Camera maker Lighthouse AI, a Palo Alto-based startup founded by Google and Stanford alums, is in an interesting predicament. We live in a time when phrases like “machine learning” and “neural networks” are thrown around as buzzwords, used both earnestly to talk about the modest gains of self-learning software and strategically as the ambiguous special sauce that helps a product stand apart. But Lighthouse contends that it has the expertise and product chops to deliver on a truly smart home security camera, even one that can stay competitive with the software of Silicon Valley giants, nearly all of which have extensive AI research labs.
There’s another issue, too. A security camera is a spartan device, designed mostly to perform just one task well: showing you a real-time video feed of a given location, with a recorded backup to boot. Do you need an AI vision system for your home? Is this camera actually better than any of the other countless internet-connected security cameras already available? These are pivotal questions, and they underpin whether Lighthouse is worth its $299 price tag and its $10 per month subscription fee.
WHAT IS IT?
The Lighthouse camera is a 1080p, RGB video camera with a 3D sensor, speaker, microphone, and alarm siren built in. That means it will record what it sees in high-definition 24 hours a day, with up to a 30-day backlog for those who subscribe to the company’s $10 per month cloud service. The camera does not have a zoom function, and it does not rotate mechanically, which is a downside for consumers who care mostly about live surveillance or for those who are concerned about savvy burglars bypassing the system. However, most consumer-grade security cameras, including models from Amazon and Nest, don’t rotate, although the Nest Cam IQ does come with 12x digital zoom.
Lighthouse’s camera does have night vision, and it also has a two-way speaker so it can be used to communicate with people who have been invited, like friends and family, to access the camera via Lighthouse’s mobile app. The app is also used to control every aspect of the camera, from monitoring the live feed to setting up motion detection and unfamiliar face pings to getting daily recaps of activity. The app manages additional profiles for trusted members, as well as guests like babysitters and dog walkers that can be excluded from activity pings for certain time frames throughout the week. The app also features a natural language component, so you can create custom pings or ask for daily recaps and activity checks by just speaking the command.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT IT?
Unlike other security camera makers that have over time integrated AI advancements into their products, Lighthouse’s pitch is that it’s an AI-first company built from the ground up. That means every aspect of the product was considered with AI in mind, and what the field of computer vision allows the company to implement from a product perspective. With Lighthouse’s $10 a month subscription — which can be waived for life with a one-time $200 fee — consumers get a top-class facial recognition and motion detection system.
Similar only in sophistication to perhaps Google-owned Nest, which relies on the search giant’s extensive AI-powered object and facial recognition system, Lighthouse’s system is able to differentiate between inorganic motion (cars, trees, etc.) and organic motion (pets, adults, children). It can also draw a line between your cat or dog and your spouse, as Lighthouse says it has pre-trained its algorithms to know the difference between an animal and a human being.
Going even further, from the moment you plug the Lighthouse camera in, it starts building a database of facial data. With a little user input, you can train the Lighthouse camera to recognize people. That involves tapping the “tag faces” option in the mobile app and ascribing identities to various people the camera picks up on its video feed. Over time, the camera will learn who’s familiar and who’s not, and it will customize notifications accordingly.
None of this would be all that useful if not for Lighthouse’s ping system, which lets you set up mobile alerts for any number of various scenarios, nearly all of which can incorporate the facial recognition system. For instance, you can create prompts for activity, like “Tell me if you see anyone you don’t recognize when the primary user is out of the house.” That way, the camera won’t send you a notification if it sees, say, your roommate, but it will if it sees a friend of your roommate’s it hasn’t seen before.
Notably, the pings can also be for the absence of activity too, like one for “Tell me if you don’t see someone enter the home between the hours of 3PM and 5PM.” That way, if you’re a parent and typically expect your child to get off the bus and come home between those hours, you can rest easy knowing that a notification will be sent if and when the camera doesn’t see what it’s supposed to.
To make sure the camera doesn’t just start pinging you all of the time, Lighthouse lets you add people under additional profiles in the mobile app, so that person is excluded from pings that specify motion from unrecognized people, versus motion from familiar faces. You can also invite people to the app itself, so you can give control and direct video backup access to a spouse or other family member. Similar to products from Nest, Lighthouse’s app can manage multiple cameras simultaneously.
IS IT GOOD?
You can’t talk about Lighthouse without talking about the smart home camera maker it's primarily competing with: Nest. The smart home company, now a part of Google proper after being folded back into the search giant’s hardware team, last year debuted its first slate of AI-powered cameras with the Nest Cam IQ line, an evolution of the product family it acquired when it bought camera maker Dropcam. For more on the Nest Cam IQ, check out our review from last summer.
Putting aside the availability of the Nest Cam IQ line, and its similar facial recognition and motion detection systems, Lighthouse’s system is remarkable in its ability to learn over time and adapt to the data that it collected and I annotated easily by hand. While I don’t personally own a pet or live in a larger home with children, every aspect of Lighthouse’s ping system worked as designed and even in crowded areas like the corner desk I set it up next to at The Verge’s San Francisco office. The Lighthouse camera saw more than a dozen people passing it on any given day, and I was able to test a variety of pings.
Not once was I alerted to a false positive or negative, and the camera seems quite sophisticated at differentiating between people even when someone’s face was slightly obscured. Lighthouse says it can keep track of trusted profiles for friends and family when the person has his or her back turned because it uses the presence of the person’s phone with the mobile app installed to verify identity in addition to existing facial data. I did notice though that the app’s pre-written requests, under the “ask” tab of the app, for things like pets and children did spit back incorrect results, where the tops of people’s heads or shoulders were registering as animals or toddlers. It seems for those functions of Lighthouse, you need to train the software with some examples before it can be truly useful.
AM I HAPPIER OR MORE FULFILLED?
Considering I do not live in a larger house with a family, or feel the need to spy on my roommates, I can’t say the Lighthouse has had a substantial effect on my quality of life. It is certainly a neat gadget, and it’s been a lot of fun to mess around and tinker with the AI-focused settings that help it identify and keep track of my co-workers. (My colleagues didn’t seem to appreciate this.)
However, there are implications beyond just corporate malfeasance, and more in the realm of the cultural changes a smart, AI-equipped camera introduces to aspects like inter-family spying, as tech columnist Farhad Manjoo pointed out this week in his New York Times column on Lighthouse and Google’s new AI-powered Clips camera. Bringing this type of technology into the home will inevitably change your relationship to other inhabitants, by giving you the ability to track your family’s comings and goings more closely and to use software to peer deep into the habits of your spouse or children in ways perhaps you never thought possible. With that new power comes a responsibility to make use of it in ways that do not cross a line, and that’s a serious consideration for every consumer.
SHOULD YOU GET IT?
If you’re mulling over buying a smart camera for your home, you have to ask yourself what it is you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re concerned about the security of your home, you should probably buy a Nest Cam IQ outdoor model or something more commercial and robust, and not the Lighthouse, which is not waterproof and cannot be easily mounted to the exterior of your home. There’s also the matter of what it is you’re trying to capture on video, or surveil for that matter. If you’re just interested in monitoring a pet when you’re away, Petcube is probably a better and cheaper option.
Lighthouse’s camera seems best designed for parents who own homes or apartments with children and who rely on various daily or weekly tasks performed by friends, family, or paid professionals, like dog walkers, housekeepers, and so on. (In other words, wealthy Silicon Valley types, to start at least.) The facial recognition and ping system work together best if you have a lot of different people coming and going through the part of the home the camera will be pointed at, like the living room or front hallway, for instance.
It also seems super useful if you have an elderly parent or grandparent who lives alone and you’d like the peace of mind that comes with knowing you can get alerts if the camera doesn’t seem movement for the first however many hours of the morning.
Peace of mind is an interesting concept in this context. Most security cameras succeed mostly by providing the knowledge that you might not be able to stop something bad from happening, but that you will at the very least be made immediately aware of it or have a video record of it saved online. For that, Lighthouse, with its ping system and advanced AI features, seems particularly powerful, especially considering how it can be customized to your specific lifestyle needs.
So if you don’t already own a number of Nest or Google hardware products and you have a keen interest in making use of AI features to keep track of your kids, Lighthouse seems like a sound purchase that should only get smarter over time — provided, of course, it can keep up with Google, Amazon, and others.
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