Piper Camera Offers Simple and Reliable Home Security on Your Smartphone

David Pogue
March 27, 2014

The next great motherlode of technological innovation won’t be from Apple, Samsung, or Google. It will be from Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

Those are the websites where passionate inventors can appeal to you, the public, for funds to turn their prototypes into shipping products. The inventors’ vision isn’t diluted by lawyers, or marketing concerns, or too many cooks—so the products that reach the market tend to be focused, simple, and effective. Examples include the Pebble watch, the OUYA game console, the Zooka Bluetooth clip-on speaker, the Elevation Dock, and the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset that Facebook just bought for $2 billion. And, of course, all the products I’ve reviewed on our Kickstarter Reviews page.

And now there’s another one: the Piper home security/home automation camera. It was a huge Indiegogo success story, and now it’s a shipping product—$240 from its website.

Piper is a white or black plastic video camera that you can perch on a shelf somewhere or mount on a wall or ceiling. Then you can monitor what it’s seeing on your phone, wherever you happen to be in the world.

A wide-angle view
There are plenty of Internet-connected cameras like that (Dropcam, for example). But the Piper’s standout feature is its 180-degree lens. It sees the entire room, even directly to its right and left, above it and below it.

No, you don’t necessarily want to view your home with a fisheye lens, as though through an apartment-complex peephole. But using your fingers on your iPhone or Android phone, you can flatten out the scene by zooming in, up to 10X. And you can scroll all around, as though it were a virtual reality camera.

With one tap, you can also break up the phone’s screen into four panes, each of which you can zoom and scroll independently. The result looks convincingly like you have four cameras aimed at different parts of the room.

Piper will tell you if there’s something going on in your house, and it’s  easy to build “rules” that control how you get notified. For example, you can build a rule that says, “When I’m away, if you see something moving, notify me by calling me—and record video for 25 seconds.” Or: “When I’m home, if you hear a loud noise, text me.”

The Piper also has temperature, sound, and brightness sensors. So another rule might be: “When I’m on vacation, if the temperature drops too much, notify the list of neighbors I’ve entered in Settings.”

(Its Vitals screen also displays the current outdoor temperature and humidity. It knows that information not by sensing it, but because it knows where you live and grabs the data from a weather site.)

But then there’s the killer feature: compatibility with Z-Wave gadgets. Z-Wave is a standard for home-automation accessories: sensors, alarms, thermostats, locks, motorized window shades, remote-controlled light switches, and so on. (Here are some examples.)

One of them, for example, plugs into a wall outlet—and then anything you plug into it becomes remote-controllable. A TV, a stereo, a ceiling fan, a lamp, an air conditioner—you can turn any of that on or off from your phone, anywhere in the world. Or you can set up a rule that turns them on or off on a schedule. Or set them up to be triggered by motion, sound, or temperature spikes in the house.

Another Z-Wave accessory is a window or door sensor. When the window or door is opened or closed, the Piper can notify you. Or you can set up a rule that says, “When this door is opened, sound an alarm that’s loud enough to be heard from space.”

That’s right: The Piper also has an absolutely deafening siren that can be part of your rules. (Might be a good way to wake up a teenager at home when you’re already at work.)

If this Z-Wave feature intrigues you (and it should), keep in mind that you can also buy the Piper in a package that includes three Z-Wave accessories for $360. And if you get really hooked, you can buy three Pipers and five Z-Wave sensors for $850. Not really that bad for a whole-house security and automation system that doesn’t require any wiring or installation.

All of this works really, really smoothly. You’d never guess that this gizmo was the passion project of a tiny team; it feels polished and professional. You can even install AA backup batteries so that the video recording and siren features will keep working if someone cuts the power.

It’s also cool that the Piper is entirely PC-free. Your phone (iPhone or Android) and a home WiFi network are all you need to set it up and make it work.

Room for improvement
I do, however, have some beefs with it:

• When you zoom into the video a lot, the image gets kind of cruddy. At full 10X zoom, you’d be able to make out the robber’s body type, coloration and so on, but you might not be able to pick him out in a lineup later.

• The Piper can store up to 1,000 video clips triggered by your rules (motion, sound, Z-Wave sensors, and so on). But you can view them only on the phone—not in a web browser, and you can’t download them. (That feature is coming, Piper says.)

• You can’t make a video recording on demand. If you’re peeking in and see the cat doing something hilarious, there’s no way to record it; the Piper’s recordings are triggered only by the rules you’ve set up.

(And if you do, in fact, have a pet, you can lower the Piper’s sensitivity so that ordinary pet activities don’t trigger the motion sensor.)

• Similarly, you can’t trigger the siren on command, which might be fun if you happen to spot a burglar, or if you have an oversleeping teenager. The siren is another feature that only rules can trigger. (The company says that feature is coming next month, however.)

• The Piper has a microphone and a speaker, but you can’t yet use it like an intercom from wherever you are. It could be a lot of fun to play with a burglar’s mind by making ghost noises, shouting “I see you, creep!” or announcing that the house will self-destruct in 15 seconds. This feature is in testing, but not yet shipping with the product.

Or at least to yell at your dog to get off the couch.

Fortunately, this feature, too, is coming shortly in a software upgrade.

• And here’s the biggie: There’s no night vision, as on some rivals (like the Dropcam). When the room goes dark, your Piper goes blind.

That’s a good argument for getting one of those Z-Wave switches and plugging a lamp into it, so you’ll have some illumination after the sun sets.

Speaking of the Dropcam: While that’s a highly regarded home-monitoring camera, it doesn’t offer any home-automation features. And it requires a monthly fee if you want to review the videos it’s captured; the Piper requires no fees of any kind.

A tool that just works
I can’t stress this enough: What makes the Piper terrific is not that it can do all that it does. It’s that it does all that simply and reliably. It’s technically home networking, but you’d never know it. It works.

For remote-control fans, renters, pet owners, vacation-home owners, gadget freaks, and anyone who’d spend a few hundred bucks for home-security peace of mind, the Piper is a terrific prospect.

And to the 1,344 everyday people whose Indiegogo contributions turned the Piper into a real product: Well done.

More like this, please.

You can email David Pogue here. And you can follow Yahoo Tech on Facebook right here