The possibility is becoming reality: A single-control system that would operate your home theatre, figure out that your dryer should only run when off-peak electricity rates are in effect, adjust the room temperature according to who’s in the room, send your glucose level to your doctor, lock the doors at bedtime and brew your coffee when the morning alarm clock goes off. While the connected home, as it’s being called, is tantalizing, implementation is not going to be easy.
Many companies are working on standards for household automation and it’s an almost bewildering melee. Google has launched Thread, which will be championed by its thermostat company Nest. Meanwhile, Silicon Labs, Atmel, Broadcom, Dell, Intel and Samsung have collaborated on the Open Interconnect Consortium, while Haier, LG, Panasonic, Qualcomm and Microsoft are backing a standard called AllJoyn. Home Depot is selling a range of Wink-connected products. Lowe’s has Iris, while Staples Connect has signed up Honeywell, General Electric, Lutron, Philips and FirstAlert. Not about to get left behind, Apple announced its HomeKit last June. Add these to established standards like Zigbee and Z-Wave, as well as WiFi and Bluetooth, and you would be right to wonder where a smart fridge’s loyalties lie.
“We still have to resolve this problem of making it really, really easy for people to use,” says Mark Wright, direct of product management at Ayla Networks, a San Francisco Bay area company that helps develop products for the Internet of Things (IoT). Though the IoT is expected to comprise 212 billion devices by 2020 according to International Data Corporation, Wright says that, “in the end, it has to be completely invisible to the user.”
Utah-based Vivint, which has installed more than 800,000 systems in the U.S. and Canada, follows Apple’s controlled-ecosystem approach by managing all elements of their home automation system. Professionals install door locks, motion detectors, window sensors, cameras, thermostats and control panels. With monthly fees starting at US$54, Vivint provides support to ensure it works seamlessly.
“Consumers don’t care about the technology itself as long as it’s reliable and secure,” says Jim Nye, Vivint’s vice-president of product management. “The Internet of Things is a bit of a mess. Do I really need my washing machine to talk to my BMW? We think connecting some things makes sense and it’s those experiences we’re trying to zero in on.”
Systems also have to be flexible enough to adapt to various lifestyles. “The most interesting applications are not going to come out of the individual devices, but how they work with each other,” says Daniel Moneta, CEO of Toronto-based MMB Networks, which provides manufacturers with connectivity hardware and software. “An automated door lock is interesting, but when it can communicate with the security system, you can have access rights for different people in your home at different times of day, which is much more interesting.”
Entertainment systems are more likely to follow their own rules. The Sony PlayStation ecosystem, which lets users pick up a game on their Vita handheld system that they started on their console, probably has no business messing with a home’s energy efficiency. But connected healthcare gadgets do seem more likely candidates for home integration. Seattle-based Numera has 40,000 devices in the marketplace, all aimed at easing the transition from institutional care to home care.
One Numera product, for example, allows healthcare professionals to remotely monitor glucometer results. A connected scale transmits a person’s weight, which can be analyzed over time for fluctuations that may indicate a serious health problem. For families worried about an aging parent, Numera’s Libris personal device not only tracks the wearer’s location and provides two-way communication, it can also detect falls.
Ultimately, homes will be wired with multiple systems and multiple protocols, using multiple radio signals and sensors. The “invisibility” will likely come from an interface that pulls it all together in a way that’s more fun than hassle. Though the smartphone is an obvious candidate for doing this, there will be pressure to integrate all the apps that might come with a connected home. Nobody wants their phone’s home screen to clutter a coffee table already covered with remote controls.