Home Automation: At the Intersection of HD DVD and Blu Ray

on April 10, 2014

The title to this piece was paraphrased from a recent episode of the Mac Power Users podcast in which special guest Merlin Mann, as well as hosts David Sparks and Katie Floyd, discussed how they’d incorporated home automation products into their domiciles.

Some of the products/brands mentioned were:

* SmartThings
* Belkin WeMo
* Dropcam
* Revolv
* Z-Wave
* Philips Hue

Those just scratch the surface of what’s available. The dream of home automation has been a part of our imaginations since the 1950s when Monsanto and Disney engineered the “House of Tomorrow” at Disneyland.

Today, we’re dazzled with the Hollywood stylings of Iron Man’s “J.A.R.V.I.S.“, Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent home operating system and assistant, also built into every one of his armored suits. J.A.R.V.I.S. understands conversational speech and can predict the needs of the user before being asked, like Siri, Google Now, and HAL all rolled into one.

J.A.R.V.I.S. represents the goal of home automation–an invisible brain that doesn’t require constant interaction to get things done. We’re not there yet, but we’re on our way. Our homes can now automatically turn the lights off when we leave a room, sense the temperature of an area, whether a door is open and at what angle. Our coffee machines can start brewing before we get up and our Sonoses (Sonii?) can greet us with the news and weather while we get ready for work. These are steps forward, but we have some hurdles to clear before we get close to Hollywood’s computer-generated dream.

First and foremost, home automation solutions are not exactly unified. Going back to this article’s title, we’re in the midst of a quiet revolution while early adopters and tinkerers test all their toys before they pick the one with which they want stick. Having numerous platforms means investing money in something that either won’t be around forever or won’t play well with others.

Products like Revolv, WeMo, and SmartThings currently all work together in some capacity. Sensors from one ecosystem are recognized by others and vice versa. Thanks to a project called SmartThings Labs, SmartThings integrates with WeMo, Sonos, and Philips Hue to provide one solution for lights and sound in a home. However, it currently doesn’t work with the Nest thermostat (without a workaround). Revolv does, but now that Nest is owned by Google, it’s entirely possible Google could shut Revolv out and take on the home automation industry itself by releasing its own brand of switches and sensors that tie together seamlessly with Nest.

Also related to home automation’s current “fragmentation” problem (for lack of a better term) is how everything is controlled. Revolv, WeMo, Sonos, Hue, and SmartThings rely on apps. For the most part, the main system’s “hub” app, be it from Revolv, WeMo, or SmartThings, can handle changing the Hue’s colors or what’s playing on the Sonos. Unfortunately, certain components won’t always hook in with one another, so users will need to rely on multiple apps to control various parts of their homes. The more apps cluttering one’s homescreen, the more confusing and less “automated” it all becomes.

What I’d like to see is either one ecosystem step forward as the de facto standard in home automation or better yet, a unified protocol they all can use to talk to each other. Using components from multiple companies wouldn’t be so daunting if they all spoke the same language.

The phone can also present its own issues. It always needs to be charged and notifications of who’s entering the house and opening doors can bombard a phone along with the usual incoming emails and text messages. It also means always having the device nearby.

VoicePod addresses the problem by using voice activation to accomplish certain tasks. Microphones wired into a home’s ceilings or within VoicePod’s central hub can pick up commands that trigger light switches, window blinds, and door locks. It doesn’t appear to work with SmartThings or WeMo, but it does integrate with professionally installed systems like Control4 and through those, with Philips Hue and other components. Although VoicePod does have its own app for iPhone and Android, it seems geared towards voice activation, thus bringing us one step closer to becoming Iron Man.

Watching home automation go from something only nerdy billionaires could afford to something almost anyone could afford is exciting. The buy-in is still a bit steep ($200-$300 for most starter kits + $50 per sensor), but it’s a far cry from the professional systems that cost thousands of dollars only ten years ago. WeMo and SmartThings don’t require contractors to come to a home and tear down walls. It’s all plug-and-play with some mild finagling, which is what we wanted. It’s portable, endlessly configurable, and does not require a degree in electrical engineering.

But as excited as I am to stick sensors over all my doors and windows, I’m also hesitant to open my wallet to an industry just getting started. The ground here is fertile and I’d like to see what grows before I commit to one platform. I want to see continuous development. I want to see growth. I want to see who stays independent and who gets bought by larger companies. It’s becoming frustratingly common for successful Kickstarter projects to get bought out by less-than-trustful companies.

In the coming years, we’ll see which platforms automatically light their way to the top while the others fade out, but for now I’ll just try to remember to shut the lights off myself when I leave a room.