Startup Review - Piper

By Brian Rhodes, Published Feb 26, 2014, 12:00am EST

An HD fisheye camera, alarm siren, temperature / humidity sensor and a Z-wave hub, all for less than $250. That's what Piper is offering in this little device:

The company raised over $300,000 in a month long crowd sourcing campaign and is now considered one of the hot upstarts in the residential video / home security space.

What's the real potential and fit of this product? How close are they to shipping in a segment full of missed deadlines? We take a closer look in this note.

UPDATE: See IPVM's test results of Piper.

Product Overview

Piper is the brainchild of Black Sumac, a startup bolstered by buzz surrounding an indiegogo campaign that raised 300% of the goal in four weeks. Piper is the company's first product, which it bills as a "complete home security system" in a single device. The promo video below offers product details:

Key Features

The unit is essentially a 1080p Fisheye Camera integrated with environmental sensors and a Z-Wave hub in a single device. The unit's motion sensor and dependence on wireless ethernet for use means it is best suited for a small indoor apartment or living room around ~30'x20', and multiple units are needed to cover larger areas.  We cover those fine details below:

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Camera Dewarping: The panoramic fisheye supports a number of viewing modes streamed directly from the device, including a raw fisheye, a quad-view with independently configurable views, and a digital-zoom type view. The video below specifically demonstrates this:

Internal Sensors: The device also includes integrated temperature, humidity, audio (microphone/speaker/siren), accelerometer, and PIR motion sensor. The app-based interface allows these sensors to display status in real time, and for combinations of rules to be built before sending alarms or triggering actions to the devices connected to home automation hub.

ZWave Controller: Aside from integrator sensor, Piper acts as a hub that can control any device connected with a (Piper-compliant) Z Wave switch, plug, or sensor. At the current time support is limited to just those products resold by the company, costing ~$60 per plug [link no longer available]. Support is not extended to other 'compliant devices' in the mass market and interoperability is not guaranteed. For background on the home automation network, see our 'Z-Wave Automation Explained' note.

WiFi Mandatory: Piper cannot use a wired network, and relies on WiFi for notification and management access. The unit cannot link to users without WiFi connected internet, so that rules out using the unit where internet access may be seasonal like vacation homes or field offices. Pipe is working on a version equipped with a 4G LTE cell modem, but has given no firm deadlines for delivery.

Pet Friendly: The product is targeted at the 'pet cam' apartment dwelling crowd, and understands the close proximity of pets to the unit. Both the camera and motion sensor can be adjusted to permit movement of animals without sending alarms.  The product FAQ page details: 

"Piper was created with pets in mind by allowing users to lower the sensitivity of motion sensor using a setting in the app. This reduces the risk of false alarms created by pets walking around."

Battery Backup: The unit must be fitted with 3 AA batteries in addition to the main 120 VAC supply plug. The batteries provide a short amount of backup power so that:

"Piper will continue to operate as a security system, even if it has lost contact with your home internet connection due to power loss."

However, the exact length of backup time and range of available functions while on backup power is not given by the company.

Price

The company offers multiple Piper packages direct from its website ranging in price from ~$240 for a single device, up to ~$850 for a three camera, 5 Z-Wave sensor 'whole home' package. 

While the company offers no hard and fast guidelines for using multiple units, the motion sensor has only been tested up to 20', and if multiple rooms or large areas need to be covered, more than one Piper will be needed.

No Monthly Fee

The single biggest advantage Piper offers over other alarm systems is no monthly service fee. The system does use a cloud relay service to send alerts and store a modest amount of video (1000 clips), but there is no charge to use it beyond initial purchase price.

We see this as a policy subject to change depending on the level of market success Piper has. In the beginning, serving video to a few thousand accounts may not be taxing as a 'free service', but could rapidly scale to require costly storage and infrastructure on the backend. Piper mentions that an addition fee-based service may be offered in the future for heavy users or those requiring extended storage times. 

Cons

Piper is not without weaknesses however:

  • Color Only/No Low Light Video: The unit's fisheye camera is color only and the unit includes no integrated IR. As a matter of sidestepping this problem, the company recommends using the Z-Wave hub to turn on a white light when the integrated PIR detects motion in low light, but this presumes that a light is nearby and the user is willing to spend money tying it in to the system.
  • Moble Support ONLY: Another structural weakness that administration and management of the device is via app only. Apps are available for both Apple and Android, but no web interface is available. All viewing and control of the unit must be done through an app.
  • No Download of Video: Piper foregoes ability to download any video. If an incident occurs and is recorded, it cannot be shared with 3rd parties or even Law Enforcement, which is an essential basic of most surveillance systems.

Piper vs. Canary

Canary is the other name getting lots of press in this segment (see our overview of Canary).

From a performance perspective, Piper has the edge given it claims Z-Wave operability, and the unit is open to integrate with and control many more devices that Canary's proprietary network.

From a fundraising perspective, Canary blows Piper out of the water, having raised nearly $1.2M more and experience a vast flush of media exposure and publicity as a result.

However, when it comes to real success, Piper may have the decisive victory. Despite missing early ship dates, the platform is now making good on those crowd-funded pledges with the company claiming "over 90% of initial orders have been fulfilled". Meanwhile Canary still has yet to ship any units and is now claiming May 2014 as the earliest shipping deadline.

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