Anti-Theft Rube Goldberg Haunted House

By February 27, 2014Blog

I came home a few weeks ago to find my door open and my window smashed in. In a panic, I ran in to assess the damage, phone in hand to call the police.

The strange thing was that nearly nothing was missing. A few things were, of course: some cheap jewelry, some loose cash. A backpack that was filled with vitamins and charger cables that wouldn’t do anyone any good.

But on the whole, the big stuff– the laptop, the iPad, the music gear– was all miraculously untouched.

I sat in the mess of my apartment (undone by my own spring cleaning rather than the ransacking of robbers) waiting for the police to arrive, oddly scared to leave.

Because if I left, of course, the logic goes that they would return. They’d scoped the place out, and they’d definitely left the most valuable stuff behind.

It was the creeping feeling of vulnerability setting in that upset me the most.

I’m generally a human who deals with things with a sense of humor. So after some hand-wringing, I decided to turn my apartment into a robber-proof haunted Rube Goldberg machine.

I wanted spooky noises. Flashing lights. Voices and sirens, and the sort of thing that would communicate “hullo, robber, please reconsider your life choices,” as well as perhaps filling Mr. or Ms. Robber with an eerie sense of dread.

Enter: SmartThings, stage left.


SmartThings, like most smart tech today, doesn’t presuppose how you might use it. You’re given a collection of sensors, and an app that allows you to trigger events based on those sensors.

For example, you can choose to turn on an FM radio, blink the lights, and randomly switch on your blender if your front door is opened when you’re not home.

It’s a little difficult to wrap your head around at first, but you can basically use sensor data from virtually anything to trigger virtually anything.

After some trial and error, I thought building an outright haunted house was maybe too subtle for the sensibilities of the average thief, so I opted for something a bit flashier.

Daisy-chaining SmartThings to IFTTT to Dropbox, I managed to set up a system that sends me photos of intruders, turns every light in the house into a flashing strobe, and triggers a playlist of terrifying sounds if an unwanted robber-human attempts entry.

Haunted House Rube Goldberg Machine

My grocery list:

Starting with zero knowledge on how to do any of this stuff, it took a few days of teaching myself how to use Automator and figuring out how to wrangle the Philips Hue lights so they could both be triggered by SmartThings. (Thanks to Leon Meijer for showing me the secret sauce to triggering the strobe effect on the Hue.)

In the end, I think I managed to make my place pretty inhospitable to casual thieves. Here’s some video of what happens when my SmartThings alarm is engaged:

Bonus: I love that the whole system can be taken down and set up at a new house without a lot of hassle. If you’re interested, here are the IFTTT recipes, and here are the Automator scripts. (If you have Hue, you’ll have to get their API up and running as well as set up the pointsymbol for each light before the strobe effect will work for you.)

Next step possibilities include triggering a loud movie and/or flick on the house lights when SmartThings senses someone on the front porch, so it seems like someone is home. (And, if I can swing it, do a little more research towards figuring out how I can make my burglar alarm a little less SFPD and a little more Sixth Sense. Because scaring burglars is awesome.)

Full disclosure: no one paid me to say any of these terribly nice things. I just think these things are terribly nice.