Home help: towards the automated home

Could low-cost electronics finally help realise the dream of the automated ‘Smart Home’? The use of smart phones as remote controls is helping electronics companies develop the core technologies, as Ellie Zolfagharifard reports.

Siri caused quite a stir when it was introduced on the iPhone 4S. The voice-activated assistant politely answered questions, made recommendations and performed tasks on iOS devices. Back in 2011, the much-hyped feature made smart phones appear even smarter; and now it seems Siri’s capabilities could extend beyond the phone and into the house.

That is what YouTube user ‘Elvis Impersonator’ set out to achieve last month when he connected his iPhone and a SiriProxy-loaded Rapsberry Pi. The combination meant Siri could open garage doors, adjust the thermostat, turn lights on and off and change the TV channel using simple voice commands. Siri had transformed from a mere phone assistant into a personalised digital butler.

The resulting YouTube video gained worldwide attention, not only for the novelty, but also for its vision of digital nirvana that has been pedalled by enthusiasts for years. Since the 1960s, home automation- the concept of connecting and controlling devices through an intelligent digital network- has been trying to break into the consumer electronics market without much success.

While the idea has always appealed, the reality is that for decades the high cost of electronics has caused home automation to be relegated to the timing of porch lights and thermostats. ‘That’s all about to change,’ said Colin Faulkner, product manager of smart homes at NXP Semiconductors. ‘The availability of smart phones means you have a practical interface to run systems that improve cost, convenience and comfort.’

home automation lighting iphone hue philips
Hue: Philips’ automated lighting system, launched last year

Smart phones and tablets have moved the game on for home automation. They are, claims Faulkner, the perfect universal remote control. Research by Morgan Stanley suggests that today 91 per cent of people keep their mobile phone within 3 feet of them, 24 hours a day. Consumers want their smart phones to do more and major players in the industry are now investing heavily to achieve this. In January, for instance, Microsoft acquired home automation start-up, R2 Studios, signalling its commitment to the digital home.

Google also recently inadvertently revealed its home automation plans. The discovery was made by Android enthusiasts as they picked through the latest changes its 4.2.2 update. Among the additions, they spotted mesh networking and Android@home system configuration files. These products were announced by Google two years ago but it seemed the momentum behind their development was lost soon after. The latest discovery suggests that home automation remains firmly on Google’s agenda.

‘What we’re seeing today isn’t what we expected for the industry 10 years ago,’ said Neil Thomas, founder of the recently-established Home Automation Company. ‘The technology has moved away from entertainment systems and towards automation that provides efficiency and security. It’s no longer about having a fancy toy; it’s about having systems that can save money and add security.’ 

‘The technology has moved away from entertainment systems and towards automation that provides efficiency and security

Neil Thomas, Home Automation Company

A raft of home automation tools have been released over the past year to achieve this.  For instance, crowd funding recently allowed the development an app-enabled, Wi-Fi-connected video doorbell, known as DoorBot. The device allows anyone to view and speak to visitors at their door from their remote mobile device. The system is also compatible with the Lockitron, a smartphone-controlled keyless door lock which allows visitors into the home remotely using an iOS or Android Device’s app screen.

The most advanced home automation technologies, claims Faulkner, are in the lighting market. Late last year, Philips unveiled what it claims to be the world’s smartest lighting system. The Hue, which has been developed on an open source platform, allows users to remotely control their home lighting via an iPhone or iPad app. The app also features ‘Light Recipes’ with pre-programmed lighting settings based on research around the biological effects that lighting has on the body. Philips is now hoping to have geo-location services to the range, allowing its light system to switch on an off based on the location of the people living within the home.

home automation lighting iphone hue philips
Philips claims that Hue, which runs on iPhones or iPads, is the world’s smartest lighting system

‘Lighting is developing rapidly and it’s what people will notice the most,’ said Faulkner. ‘But there are many other exciting applications. I like the idea of having individual control of heating systems because that’s an energy saving activity. I think over the next five years we’ll see energy management systems becoming more dominant…There is also a lot to be had in managing defects in the home- so having monitors for gas or water leaks. Another exciting application is in the area of assisted living for the elderly.’

Forecasts for home automation look promising. Frost & Sullivan’s recent analysis of the European home automation market found that the sector earned revenues of €223m in 2012 and predicts this figure to reach €348.2m by 2017. Frost & Sullivan analyst, Hammam Ahmed, believes that the falling cost of home automation user interfaces (UIs) is a major cause of this change. ‘Currently, even the most simple home automation system includes an intuitive UI through an application on a tablet computer, at a fraction of the price of a luxury propitiatory UI,’ he said.

With its focus on cost savings for home owners, home automation now makes far more commercial sense. Ahmed claims that as mass market participants improve their systems, the gap between the luxury and mass market will narrow dramatically. Frost & Sullivan expects revenue growth in the industry to be fuelled by the increasing demand for these mid-range systems. ‘Luxury segment participants are expected to continue to reduce prices to cater to a wider customer base, and mass market companies are likely to continue to provide more system functionalities at the existing price,’ said Ahmed.

One manufacturer tackling the mid-range market is Belkin with its WeMo range of modular, Wi-Fi-based home automation products. The range, which was introduced in the UK last year, includes a system called the WeMo Switch. Once connected to an iOS device it allows users to programme gadgets from anywhere in the home. For instance, the kettle can be switched on while travelling towards home, or rules can be created to turn off heaters when a certain room is left empty saving energy.

‘Why would you spend £2,000 on a touch screen when you can spend £400 on an iPad and have exactly the same control?

Neil Thomas

With the number of home automation product on the market increasing, the widespread adoption of wireless protocols such as ZigBee and Z-Wave are proving vital to maintaining their accessibility and compatibility. In an industry that has historically been fragmented and highly specialised, many veterans of home automation are finding the business models that worked a few years ago are no longer relevant. ‘Home automation companies have to reduce their cost on touch screen because they just can’t sell them anymore,’ said Thomas. ‘I mean, why would you spend £2,000 on a touch screen when you can spend £400 on an iPad and have exactly the same control?’

While today’s digital homes may not look the automated designs hatched by electronic companies in the 1960s, they provide a vision that is far more worthwhile. Home automation is no longer about technology for technology’s sake, but about a real improvement in the quality of life. There remain technical challenges that need to be addressed, such as the improvement common standards and network reliability. But given the current level of activity, it won’t be long before Siri and its competitors start taking far more control of our domestic lives.