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Smart Home

Lighthouse cam lets you search video clips for almost anything

But after a week of testing, I'm not sure a good app and fancy tech is enough to recommend this expensive connected cam.

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Chris Monroe/CNET

Lighthouse Interactive Assistant could be the next evolution of the smart home. While the Nest Cam and other top competitors let you see inside your home remotely and send you the occasional alert, Lighthouse hopes to understand your home in a way that no other smart device has done so far.

Like other smart home cameras, Lighthouse connects to Wi-Fi, lets you check on your home remotely from an app and sends you alerts based on faces it recognizes. It can tell people from pets, and even send you notifications as specific people come and go. What sets Lighthouse apart is it lets you intuitively search for clips and customize alerts based on a host of new criteria.

Lighthouse uses your phone's geofencing to track when you come and go, and you can invite other family members to the app and it'll track them as well. It gathers the rest of the info with impressive software, a HD camera and a 3D sensor similar to the ones used by self-driving cars. The 3D sensor understands where people are in relation to each other and objects in the room, and it can even understand certain actions. For example, it can send you an alert if it sees your kids running. 

On top of all of that, the startup behind the cam built an Alexa-style voice assistant specifically for the Lighthouse app to call up recorded footage. You can speak (or type) a search command using a surprisingly broad set of search criteria to locate clips from the past 30 days. Ask if "someone came by to walk the dog when I wasn't home," and if someone did, Lighthouse will show you that clip.

You can also set up Lighthouse to send a phone notification for specific scenarios. Try "tell me if you see someone new when I'm not home" or "let me know if the kids aren't home by four." The assistant can understand all of the criteria in both commands, and send you an alert.

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Lighthouse is on sale now from the company's site and Amazon. The cam itself is an expensive $300, plus you need to pay a $10 monthly fee to take advantage of most of its smarts. Lots of other smart home cams only cost $200, including the Nest Cam. The terrific Amazon Cloud Cam is only $120. Because of the lofty price, this capable cam from a Silicon Valley startup of the same name has a lot to prove to be worth the upgrade.

Lighthouse isn't available overseas yet. The $300 price converts to roughly £215 and AU$380. The $10 monthly fee converts to £7/AU$13.

Pretty cool, but not quite magic

After testing Lighthouse for about a week, I'm fairly convinced it's taken a small step forward at the very least, but I'm not yet sure that it's taken the giant leap I was hoping for. I'm saving my final verdict until I give Lighthouse a chance to fully learn a few faces, but here are my impressions so far.

Given the pedigree of the Lighthouse team and the demos I saw leading up to its release, I might have set my hopes too high for this camera. Part of the reason I need to give it more time is that after a week, it still hasn't fully learned any of the faces it's seen after being set up in our office.

That's understandable. The Lighthouse team told me the process takes a week or two depending on how many times it sees your face. The app makes it pretty easy to tag faces to help it learn who's who. The process is similar to the Netatmo Welcome (£167 at Amazon.co.uk), which also learns faces.

Still, I've yet to see foolproof facial recognition in a home security cam. The Welcome came close, and Nest Cam IQ has a similar "familiar face" feature, but no smart cam we've tested so far, including Lighthouse for now, has been able to reliably identify individuals. 

The Lighthouse cam is also easily defeated by backlight. The instructions warn you about this, but you definitely don't want your camera facing a large window. When I first set up the cam, I had it facing our glass office door which has long glass windows leading up to it.

Even though I closed the blinds, the backlight caused Lighthouse to miss faces and people regularly. I eventually moved the camera to a different location, but beware of this limitation. If you want Lighthouse facing your door, it might have trouble if you have adjacent windows that get a lot of light.

Once I moved the cam, Lighthouse reliably reported activity and new faces (which was pretty much every face it saw as it's still learning to recognize the individuals on our team) as I'd instructed in the app. Labeling people is easy, as is inviting your family to the app so it can track them with geofencing as well.

Lighthouse can't fix the inherently spotty nature of geofencing, however, and it would occasionally take hours to update the whereabouts of my coworkers depending on the signal status of their phones.

An app ready to assist you

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From left to right, that's the home screen of the app, the activity screen and the search screen. 

Screenshots by Andrew Gebhart/CNET

When you're actively using the Lighthouse app, it's terrific, and maybe the best smart home app I've ever tested. Finding the footage you want and managing notifications has never been this easy thanks to the custom-made digital assistant.

I'll do more testing once we try the camera around kids and pets, but I'm thoroughly impressed so far. The app understood all of my basic questions and responded accordingly. It also offers suggestions of things to ask, such as "did you see any new people today." Thankfully, I didn't have to memorize a specific phrase. It successfully interpreted my own phrasing every time whether I said "show me new people" or even "did you see any strangers?"

That said, the Lighthouse app doesn't understand most actions yet. You should soon be able to ask if the cat jumped on the counter or if anyone fell, but not yet. The company says that functionality will roll out via updates. Right now, it can tell when kids are running, but not adults for some reason. Waving is in beta, so your kids can get your attention when they get home just by waving at the cam. Then you can talk to them with the two-way microphone.

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The 3D sensor on top emits a diffuse light and measures how long it takes for the light to bounce back.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Finally, the daily recap feature appears to be useful. Click it, and the app will speed through the footage it captured throughout the day of people coming and going. This feature will work much better with the cam facing a residential door. When I put it in a highly trafficked room of our office, the recap had a lot of footage of our video editor working at his desk. It wasn't too exciting.

If you're worried about having a camera that records whenever you come and go in your home, you can turn the camera off with the app. According to the company's privacy policy, Lighthouse also encrypts all data and promises to never view it without your explicit permission and never sell it for any reason. Head here for the full policy.

Outlook

Because the Lighthouse Interactive Assistant is relatively expensive at $300 (not including the monthly subscription), the camera needs to do more before I can recommend a purchase. The 3D sensor, custom alerts and voice searching for clips all have great potential, but the whole package hasn't added much in real world benefit to our smart home yet, since Lighthouse still doesn't understand most actions.

From what I've seen, the app is awesome, but the cam is just a cam. Before I give a final verdict, I'm going to set the camera up in an actual home, with children and pets, and give it more time to learn everybody's face. Once it does, I'll ask it every question I can think of to see if the cam can truly understand your home. 

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