Innovations, Technology

The Smart Home | Intelligent Home Automation

Imagine, if you would, coming home from a long day’s work. You open the door, and the light’s immediately turn on a shade past dim – just the way you like it. It’s 7.58pm and by the time you hang up your coat, take off your shoes and sit down in the living room, it’s time for the basketball game. The television turns one. You dismiss the notification that the television had been recording the pre-game show, and start to watch, but a beep from the kitchen stops you and impels you to enter. It’s your refrigerator, reminding you that there are three perfectly chilled beers inside. You’ll grab one beer and something to eat, but a display on the outside informs you that the leftovers are probably bad by now. You tap a button on the display and your refrigerator dials the local takeout restaurant on our cellphone, which you quickly remove from your pocket. After you place your order and make your way back to the television, you see a second notification that informs you that you’ve forgotten to activate your security system, but that it has been done for you. You silently marvel at how simple life has become as you sit back to enjoy the game.

Home automation

© Flickr | VIA Gallery

This notion of domestic bliss may once have been purely within the realm of science fiction, but may soon be possible with the rise of intelligent home networking / home automation (smart homes). In this article, we will cover: 1) features of the smart home, 2) history of the smart home, 3) benefits of the smart home, 4) research and trends in smart homes, 5) challenges of smart homes, 6) popular smart homes, and 7) the future of smart homes.

FEATURES OF THE SMART HOME

Smart home automation

© Wikimedia commons | LCN

The typical smart home automation would feature seamlessly integrated security systems, refrigerators, televisions, dishwashers, and other electronics and appliances, centrally and/or remotely controlled from a single device. As more devices become connected to wireless technologies (see the Internet of Things, below), the more features the smart home will include. Some of the most common, centrally-controlled, technologies in today’s smart home automation include:

  • Automated door locks and security systems: these can be controlled with a smartphone to other electronic device;
  • Temperature and ventilation controls;
  • Energy consumption monitoring devices;
  • Entertainment systems;
  • Smart lighting systems;
  • Smart appliances;
  • Vehicle detection systems; and
  • Plant and pet monitoring systems.

Other typical features of the smart home automation include room-to-room video and audio communication; and notifications sent by the home to a user’s smartphone or other device in case of a particular occurrence (a break-in for example).

HISTORY OF SMART HOMES

Smart homes had their origins, as most innovations, in theory long before they become a reality. While science fiction writers, such as Ray Bradbury, depicted these homes throughout much of the 20th century, their genesis lies in the development of the systems that comprise them. The first 20 years of the 20th century saw the invention of the vacuum cleaner, dryer, washing machine, iron, and toaster. The first smart device was created approximately 45 years later. Known as the ECHO IV, it could turn home appliances on and off and control home temperatures; unfortunately, it did not sell well. Home automation technologies began to be built into luxury dwellings decades ago. Disney’s 1999 film, Smart House, provided mainstream audiences with a sense of the possibilities, but the first smart home models and devices began to hit the consumer market in the early 2000s, with the proliferation of the Internet and related technologies a decade earlier.

BENEFITS OF SMART HOMES

The benefits of the smart home are by no means limited to convenience, although this is a compelling feature. The automation of simple tasks saves us time – time that could be spent on our families, our careers, or other passions, which is a strong selling proposition. Smart homes also have the potential to be greener and cheaper: water and energy-monitoring tools, and programs to optimize energy consumption, could impel us to lower our water and energy usage, which could, in turn, lower our bills and reduce our carbon footprint.

Automation and centralized control have serious benefits for family caregivers. By integrating home healthcare equipment, such as monitoring and diagnostic tools, smart homes could simplify the caregiving process for the hundreds of millions of adults worldwide who care for an elderly, ailing, or infirm parent or relative. For example, a smart home might allow you to monitor the movements of a relative suffering from dementia.

RESEARCH AND TRENDS IN SMART HOMES

A number of trends are driving the growth of smart homes. These include:

Internet of Things (IoT)

Internet of Things

© Wikimedia commons | Wilgengebroed

The Internet of Things (or IOT) is an emerging trend of which smart homes is a subset. IoT involves the integration of digital and wireless technologies in physical objects and systems, especially those historically unconnected. IoT has significant ramifications for the future of smart homes: the more devices that are connected to the Internet, the more can potentially integrated into the smart home system. Examples of IoT as relates to smart homes are the Nest Learning Thermostat, the Chop-Syc digital chopping board, the Toncelli Kitchens digital kitchen countertop, the air monitor Birdi, and the Wattio SmartHome 360 energy monitor.

Security systems

Security is a major focus of smart home systems. Advanced smart security systems can notify you remotely if there has been an intrusion, detect vehicles approaching your home, automatically lock your doors, provide room-by-room surveillance, and so much more.

Growing market

Currently, less than 1% of homes employ full smart home technology. But by 2018, HIS Technology, a research firm, predicts that 45 million smart home devices will have been installed, and the annual business volume will have grown to $12 billion dollars. ABI Research predicts growth to $14.1 billion by 2018. The market research firm Allied Market Research projects that the global smart homes and buildings market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 29.5% through 2020, at which point the market will be worth $35.3 billion. Another even more optimistic report from Juniper Research, predicts that the market will grow to $71 billion by 2018.

No matter what is the final number, the market, experts agree, is growing, and rapidly. This growth is driven, in part, by the rising tablet market. Smart home DIYers have increasingly found the tablet as an effective remote control to manage all of the systems commonly found in a smart home. Additional drivers include the decreasing costs of smart technologies; increased government regulation regarding energy consumption; increased energy costs; increased consumer awareness of, and concern about, the environment; and consumer security concerns.

Other trends

Other notable smart home trends include cloud-managed smart home systems; smart technologies designed to blend in with a consumer’s décor; wireless on/off controls; automated door locking systems; and more advanced security systems.

CHALLENGES OF SMART HOMES

A recent study by Microsoft researchers determined that the top four barriers to wider adoption of smart homes are the issues associated with linking disparate systems, poor manageability, high cost of ownership, and difficulty of integrating security systems.

Linking disparate systems

The smart home market is fragmented, at present. Many competing manufacturers are developing disparate smart home systems and technologies, as can be seen in a cursory glance at Amazon’s new home automation storefront. It’s easy to integrate devices made by the same vendor, but that requires, in many cases, consumers to buy replacement devices.

Limited functionality

Integrating devices from disparate vendors often results in limited functionality and unreliable service. Further, many systems on the market have complex interfaces that limit the functionality of smart homes. Finally, app-based smart home systems, while cheaper than fully custom integrated systems, have more limited functionality than full systems. For example, systems like Lowes’ Iris and Revolv are not compatible with home entertainment products.

Costs

Fully integrated custom systems are expensive and often require a consultant to install them, and structural changes to the home, both costs of course tacked on to the price of the system itself. Systems range from $10,000 to $100,000+, well outside the range of the average consumer. A typical package from VIA International, with a home entertainment emphasis, runs about $35,000. This of course, does not include the costs of maintenance and repair.

Awareness

Due to the market fragmentation and limited existing consumer adoption, there is little mainstream awareness of what is currently available. The market is almost entirely comprised of the wealthy who are offered the features as part of either new construction or relatively new high-end homes on the market; and do-it-yourselfers (DIYers). Some consumers may not be aware that smart home technologies can be purchased for as little as $150.

Other

The overall demand for housing has a significant impact on the overall demand for smart homes, as many smart home technologies are purchased by construction companies, and integrated into new residential construction. A weak housing market may influence existing homeowners to attempt to increase the value of their homes through home improvement projects, which may include smart home technology integration.

Another serious concern is the potential for criminals to hack into a smart home system. This has serious implications as smart home systems generally integrate home security systems in addition to others. A recent study by Hewlett-Packard revealed that 250 different security flaws existed in 10 popular smart home devices. Further:

  • Eight of the 10 devices tested raised privacy concerns regarding the collection of consumer data such as name, email address, home address, date of birth, credit card credentials and health information.
  • 80 percent of devices tested failed password security with most devices allowing passwords such as 1234.
  • 70 percent of IoT devices examined failed to encrypt communications to the Internet and local network and half allowed unencrypted communications.
  • The user interfaces of six of the 10 devices tested had issues such as persistent XSS, poor session management, weak default credentials and credentials transmitted in clear text.
  • 60 percent of devices didn’t deploy encryption with software downloads.”

Lastly, consumers in the Microsoft study noted that home automation did not always suit them. Some consumers quickly grew tired of the automation because they chafed under the imposed structure.

POPULAR SMART HOMES

Many smart homes are custom-built by construction and architectural firms for wealthy clients. Firms selling smart home technologies in this space include VIA International, Vivint, Creston, Control4, Savant and AMX Home automation.

nest thermostat

© Flickr | David Berkowitz

Beyond this market are less expensive smart home devices and systems, largely manufacturer by security, software and electronics firms. Rival software firms Apple and Google are two major players in this marketspace. Google recently acquired the aforementioned Nest Learning Thermostat for $3.2 billion, and has designs on the home security market. Apple is designing a software platform to control smart home devices, and is in talks with a group of retailers to incorporate it into their devices. Another large player in this market is AT&T, whose Digital Life service, consisting of one app and a wireless adapter device, aggregates all services and devices and the consumer pays a monthly fee for this service. Samsung, GE, Comcast, Time Warner, Staples, Best Buy, ADT, Tyco, and other firms are also in the mix.

Other players include SmartThings, Piper, Revolv, Nest, Hue, Kwikset, Sonos, Korus, Dropcam, Honeywell, Yale, Iris, Insteon, and Belkin. Their products range from systems consisting of a starter kit that can be controlled by a remote and access to an app-based ecosphere, to an ecosystem of integrated products. SmartThings and Revolv, for example, consists of an app that supports multiple wireless adapters.

FUTURE OF SMART HOMES

While the smart home market of the present is fragmented and small, and faces many challenges to widespread adoption, the smart home market is growing, in functionality, sales, and expectations. Its future looks bright, at least in part due to the following trends:

IOT in Smart Homes

Increasing connectivity may one day connect everything in your home, from your placemats to your plant vases. The more connected objects, the more functionality the smart home will possess. IT firm Gartner projects that IoT devices and objects will grow to $300 billion dollars by 2020. And the more connected devices exist, many smart home players hope, the greater the mainstream consumer’s desire to connect them.

Robotics in Smart Homes

NAO Aldebaran Robot

© Wikimedia commons | Aldebaran Robotics

Many experts and futurists predict that in the next several decades, robots will be in every household. Whether these are humanoid robots or those more functional in form, their integration into the smart home of the future is a near-certainty. Robots will likely either be fully integrated with the smart home operating system and help manage it, along with providing assistance doing manual tasks. Further robotics technologies of sensing, learning, and adapting, will be crucial to enhancing the underlying functions of the smart home.

Other

To harness the full potential of the smart home automation, disparate manufacturers will have to develop technologies based on common open standards. Very few, if any, firms produce every device found in a household, and it is unlikely that consumers would be brand loyal enough to buy every household device, or even a majority of them, from a single manufacturer. So if manufacturers want to ensure that their devices talk to others, they will have be developed under common standards – standards also shared between software companies. This level of collaboration may take some time – many of these firms are direct competitors after all, but it is necessary.

The integration of health monitoring equipment could have a tremendous beneficial impact on average families, especially those in rural areas. For example, a home could monitor the heart rates of its occupants and automatically alert others and/or 911 in case a resident is having a heart attack or other health emergency.

Futurists have posited that the home of the future will incorporate learning technologies. Recalling the consumers who chafed under the structure imposed under automation, the future iteration of the smart home would learn a consumer’s moods, patterns, and behavior and adjust its “behavior” accordingly. As Tony Fadell, the CEO of Nest, whose products incorporate learning technologies, pointed out in a recent Time Magazine article, devices should adapt to our needs so that we don’t have to think about them.

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