The Post-Jetson’s Era?

The Internet of Things is constantly bringing home automation and interconnectivity to levels never imagined.

By Camilla McLaughlin

Smart Home Device - Home Control“There is no way you can do that with a smartphone,” was often the reaction at demonstrations of the first apps that unlocked a door remotely. “People would even look behind the wall thinking it was the Wizard of Oz and there was someone pulling strings,” recalls Mark Schmidt, manager of connected home solutions at Trane, which is part of the Nexia technology platform. 

That was seven years ago. Today, you can do a lot more than open doors with smart home apps and experts say that’s just the beginning of the era of the connected home. “True automation is what all platform providers are aspiring to get to, where you don’t even have to access the app. The app just runs in the background and things happen inside (or outside) your home based on parameters you specify,” says Schmidt. For example, when you step into your home, lights come on automatically and music from your library plays in the background. “It really is kind of the Jetsons but the cool thing is the concept of the Jetsons really is here today.”

This year the Consumer Electronics Show devoted more than 300,000 square feet to home tech, an indication of gains in the industry. In 2014, the installed base of smart home systems in North America increased by 75 percent year-over-year and a number of big players including Google, Apple and Samsung threw their hat into the smart home arena.

Every day brings more apps capable of anything, including letting you know when the propane tank for the grill is almost empty. Today, Nexia interfaces with over 400 applications and the platform (one of the first) has become standard in many new homes including those built by Lennar Homes and Meritage homes.

Whirlpool_Washer_touchpad_ghostSeven years ago, most upscale homeowners thought smart homes were too James Bondish and systems were expensive. Today, costs have come way down and affluent owners embrace technology, making it an expected feature in new homes. “The acceptance factor has gone through the roof in terms of what they want and what the expectations are. They can see the power of apps. I credit the rise of the smartphone and the tablet with that. People are hungry to do the basic things in terms of home automation — lighting, security, audio video. But also, they are kind of looking to what else I can control. And I want to monitor energy usage in my house. They are taking it a step farther and we’ve got clients now projecting out five years and want to control all their appliances. Automation is the inevitable amenity that is going to be standard in every new home,” says Eric Thies, founder of home technology provider Via International.

The shift in technology is no less dramatic. Rather than being hardwired, a high-end smart home system today might combine both wired and wireless components or it can be completely wireless. And instead of a whole-house system, which has the potential to monitor and control anything and everything from heating and cooling, to shades, to sprinklers that gauge just the right amount of moisture dictated by current weather conditions, consumers have the option of using individual devices to control a single system, such as lighting, or just an individual power outlet. For many, the initiation to smart homes comes via a single app or perhaps a smart thermostat. The number of homes with smart thermostats doubled in 2014.

Whole-house systems work using a central control module that connects to the home’s router and then communicates with systems and devices in the house via a protocol, such as Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and others. Connected devices and apps can number in the hundreds. These new technologies allow devices to communicate via low-power radio waves. Together, these devices form a mesh network in which each new device increases the strength of the network. However, much depends on the size of the house and the strength of the router, so large homes require a high-performance router and several hubs where devices connect (wirelessly) throughout the house.

“Wireless just opens up the market to a much wider audience. There is a misconception out there that home automation systems must be installed during the new construction phase only. While there are some advantages to this approach, it is absolutely not necessary! Matter of fact, the majority of our customer installations are actually retrofit and remodel projects,” says Blair Sonnen with Control4.

Either way, warming the house up before you return from a trip, being alerted that the garage door is open and closing it remotely, knowing when the electrician arrived and left, having the shades adjust in response to the amount of sunlight streaming in, being notified of a water leak, learning how much energy your house is using at any given time or turning lights on and off can be as simple as using an app on a smartphone, tablet or in-wall touch screen.

Is the Internet of Things here?

So it would seem that the much awaited Internet of Things is here and some might agree, but others believe it is still early on. Much like the Internet in the last half of the 1990s, we are just beginning to realize the potential and integration of technology with everyday life.

Wi-Fi enabled wall oven“Right now, home automation is estimated to be a $13 billion dollar industry. It’s expected to become a $300 billion industry by 2020,” says Schmidt. Still, he describes the automation space as a bit of the Wild West right now. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to carve their niche, which makes home automation an exciting space.”

Expect to see better performing devices that make using all this technology intuitive. “Consumers don’t want 17 different apps to control 17 different products inside the home. They want one holistic app that can control them all,” says Schmidt. “What we’re putting our focus towards is that humanizing aspect.” One of the next steps will be simplifying the paring process so adding devices will be as simple as plug and play.

A game changer for smart homes will be the addition of artificial intelligence. “What we do is really control homes rather than automate them,” explains Thies. “The big trend that’s going to happen in the future will be that control systems will get smart as to how you live.”

“Where we see the home automation industry heading is a shift from smart devices that are controllable, to intelligent devices that are in a Conscious Home,” says Sonnen.
Currently, he says, individual components are programmed based on consumer habits and a few platforms (such as Control4 or Nexia and others) have the ability to link them together. “But,” he says, “the industry will move to a much more proactive environment where your home adapts on its own. Not simply one-device learning, but that device learning and communicating with the relevant parts of your home that could make informed decisions about it. The industry is just scratching the surface right now. The new normal that we are delivering is just the first step!”

“Where it gets really exciting is when we layer on the power of location awareness and communication, helping the home understand things like when the family is away versus sleeping, and respond accordingly, making it smarter and more efficient,” said Chris Hulls, CEO and founder of Life360.

The next-generation apps for Nexia will involve geo-fencing, which establishes a perimeter to control devices using your smartphone as a credential. For example, when you are at a certain distance from your house, the doors will automatically unlock and the garage door will open.

iStock_000052785892_XXXLarge_reducedHowever, intuitive responses are only one facet of future smart homes. Current innovation is also leading to some very simple, straightforward, easy-to-use tech upgrades to familiar products such as cabinet doors that open with a touch, a smartphone or touchscreen. A cover plate for an electrical outlet with an integrated LED merited best in show at the International Builders Show this year. It appears as a standard outlet. An ambient light sensor controls an LED, which beams downward. Both outlets remain free for use. Installation is as easy as screwing on the new cover. It’s simple but also illustrates far reaching ways in which technology will intertwine with everyday components. Another winning product was a fan that automatically adjusts speed based on the room temperature, humidity and other variables.

For appliances, big solutions are in the works. Already consumers can preheat ovens remotely, check cooking status and turn the oven off via an app. Washers and dryers can text when a cycle is complete and additional specialized cycles are available to download. Some dryers connect with a smart thermostat, determine if someone is at home and switch into an energy saving cycle or keep tumbling to prevent wrinkles. Using a built-in camera, owners of an LG smart refrigerator can check to see what’s on a shelf while they are at the store.

Best of all, this technology can be augmented in the future. “As we add additional features to appliances, it’s as simple as updating the app to receive the newest software for your connected appliances,” says Liz VerShure, general manager for GE’s connected appliances. Looking ahead, GE is piloting ways to let consumers know when the milk is running low, although Thies and others expect similar tasks to take place using smart labels.

Another future advantage will be diagnostic capabilities. What this means is that manufacturers and dealers will get real-time data on how a system is performing. They might even be able to alert the owner to a problem proactively. “I think you’re going to start to see more of a push towards how the manufacturers used that data to approved devices and provide additional services to the consumer outside of just enabling a connection to the product for the consumer,” says Schmidt.

There are few conversations about automation that don’t include a reference to the Jetsons, but many capabilities are beyond anything imagined in the past. So, perhaps it’s safe to say we are in the post-Jetsons era.