Last year we hit a milestone. We’re not talking here about landmark deals on climate change or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but rather that we passed the date that marked “the future” in Back To The Future II. Much has been made of the fact that we still don’t have hoverboards, and the Cubs still haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years, but we’re more interested in film and television’s vision of the home of the future…or, in BTTF II’s case, the past.
BTTF II, and other Science fiction films and TV shows are full of smart homes that are efficient and fully automated. Appliances are voice activated or triggered automatically — take Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System), an artificial intelligence that’s capable of having fully fledged conversations and sometimes even pre-empts what Stark is about to ask it to do. With intelligent smart home hubs, along with Siri, Alexa and Viv all making waves in the virtual assistant space, it could be argued that we’re seeing early versions of J.A.R.V.I.S taking shape.
In this article we’ll address the current barriers to true smart home automation, and how hub standardization and open API connectors are making smart homes a more realistic component to the emerging Internet of Things around us.
Living the Dream
Contrary to what some people think, a smart home is more than just to show how much disposable income you have. Imagine a house that:
- Schedules the thermostat and adjusts based on the season and/or peak usage
- Notifies you when a door opens
- Has lights attached to timers and motion sensors
- Uses smart plugins/adaptors to automate any device
- Is bot/voice activation enabled
Homeowners can use smart home features to improve security, save money by cutting off devices that aren’t in use, track energy usage to improve your carbon footprint, see whether or not family members are home, along with many other use cases.
Yet, to the average consumer, a house that can do all of these things probably still feels like science fiction. Even early adopters probably only have a Nest thermostat and a few manual light timers that they plug in when they’re going on vacation.
Before we can dig into the issue of why our homes and workplaces still aren’t as smart as they could be, we must consider several big barriers hindering the dawn of the smart home as we imagine it in our wildest dreams.
We are Human After All
One major problem is that human nature, or human error, doesn’t always fit well with automation. Let’s say, for example, that a janitor is due to leave an office building at 9pm and all the lights are set to go off then. What happens if he arrives an hour late and plans to stay until 10pm to make up the time – does he then have to go around switching every light on manually?
Or maybe someone is driving past their house en route to dinner, or needs to briefly return to pick up a wallet that they forgot. How does the automated home know that it’s not supposed to switch the heating on, start drawing a bath and brew two mugs of herbal tea?
Remote triggering and automation often relies on someone living their life to a rigid schedule. While that certainly may be appealing to certain people, it isn’t necessarily practical. Fortunately, this is one of the smaller problems with smart homes and can be solved by allowing for manual overrides and boosts.
Right now, though, it seems like that this is something smart home designers are still grappling with. Here’s what UX expert Kara Pernice had to say about the Nest thermostat:
“When I turned the dial to increase the heat to 66 degrees, rather than responding by making the house warmer…the next day the house temperature plummeted to a punishing 50 degrees. So I pull on another sweater and mittens and a hat. Indoors. And I wait until my thermostat decides that I am worthy of radiant warmth.”
Pernice ultimately ditches the thermostat and replaces it with a cheaper model – what a waste of several hundred dollars. And, while we’re on the subject of money, it’s also worth mentioning that the prohibitively high cost of smart tech is something that still deters a lot of people who would probably love to be early adopters.
Smart Hardware vs. Smart Software
Another problem smart homes have is dealing with outdated, unconnected technology. With modern software releases being so rapid, hardware can’t always keep up. For example, a useful application of smart home technology would be to set a bath running when a jogger is within half a mile of arriving home. But what if the jogger decides to slow down and walk for the last half mile, or stops to get a coffee to wait out a rainstorm? To our knowledge, no one out there is creating bathtubs with smart plug stoppers.
Of course, there are sometimes ways around this. An economy of converting old technology into smart, connected technology has emerged; take Switchmate, a company that creates adapters that turn older light switches into programmable devices, or the many gadgets on the market that convert old clunkers into smart cars.
Safety and Insurance Concerns
Even then there are issues of safety to consider. In the UK, Indesit has been forced to recall a number of its tumble dryers because of a fire risk, and that’s without the addition of any smart technology. Allowing users to operate machinery, trigger lights, or set water running when they’re not present to monitor it is not only risky, but may even invalidate insurance policies.
A Connected Home is a Smart Home
We haven’t even begun to cover the biggest barrier preventing homes from being as automated as they could be in 2016, and that is the lack of integration that smart devices have historically suffered from.
Generally speaking, smart tech is built to function in a certain way and often syncs with a specific hub, or is controlled by a specific app or touchscreen device, as is the case with Nest. The problem with this is that it means consumers may, if they want a fully functional smart home, have to use a number of different apps or devices to program or maintain it. Fortunately we are now starting to see some companies work towards solving this problem and, as you’d probably expect, the closest thing to a solution still takes the form of APIs.
In addition to releasing their own smart products (TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, fans, etc.) Samsung has also has a Smart Home Cloud API and developer program. This API can only be used with Samsung Smart Home devices. However, things get a bit more interested when you consider the company’s range of SmartThings.
Consisting of motion sensors, multi sensors, power outlets, presence sensors and moisture sensors, SmartThings aims to allow consumers to create their own bespoke smart home systems. But the really interesting point about SmartThings is that Samsung is, slowly but surely, partnering with other companies including D-Link, BOSE, Yale, Honeywell and Philips.
Given their pioneering use of APIs to forge partnerships outside of their own company, it isn’t difficult to believe that Samsung may open up their API to enable newcomers to harness their power…an exciting thought to anyone who currently has to use 5+ different apps to manage their smart devices.
Amazon Echo & Alexa
With their Echo, voice-controlled Alexa, and third party developer program, Amazon is another company utilizing APIs to dominate the smart home playing field. Interestingly, some devices appear on both Samsung and Alexa’s compatible items lists, which suggests that we’re starting to see standards emerging even across competing hubs. It’s no coincidence that both Samsung and Amazon are focusing most of their attention on perfecting their respective smart hubs and opening their devkits to allow third party apps/devices to interface with them, as this is a much quicker way to provide a larger range of compatibles products.
The API makes it faster and easier for device makers to build the Skills that sync their products up with Alexa, and it standardizes the vocabulary that they’ll use, too. If I make a smart thermostat and sync it up with Alexa using the Smart Home Skill API, I’ll be using common terminology that Alexa already knows. That means that Alexa will be able to control my thermostat with basic commands like, “Turn the heat up” or, “Set the thermostat to 70” without me needing to program any of it.
This element of the Alexa Skills Kit was released in April 2016, but there’s no guarantee of immediate adoption. Not everybody likes to build their product on rented land, after all, but it’s still an encouraging step in the direction towards smart homes that are better connected.
Why Aren’t our Homes Smart Yet?
Though we have multiple companies – Samsung and Amazon being two of the most notable – trying to create standards, and plenty of nimble newcomers like Nest Labs (who have their own API that enables them to connect with Whirlpool, Philips, Jawbone and Pebble devices among others), it still feels like we’re a long way from reaching a coherent vision for what it means to live in a smart home.
Buying products by the same manufacturer, or at least ensuring that they’re on the list of compatible devices, remains the easiest way to get devices to talk to one another, for now anyway, and still represents the best best for anyone looking to smarten up their home. The rest of us may want to wait it out while the battle, à la Betamax/VHS or DVD HD/Blu Ray, to see who comes out on top before we aim for a self-drawing bath or a fruit bowl that responds to voice commands. Sorry, Marty Jr.