Over the last five years, there has been a great deal of interest in the so called smart-home. Almost all the world’s major tech companies have announced plans and technology to make the smart home the next big thing. However, there are a few bumps slowing down this evolution.
First, what is smart? What is the difference between a smart device and connected device? Second, the battle over connectivity standards is confusing both the industry as well as consumers and end users. How do we solve this? And third, do end users really want smart or connected devices? What do they expect from them?
Smart versus Connected?
For decades, we have had a variety of automated devices in our homes. Remote control switches for lights and fans, home thermostats, outdoor lights that turn on when someone walks up – these are all automated devices that make our lives easier. Even a coffee maker that starts percolating in the morning before you get up. These can all be considered “smart” to some extent. Remember X10 technology that enabled tech hobbyists and system integrators to “automate” an entire house?
In the recent past, manufacturers have added web connectivity to these and many more devices – enabling users to now manage, monitor and control them from almost anywhere using their smart phone. This web connection essentially lengthened the remote control – making them true “connected” devices. Now we are seeing a plethora of appliances and devices that boast of their internet option – aka “connected devices”. However, some marketers are calling these smart. But they aren’t. A truly smart device incorporates some intelligence - often living in the cloud – that analyzes the data and is able to take some sort of action. For an example, a smart leak detection system for water heaters not only notifies the home owner that there is a leak, but also can turn off the water and turn off the gas or electricity – thereby both preventing a big mess as well as preserving valuable resources and saving money.
The Smart Home Protocol Conflict - Or is it the Beta Versus VHS War, Take 2?
Many of the world’s largest and most influential tech companies are moving into the smart home space. However, these companies want to own the space, they want to be THE smart home company and so are launching and promoting their own proprietary protocols to connect the smart home.
Unfortunately, these competing protocols from companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, Intel, etc., are incompatible; they do not talk to each other. This means connected and smart home device makers have to decide which protocol to support. And if they choose wrong, they could be wasting millions of dollars and lots of time to bring a near-dead end device to market. So, instead, they wait…
Many of these companies are using one of the three existing wireless connectivity technologies that are already on the market and have been proven to work fine. Wi-Fi for high data rate, high bandwidth applications; Bluetooth for wearables and short distance connections; and ZigBee, for connecting and networking a house full of sensors, controls and actuators. However, the battle ground at this moment are the protocols on top of these radios, used today or promised for the future: ZigBee (again), HomeKit, IoTivity, AllJoyn, Weave/Thread, etc. The ironic aspect of this battle is that there is not a lot of actual performance difference between them, turning the battle into an exhaustion race.
Finally, there is the big question. What do consumers actually want? Do they want a bunch of connected devices that they can be controlled over their smart phones, each with its own app and user interface? Or would they prefer a service that makes life simpler and easier for them?
The rise of Smart Home as a Service
Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS) consolidates all these technology options – choosing which connectivity protocols to use, installing and maintaining the system, as well as providing upgrades and support, and instead gives that responsibility to third party service companies.
These could be today’s existing cable TV and internet access companies who already have a billing relationship with the home owner as well as a gateway into the home. This could be a great opportunity for large retailers like Costco, Sears, Best Buy, etc., to expand their market into the home. Power, water and gas utilities, who have an existing billing relationship and a connection into the home, are also interested in filling this space.
Enabling service providers to roll out Smart Home as a Service could easily jumpstart the sputtering smart home industry as well as actually kick start the development of really smart systems in the homes instead of just a collection of standalone connected devices.
In addition to the previous example of the smart hot water heater leak detection system, consumers would appreciate a smart home energy management system. Current “smart meters” simply monitor how much power is being used. If the meters were really smart, in addition to monitoring how and where that energy is being used, they could actually control the various appliances.
For example, the system would know when power is the most expensive during the day, and not run various energy hog appliances during those times. If the home’s motion sensors indicate that no one is home, the smart meter could make sure the various HVAC systems stay off.
The smart home service can also be used to monitor lifestyle to ensure health, safety and security. The recently announced Sensara Assisted Living Application consists of a small number of motion and position sensors that monitors the daily movements of a senior citizen in a home. Over a period of weeks, it learns what time the senior does what. When do they get up, when do they eat, when do they go into the bathroom. After it has learned the schedule, it can then send an alert if there is a significant change to the schedule. As many seniors worldwide prefer to live independently, this kind of smart system can provide comfort and security to their family and caregivers. Even better, the system is smart enough to recognize slight evolving changes, like reduction in walking speed, as the senior ages and can send alerts to have them checked up on as needed.
The takeaway for those wireless device engineers and companies developing solutions for the smart home of the future is to look at the big picture. Instead of simply connecting an appliance or device, with a custom smart phone app: look at the entire ecosystem. How will your solution fit in with the needs and demands of customers who want a simple to operate service that makes their lives, safer, easier and more efficient?
Cees Links was the founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, now part of Qorvo, an RF connectivity solutions company. Since GreenPeak was acquired by Qorvo, Cees has become the General Manager of the Low Power Wireless Business Unit in Qorvo.