I have been fascinated with, and worked in technology for over 40 years, starting at the age of 12 as a HiFi hobbyist, then in my 20s designing LED displays to hang on the sides of blimps and more recently helping clients through the Smart Home minefield as part of our full service Interior Architecture offering to clients.
When I was asked to write an article on the Smart Home revolution and what it really means for consumers, it made me think “why should this technology trend be any different to a number of those (failures) in the last 100 years”, and the main reasons for me are simply these: ubiquity, mobility, power and connectedness; and it has everything to do with the internet.
What I mean by this is:
- internet access is now virtually ubiquitous
- smart phone and tablet based internet access has exceeded desktop access
- average device power consumption has fallen dramatically alongside device miniaturisation
- the world’s biggest tech companies are collaborating on open communication standards
I believe we are entering an age where plug and play will be the norm; gone will be the days when we need an engineer to install and configure these devices. We will expect products to simply work out of the box and talk to each other in order to deliver the value promised by the marketers and advertisers who sold us the dream.
The first thing we need to do is define what we mean by Smart Home. Based on several hours of web research, the conclusion I have drawn is that it means wildly different things to everyone (which is unsurprising for a nascent market). So, here is an example from Qivicon (a division of Deutsche Telekom backed by a large number of leading equipment manufacturers) that illustrates the concepts:
However, before we get carried away with the idea that our fridge will be telling our online shopping basket when we are about to run out of eggs and the doorbell ringing three hours later to replenish it, let’s consider what people are really interested in buying. The reality is, the top four priorities for consumers based on research from multiple sources and everything I hear from our clients are:
- Home security
- Energy management
- Control and ubiquitous access to content around the home
So, here are my thoughts on where to start when looking at Smart Home technology:
Infrastructure: Always start with the quality, security and robustness of the IP network (wired and wireless) around the house. Without a high quality, high bandwidth, reliable network infrastructure in place, it becomes difficult, and mostly pointless, to add a large number of internet enabled devices into the home. There are new device-to-device communication standards emerging such as Zigbee which address some of these problems, however, for the moment, I would focus on optimising your mainstream Wi-Fi connectivity. A good example of a connectivity issue is: have you ever been to someone’s house that has a multi-room music streaming system, connected wirelessly, and wondered why their music keeps stopping and starting?
Home security: Integrated burglar alarms, camera surveillance, door entry systems (including keyless access) and fire detection systems are no longer the preserve of the corporate world, they are available to the consumer for a fraction of the price they were 10 years ago. Images can be sent to your smart mobile device when alarms are triggered, or, you can simply open an App and look around your property for peace of mind from anywhere in the world.
Energy management: With the advent of NEST and Hive thermostats allowing you to control the timing and temperature of your home remotely at an affordable price point, retro-fitting these devices has become extremely popular. For even greater and more granular control, Honeywell sell a product that fits onto each radiator valve allowing you total wireless temperature control of every room.
Convenience: There are a number of Smart Home hubs (e.g. Samsung SmartThings, Savant and more recently Amazon Echo) designed to allow you to connect internet enabled devices together in your home. For example, mood settings for your lights at the touch of a button, seeing who is at your front door on your mobile/TV before letting them in or looking at your baby monitor on your smart phone. This should be a dream come true allowing you to access multiple devices through a single user interface, however, these devices at the consumer end of the market are really in their infancy and time (and I am sure lots of software upgrades) will tell us if they are reliable over the long run.
Ubiquitous content: One of the real pleasures in our own home is the ability to have your own music choice playing in any room around the house with the use of various Sonos products. They aren’t the only multi-room devices on the market (far from it, this is becoming a very hot space), but they are a great example of a simple interface delivering great quality choice at the point of reception. On the visual content side of things, the release of Sky Q allows more concurrent recording, improved multi-room capability, seamless streaming to your tablet and of course, some new channels in UHD quality.
So, the future looks bright; however, there is one small caveat to all this, what happens if the power goes down in your totally connected, internet enabled (and secure) home? Well, you can cover that eventuality too with an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) connected to your broadband router/IP switch to keep your network and (some of your) connected devices running for 8 hours or more. It does rely of course on your connected devices being powered over the Ethernet (PoE) and we are unfortunately a little way from that being ubiquitous.
I hope this article has stimulated your thinking about the practicalities of Smart Home technology and brought some clarity to what appears to be an increasingly diverse choice of product focused, rather than what should in my view be, holistic/customer centric focused solutions.
I would also like to thank a very good friend of mine, Paul Maddox, for his insight when reviewing this article.
By Mike Lander, director and co-founder of Ensoul and business consultant