The Smart Home Of The Future Is Damn Hard Work

Any home can be turned into a smart one. Or so we’re lead to believe. Almost every appliance you buy for your home today has a version that connects to the internet. From your coffee maker to your washing machine they can all ‘communicate with the cloud’ or offer an app that lets you interact with them, but does that really make your home a smart one?

Well, no, not really anyway. You’ll have a house full of connected smart devices but not a smart home. Not to mention, on their own, most of those devices offer little to no extra functionality over their unconnected ‘dumb’ counterparts.

Take the smart bulb for example. One of the most popular ‘smart home’ devices on the market today, the average smart bulb is connected to your home network allowing which in turn allows it to be switched on & off or scheduled to do so and perhaps dimmed. All of which can already be achieved, likely more efficiently too, by simply flicking a switch or investing in a $20 timing socket from your local hardware store.

If It Only Had A Brain

Connected as these devices are they lack the ability to talk to one another. Relegated to communicate no farther than their manufacturer’s own product line and alliances, what they miss is a central hub or brain to allow them to act together.

Thankfully, there are a few ways to go about providing this connectivity to your home. The simplest and cheapest is using a pure software based solution via IFTTT.

IFTTT (If This Then That) integration is built into many of the smart devices available on the market today. Belkin’s Wemo range and Philips’ Hue, for example, are two product lines with great IFTTT connectivity. ‘Recipes’ are created that act as an intermediary, allowing the systems to speak to one another, eg. When motion is detected on a Wemo motion detector IFTTT would then tell a Hue bulb to turn on.

IFTTT, whilst cheap and a great starting point, is by no means the ultimate solution. Reliant on an active internet connection, it can often be slow to respond. To turn the light bulb on in the above example could take minutes to execute, rendering it useless in a real-world scenario.

A more reliable solution—and a current hotbed of interest from a variety of companies such as Samsung & Wink—is to use a physical hub. The hubs are packed with different technologies allowing them to communicate with a wide range of devices either directly over your home network or via long standing home automation protocols such as Z-wave and/or ZigBee.

The Samsung owned SmartThings (not shipped outside North America) and independent Wink hubs are two of the most popular today. Each work with a variety of products, both new and old, and depending on your existing devices and smart home needs, may offer small advantages over the other.

The advantage of using a hub system like SmartThings is its ability to create routines and workflows that interact with as many or as little devices as you like. These can be triggered by a certain event, such as motion in front of a sensor or coming home from work, even the temperature reaching a certain level can be used if you own the relatively low cost sensors to report the data.

To give you an example, each night before bed I run the routine ’Time for bed’. Doing this turns off a Belkin Wemo socket behind my entertainment unit meaning my TV, PS4 & stereo are no longer drawing unnecessary stand-by power while everyone’s asleep. It then turns off the main lights via Belkin Wemo wall switch, turns on a Lifx bulb in the hallway, as well as a Philips Hue bulb in the bedside lamp, lighting the way to the bedroom. Then before I go to sleep I run ’Goodnight’, which turns all the lights off and activates a motion sensor in the hallway that turns the Lifx bulb into a night-light should anyone wake up during the night.

It would be great; if only it worked every time. Herein lies the problem with a multi-technology-mix system (take note, NBN). Sometimes, things just stop talking to one another. The Hue bulbs turn on but the Lifx ones don’t, the SmartThings arrival sensor thinks I’m home but I left an hour ago, etc.

Most of the time issues are resolved by either restarting the component not responding, or the hub itself, but that really shouldn’t be the case. It’s frustrating and an issue for the smart home market in general.

Apple’s HomeKit, first announced back in 2014, aimed to introduce a new standard that would hopefully prevent many of these issues. Their rigid approval process has lead to a sloth-like implementation and a frankly confusing user experience that has done nothing more than add another hat into an already crowded ring.

Amazon’s Echo on the other hand is doing it right and is the quiet achiever in the race to run your smart home. Whilst it too is only available to North America, the speaker/microphone combo sits in your home awaiting your command. Connecting with a variety of services, what was seen initially as a Siri-like device for the home is cleverly inching its way forward connecting to smart home appliances.

The Echo directly communicates with Lifx, Philips Hue, Wemo, Nest ecosystems, removing the need for a hub if they’re the only devices you own. However, its true genius is in its ability to work in conjunction with a SmartThings or Wink hub, effectively giving them an always-on voice recognition layer they so desperately didn’t know they needed. Now, instead of reaching for a phone to control a device, you can now do it via the Echo by saying something as simple as ’Alexa, turn of all the lights’.

In reality, the true ‘smart home’ isn’t here yet, but then neither is flawless voice recognition either. We’re getting closer though, and despite the best solution today being a muddled mess of technology jammed into my kitchen cupboards, hubs like SmartThings are making great inroads into that perfect smart home future.

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