The theme of smart machines dictating the terms of engagement with humans has underscored decades of sci-fi books and movies…
The smart home typically embraces an ecosystem of devices, gadgets and appliances with imbedded chips or sensors that can be managed through a central hub via remote control, web browser, smartphone or tablet.
Before driving home you might draw the curtains, record the TV news and instruct a smart oven to start cooking a pre-prepared meal. You can adjust room temperature, set mood lighting, decide which speakers will play Spotify or iTunes, or which screen will stream on-demand video.
An important step toward revitalising the smart home has been the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), resulting in more appliances being capable of online connection.
Zion market research claims the global smart home market was worth US$24 billion in 2016, projecting US$53.4 billion by 2022, with growth around 14.5% annually. Other researchers predict an even steeper curve up to US$138 billion (Marketandmarket.com).
According to IHS Markit, 80 million smart home devices – including thermostats, smoke detectors, smart locks, video doorbells and air quality sensors – were delivered worldwide in 2016, up 64% from 2015.
Most of us are already using the smartphone as a controlling device for home entertainment, so it’s not a big stretch to consider management of other appliances.
Fast internet and Wi-Fi are the great enablers of the smart home, but the battle for bandwidth can lead to frustration and pixilation if you are living and competing with other digital enthusiasts.
NOW product manager, Tim Price- Walker, says the smart home is a major driver for faster internet, pushing demand beyond basic copper-line ADSL to VDSL (very fast internet) fibre to the home (FTTH) even beyond the basic 100Mb to its much gruntier 900Mb service.
Just as critical is the base of strong connectivity and a robust Wi-Fi backbone in the home. Rather than accepting standard routers and switches that come with installation, Price-Walker suggests upgrading to next generation devices, including two channel (2.5Gb and 5GB) mesh routers, to compensate for high-end use and low coverage spots.
Smarter, more capable mesh routers often provide better management too, including parental guidance, anti-virus and a kill switch … useful at tea time if certain family members ignore the table deadline.
A few years back, NOW team member Daniel Hopkirk began mixing and matching sensors and actuators to develop his own smart home, simply because he wanted to understand the technology.
He likes the convenience of having lighting, heating and temperature on timers and automatic settings, and being informed about energy use.
A temperature sensor in his server room triggers an extraction fan if things get a little warm. And then there’s his tropical fish aquarium with lighting and heating managed through smart devices that, like all his other technology, he can adjust over the internet.
Diarmuid Ruddle, owner of Hastings-based Eastek, says designing a smart home is similar to creating a business network where a data room feeds cable out to computers, phones and other devices.
“It’s important to talk to someone who knows about the technology and to be aware that some of it is overhyped – you need good advice to keep it real.”
Ruddle agrees fibre provides the best experience and recommends creating a hard-wired home network with around 10 data points, including one behind the TV, and two quality wireless access points for extended indoor and outdoor coverage.
Powerline extenders that use internal power circuits to connect devices or boost Wi-Fi are another option.
Price-Walker says NOW has started engaging with local architects, developers and building companies in smart home design, as part of adding value for potential buyers.
“Smart homes are becoming more normalised, and NOW has been working closely with a number of customers as part of its new techspert service to provide help beyond the router. While inquiries are growing in Hawke’s Bay for smart home bundles, much of the interest is in retrofitting existing homes.”
Price-Walker says most people start out streaming online content to their TV or sound system, then look at adding security, something many CCTV early adopters have struggled with because they’ve not been given the right advice.
While security used to be the domain of specialists, he says it’s now more affordable and DIY, with companies like Netgear, Arlo, Logitech and others selling weather-proof systems that have motion sensors and are self-managing.
NOW has product partnerships with these companies and can help people learn about them – for example, a motion-sensor video doorbell camera that enables you to have a conversation with a friend who drops by while you’re off site, instruct a courier where to leave a parcel, or activate an alarm if the visitor looks more like an intruder.
Price-Walker says energy efficiency is big in the UK where all houses are required to have a points-based energy audit. “They look at your hot water system, heating and whether you have LED lights; the result can aff ect the sale value of your house.”
You can manage energy consumption with smart plugs, switches, meters and thermostats, and track power, lighting and heating use, including solar systems.
Ruddle says there is technology available that can “glue everything together”, including smartphones and tablets, and voice recognition for the TV and lighting. But he warns in his thick Irish brogue that it’s still overhyped. “You have to wonder why you would want that and whether it would work with an accent like mine.”
Ruddle says the term ‘home automation’ has had a bad rap. “I’ve met many clients who had it overseas and won’t touch it because it didn’t work for them. It was oversold.”
Smart blinds and lights
Today he says there’s ‘rock solid’ product around, including remotely controlled curtains and blinds – a Lutron system, for example, can control 160 blinds and never miss a beat.
In his own home, Ruddle manages lightning and other services via his Control4 hub. “I press a button and my ‘art theme’ lights up all the artwork, or if I want ambient lighting I choose from a range of pre-set levels.”
Starting from 2018, Price-Walker is confident new routers and smart home hubs will connect seamlessly across different frequencies and devices, compensating for the fact so many smart products don’t yet mix and match.
Remote control wireless standards including Z-Wave and ZigBee already talk to each other and with all that’s been learned from retrofitting, he reckons the journey is about to get a lot more enjoyable.
While the Internet of Things is still emerging, he’s confident Logitech, Samsung, TP Link and other major players have developed strategies to handle compatability.
Unless you’re an enthusiast like Dan Hopkirk, or can find a manufacturer with a range of plug and play devices including a central hub, caution and expert advice are still recommended.
“If you don’t know the tricks… there’s a lot of risk. Just because things like smart door locks are out there, it doesn’t mean they’re good or even safe solutions, so it’s important to get expert advice,” says Price-Walker.
Smart home cost and complexity are reducing, and innovative new players continue to deliver on fresh ideas. Smart fridges that tell you when you are running out of milk and microwaves that automatically determine cooking times by weight and content do exist.
Voice or gesture commands for your TV, audio, security, or other system remain at the bleeding edge, but maybe not for much longer.
Amazon’s Alexa spoken hub, Google Home voice assistant and Logitech’s Harmony Hub are gearing up to voice enable ‘climate control’ or get specific about viewing options – ‘weather’, ‘news’, or preferred playlists, at your say so.
Already on the market fringes are remote controlled robotic vacuum cleaners and mops, the PetNet Smartfeeder, digital scales that track your weight loss regime, AI-based speakers that double as phones and the Auto Rock ‘n play Sleeper to lull babies baby back to sleep remotely when they’re interrupting yours.
So, what’s next, the smart toilet? Well, it’s already here with features including nightlights, autoflush, seat warmer, ambient musak, deodoriser and even biometric feedback suggesting health improvements.
In weighing up all these more fanciful options to manage what we do in our homes, perhaps it’s wise for the average customers to get sound advice, start with the more tested and practical, and work their way up the smart home technology curve.