate this camera with others for a full suite of
video feeds for customizable recording and storage of whatever I want
for as long as I want.

Final
Summation:
This is clearly not
a full service review. I’m in no way positively or negatively
affiliated with Zmodo beyond having purchased the camera myself.
My
own selfish view? This was a good learning step for
me, but not the end game I
want. I want a more open set
of devices so I can build and control things myself.
However,
this or something similar like Ring and
it’s services
have a role to play in the market. Maybe it’s
something for you?

External Hard Drive Note….

Let’s take a moment to talk about hard drives and their role with a NAS.

If you’ve caught my previous blog entries, then you’re aware I have a WAP bridge that also has a hard drive attached and performs as a NAS.

One thing I learned in all of this, not all external hard drives are created the same.

A few years ago I had picked up a Western Digital Passport 1TB external hard drive. Apparently it had a ‘green feature for saving power. Normally not a big deal if your mobile and plugging your hard drive into a laptop just long enough to do what you need to do. You keep it occupied while attached.

Fast forward to some later time in the future, you plug in the hard drive to a WAP bridge and try to use it as a NAS. It’s recognized and things look good. You step away for a half hour, come back to access the network and get to files on the NAS and, well, it’s not able to access the files.

You spend hours unplugging the hard drive, checking the data, realizing that it keeps disappearing, knowing that it doesn’t make sense UNTIL…..

You take the time to look up the particular make and model of the portable external hard drive you have and find out that it has an inherent feature for a power saving mode that, if dormant, makes the hard drive sleep. Not a huge issue with a hard drive when connected to a pc, but apparently the WAP bridge your using doesn’t have the right ‘nudge’ to wake the thing up again. Ugh.

So how to change that? Western Digital support says the hard drive has firmware and needs to be confirmed to be the latest. AND there is a specific utilities software package that has to be used to change the power saver /sleep option.

Needless to say I did both and turned off the power saving function.

Previous lesson learned: Update to the latest firmware especially when something isn’t operating the way you want.

Current lesson learned: Know your hardware.

Sometimes design ‘features’ have unintended consequences and can be a real PITA when they aren’t obvious.

And yes, it appears that the firmware update and using the utilities configuration to remove the sleep feature solved the problem with the hard drive worked. Yay for progress.

Let’s do the Samba

That’s networking samba if you please.
Recently, I’ve been making some changes to my home network. Next on my list was to add a nas (network addressed storage) for media and regular files and samba fit the bill. 
Weighing the options took a while. I have a full desktop PC which would be my primary source for files to be backed up, but that uses a lot of power so it’s not practical as a nas. I had a few hard drives as options. I have a raspberry pi currently configured as a Google cloud printer.
I started with the desktop and the raspberry. I was going through the setup meeting a few roadblocks where the desktop, running Windows 10, couldn’t see any of the other devices on the network. I had a Kodi setup and a Linux laptop that could see the Desktop files, but the desktop saw nothing either automatically or manually. 
And I had a WAP (wireless access point) bridge that might possibly do something. [see this previous article]. The web searches indicated a nas wasn’t supported in bridge mode. But, I tried anyway and I’m glad I did. The hard drive appeared available to everything, except the Windows 10 desktop. If I browsed with Chrome on the IP address, it sent me to a “Twonky” session, which I am no fan of and it didn’t have the functionality I was looking for. 
Frustration led me back to the web. And then I had a light bulb moment.

I was taking it for granted that Windows was configured correctly to support nas file access across a network. And yet none of the forums or blogs mentioned this incredibly simple and basic thing related to Windows 10 (W10). I decided to check the features in W10. 

Open Control Panel → Programs and Features → Turn Windows
Features On or Off → search the list and click: 

      Enable SMB
1.0/CIFS File Sharing Support
      Simple
Network Management Protocol – and anything under it [WMI SNMP
Provider]
      Simple TCPIP
Services

Once that was done, when I opened up the Network option under file manager for W10, everything I had hoped for showed up. Problem solved. Samba was online and file transfers between the NAS and other resources worked fine. 


Lesson learned: Never take it for granted everything is already configured and just going to work. 




Marginal Wifi Resolved

The wife had been complaining about marginal wifi on her side of the master bedroom off and on for the past year at least.

She’s been incredibly patient.

I finally took some time with an Android tablet and used an app called Wifi Analyzer. It was able to see multiple wifi networks in the area. I had it set to continuously monitor the signal strength. Initially it spotted the house network ID fine and then in just a few minutes the signal disappeared. And then in another minute or so it would reappear just as strong as before.

I would normally expect that kind of behavior if a microwave or other machinery is between the router and the sensor. After confirming the problem was the signal strength, likely due to obstructions in the walls of the house, rather than the laptop she uses, I had to think up a plan.

Fortunately this house was pre-wired with coax and cat 5. And my mind ran through the options of switches, waps, organizing the cat 5 terminations, which would require signal trace, and on and on.

Our ISP’s router was located near a jack that was connected through to a  jack in my office. As luck would have it, my office is over the master bedroom. Light bulb moment and I already had an option in mind.

Step One: I dragged out an old router. A Linksys EA 4500  plugged it into the wall jack and made sure the router was plugged into the jack on the other end. This put it in a cascaded configuration. Then I went and confirmed the signal strength for the marginal area and the cascaded router was coming through loud and clear.

But I wasn’t done.


Step Two: Knowing that the wife prints things I needed to improve more. A cascaded router has separate IP addressing from the primary router and none of the devices are shared, like NAS or printers. I needed the second router to use the same IP addressing pool and that can only be done if it’s performing as a Wireless Access Point. I followed this process to set the router up as a WAP bridge.

I used the option for Obtaining an IPV4 address automatically. Something didn’t work and I was impatient with the manual addressing.

Once set in Bridge Mode, I had to go to my primary router to locate the correct IP address, used the IP address in my browser and set the WAP Bridge with passwords. Apparently performing this reconfiguration will change the SSID and remove the passwords. I gave it a unique password and SSID and, VOILA!.

Step Three: I personally configured the laptops that the wife uses to have the wifi ready to be connected. So, if she is using the laptop and not getting a good response, she can switch from the router to the WAP as she needs.

Happy wife, happy life.

I’m not a cord cutter, but I play one with my TV

The Problem: Here’s the scenario. We have DirecTV with five boxes and DVR services. But only three boxes can be active at the same time. The fourth and fifth boxes remain in the cold. And only so much recording can happen at one time with similar limitations.

We have a household with three adults and a 10 year old. The 10 year old believes the best way for something to happen is repeated random button smashing, because a half second delay is too much delay. He never lived in the days where dad’s used kids as remotes. “Go change it to channel 3”. 
So, what’s that mean? It means that sometimes, I’m unable to watch or record what I want due to the competition of resources or the errors of button smashing that arbitrarily records or deletes things. 


Considering the Options: I took a moment to evaluate what I actually record and realized that several of the conflicting programs were on over the air broadcast networks at the same time as other broadcasts that were being recorded. 
I’ve always been a believer in OTA (over the air) antenna’s. I had already confirmed my area receives pretty darn good reception of many channels that are HD quality. I considered using an old VCR to record shows, but the one I had wasn’t able to record from an antenna (coax) cable. And I wasn’t about to spend large amounts on old technology like VHS to record programs. 
Step One- A recorder: My search took me in the direction of an ATSC Tuner that also allowed for recording to USB storage. I ran across one that was about $40. An “Iview 3500 STBII”. Between the users guide and a little trial and error, it turned out to be relatively easy to use. It records in MP4 format on a USB attached storage. And for the heck of it, I thought I’d try connecting a USB hard drive and surprisingly, it reads and writes with no problem. It won’t read AVI files, but that’s not important.  
As for connections, there is a straight forward coax connection, an HDMI and RGB with audio. I experimented with signal quality and found the signal from the STBII using a coax connection to the TV was fuzzy and degraded. The absolute best connection from the STBII to my TV was via an HDMI cable. 
I used online TV guides to find the shows, times and days of the week and set up the scheduling for recording. 
Step Two- Antenna: At first I experimented with some inexpensive OTA antenna’s attached to the walls of my second floor office with thumbtacks. You can pick these up discount stores for less than $10 bucks or look at my earlier post where I made my own. 
The reception was ok, showing occasional interference on some channels. Ultimately, I needed to improve the signal strength if I wanted fairly reliable quality recordings. 
To do that, I decided to go higher. We have a two story house with an easily accessible attic. I sorted through the houses pre-laid coax using some coax trace tools I picked up and attached an old home made antenna to those that led to my office using pushpins as mounts to the rafters. 
Step Three- Results: were stellar. The recordings of shows via the OTA antenna and STBII are as good or better than my DirecTV DVR. 

The Pros: cheap, easy, no subscription fees and excellent quality.
The cons: The DirecTV DVR service makes it a heck of a lot easier to record first run only shows on all cable included networks like AMC, Comedy, premium sports, etc. without having to set record up for a specific time. In fact, it will auto correct from season to season if the show is in a new day or time and stop recording when the season ends. None of that automated programming is available with the STBII. You have to manually manage it yourself. 
There are other boxes out their with far more sophistication. Like the HDHomeRun which records shows and makes them available through your wifi for playback. Or the TiVo which has intelligent scheduling and allows for remote playback also, but has a subscription service. 
And then there are the home grown solutions where someone sets up a computer for recording the shows to a NAS and it provides the same functionality with no subscription, but no intelligent scheduling either. 
Conclusion: The Iview 3500 STBII is an inexpensive means of augmenting our current service, not a replacement. Glad I have it. Fits my needs, but not replacing my full service provider any day soon.