What’s new in Smart Home technology?

Smart HouseBy Alex Lane (original article: What is a Smart Home? Samsung’s NaviBot S can clean the low places)

The original Smart Home device has to be the Teasmade, and the textbooks say that a smart home is one that uses home networking technology and your internet connection to automate and simplify everyday living.

It’s the use of networking and broadband connections that takes smart home technology beyond simple home automation, where each device usually stands alone, with its own control system.

Smart home tech is a fast-growing field, from cleaning your house to opening the curtains and switching on the lights. There’s also a growing field of utility and power management, for your gas, water and electricity [and for home health care]. Surrounding them all are unified networking and control systems that can control and monitor all of your devices, not just one for each.

Your smart home looks clever because you’ve programmed it to do things for you automatically, but it’ll be far from intelligent. As with any computer: Garbage In Equals Garbage Out, and until we invent artificial intelligence to do our thinking for us, your home will only be as smart as the person who programs it.

This exploded home illustration shows the growing variety of smart sensors.

How can I make my home smarter?

In practical terms, you need devices to do the things you can’t be bothered to do, networks so that you can communicate with them and they can communicate with each other, and you need control systems to command and monitor your smart devices.

You’ll also need broadband, so you can control and monitor your home while you’re away and your devices can communicate with other services, such as utilities, shopping and maintenance.

What smart home devices can I buy?

Think of the electrical devices in your home. Can any of them do their job without your help, without pressing a switch every time you use them, or monitored by remote?

Here are a few smart home products you can already buy, and a few ideas for the engineers to work on:

  • Schlage's Z-Wave range of wireless smart home productsSwitches: Networked wall switches, power sockets and light fittings can be switched on and off, or dimmed, by a central timer or remotely from your phone or PC. They can also be triggered automatically by networked motion sensors.
  • Security: One of the hottest areas of smart home technology is security, where motion sensors, cameras and alarms can all be monitored via the internet. Not only can you see what’s going on, but a security company can see what’s happening and alert its own response teams or the police as it sees fit.
  • Entry systems: The humble door key could become a manual backup to automatic door locks. The obvious candidate is NFC tags – like the chip in an Oyster London Transport payment card – which can be read from up to a metre away and are now appearing in mobile phones. Facial recognition and fingerprint scanners are another possibility, but as yet they’re too expensive for the home, while iris-scans wouldn’t be much faster than just rummaging for your keys in a bag.
  • Cleaning: iRobot’s Roomba has made a name for itself with generations of ever-smarter robot vacuum cleaners that will automatically patrol your house for grime and even recharge automatically, but they have their limits. Samsung, Electrolux and LG all have their robot cleaners, too. You still have to manually empty the bin, though, and make sure your house is tidy enough for them to get around. No robot vacuum can yet deal with stairs, clean spider-webs out of the corners or do the most boring home cleaning job – dusting.
  • Samsung Smart Fridge features a tablet-like display on the frontFridges: Samsung and LG have both shown off smart fridges, but are they more than just a fridge with an LCD touchscreen? The Korea-only Samsung model let you order groceries online, check your calendar, leave memos, view photos, check the weather and use Twitter. LG was more practical, allowing you to monitor your grocery stocks by scanning the barcode as they were bought and used up, then suggesting recipes on request – and you could access it via your phone or tablet.
  • Curtains and blinds: Automated curtains and blinds are old hat, but smart automation now ties them into the same timing and control as your lights and heating. This can minimise energy loss, close your empty house to prying eyes or bright sunshine, or open the curtains to a sunny day. Modern office blocks already have automatic louvred windows for passive climate control, which could also come to the home.
  • Heating: Both EON and British Gas already offer monitoring and control services for central heating, which connect to an app on your smartphone. However, you need a new smart gas or electricity meter, and mayhave to pay up-front or rent smart thermostats for every room.
  • Bathrooms: At first sight, the bathroom isn’t an obvious location for smart home technology, but you can already buy baths that will automatically maintain the temperature while you’re in the tub. Now how about ordering that bath to fill while you’re on the way home, or while you’re waking up in the morning?
  • Cooking: Aside from a joke toaster that browned a weather forecast symbol on your morning slice, no-one has connected a hob, oven or microwave. We wouldn’t mind seeing an oven or microwave that you could turn on and off by remote, or activate a camera to see how the Sunday roast is getting on while you enjoy a pint of Old Hogstrotter at the local pub.
  • Samsung Smart Washing Machine with traditional Korean houswifeWashing machines: Until robots can pick up your dirty clothes, perform the ‘sniff test’, sort them and fill the machine, cleaning clothes is going to need manual input. Progress has been slow: Samsung’s Bubbleshot washing machine lets you remotely check the status of your washing on your phone. NXP’s prototype cleaner uses wireless RFID tags to learn what fabrics are going in and choose a washing machine to suit, but a truly smart washing machine could understand the arcane symbols on the washing labels already in our garments. Maybe it could even scan stubborn stains and recommend the correct treatment.
  • Fitness: Fitbit’s Aria Smart Scale and Ultra activity monitor can already help to monitor your health and keep to a fitness programme, but what if it could connect to that smart fridge, recommend recipes, order healthy foods, and watch out for the guilty pleasures on your shopping list?
  • Gardening: Robomow and Mowbot produce outdoor ‘droids that will mow your lawn. It’s a pretty straightforward application of existing technology, but even so, someone’s got to empty the grass clippings, and there are even weatherproof charging stations.
  • Utilities: Smart trashcans sound ridiculous, but what if a local council could direct their collections to areas where the most rubbish or recycling bins need emptying, rather than always emptying the bins whether they’re full or not? With council budgets squeezed, it could save a few Pounds, although at the expense of jobs for the bin men, and rubbish stewing in bins that don’t get a regular collection.

Why are there so many smart home networking technologies, and which one is best?

A wireless water sensor/tap using Z-Wave technologyIt’s all about applying the best network for the application. Some new homes come prewired for Ethernet, but older homes are going to need a ‘no new wires’ network, like Wi-Fi or Powerline.

Wi-Fi frequencies can be pretty crowded, so it’s not a good idea to clog them up with monitoring and control signals. Wi-Fi devices also need power and a decent-sized antenna, whereas Zigbee and Z-wave wireless control chips can fit into very small devices like lightbulbs.

Smart meters, on the other hand, may need long-distance wireless connections, but don’t need high speeds because there’s relatively little data going between them and your energy provider’s control centre.

In Europe, there are three main smart home network technologies, as well as Ethernet, Wi-Fi and powerline:

  • EnOcean: An ultra-low-power wireless home control and sensor system with built-in energy harvesting technology that draws all the power it needs from its environment. It uses the 900MHz band and has a top speed of 125kbps.
  • Z-Wave: A short-range wireless mesh technology, which means that devices can reach over long distances by connecting through each other – up to 232 devices can exist on a single network. It uses frequencies around 900MHz, so it doesn’t interfere with WiFi, it has low power needs and a maximum speed of 40kbps.
  • ZigBee: A wireless mesh technology with low power needs, also working in the 900MHz band, but with a top speed of 250kbps. It’s based on the IEEE 802.15.4 international standard, but is not interoperable with Z-Wave. A ZigBee network can host up to 64,000 devices.

They’re all competing to come out on top, and we’d tend towards ZigBee’s IEEE-certification, but the only guarantee we can offer is that once you pick one of these standards, you’ll be stuck with it. Smart home networking is such a huge potential market, however, that two or three competing systems could co-exist for years.

How can I control my smart home?

Early home automation systems employed traditional remote control handsets and wall-mounted control panels, but who wants another handset?

Later systems moved to touchscreen control panels and remotes, which are a good step forward, but today there’s no excuse to offer a smart home technology that can’t link to a smartphone, tablet, or web browser interface via the internet or a home network.

The final option – often combined with a smartphone or tablet – is voice control. It’s a technology that’s still in its infancy, as anyone who’s used Apple’s Siri or Samsung S-Voice can attest, but it will come.

Savant Systems's iPad thermostat control

What are the risks of the smart home?

Aside from becoming even more dependent on connected devices to navigate us through every step from cradle to grave, there’s also the potential to leak huge amounts of personal information. The ‘internet of things’ already has the EU worried.

For instance, can you trust the electronic door lock manufacturers’ service centres to know that you’re out of the house. Might your health insurance provider sneakily interrogate your smart fridge about your unhealthy eating habits – and charge higher premiums (the imminent demise of the NHS means we’ll all be paying much more for a lesser service).

What is the future of the smart home?

Those wealthy enough to afford the smart home will rapidly evolve into obese amoeboids, so used to commanding their home from their auto-reclining powered EZ chairs that they can barely able to waddle to the bathroom.

The ensuing socialist revolution by those too poor to afford these luxuries will be rapidly undermined as they, too, are seduced and degraded by their automated homes.

About the Author

Alex Lane cut his journalism teeth writing for local newspapers, before getting sucked into consumer technology with a 12-year stint writing and editing What Satellite & Digital TV magazine. When he’s not trying to make space on his Sky+, Alex is often dreaming of more road trips to places without roads. @96PerCentChimp and Google+.

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