News > i3

Opening the Door to the Smart Home

The words “A home without housework” were emblazoned on the doorway leading into a futuristic residence at Britain’s “Home Economics” pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale a few months ago.

Another British housing prototype showed transportable, Wi-Fi connected spheres built to convey the concept that you can live anywhere you can get online.

In Berlin, Panasonic created a smart home ecosystem called “a portal to the future,” which includes not only traditional connected appliances, but also cloud services to display recipes on demand, an all-in-one laundry system that can wash, dry, fold and store clothes and linens, and sensors to warn about glass breaks, water leaks and power peaks – wherever you are.

What’s more, at the Tokyo House Vision exhibition, in a dozen prototype houses, innovative approaches to energy usage and plumbing abounded. Pre-charged solar power guest tents using technology based on Toyota’s electric vehicles were shown as an efficient lodging solution for the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Reflecting new lifestyles involving delivered groceries, “Inside-Out” installations include a refrigerator placed on an outer wall of a home so that an express delivery company can place chilled or frozen foods directly into the device when no one is home.

That falls into the category of “everything old is new again.” It’s a big upgrade from the days of dairy routes, when many houses had an insulated bin where the milkman placed early morning deliveries. Today’s version includes an app that alerts homeowners of the delivery and provides a security check for the device.

Meanwhile, industrial technology is finding its way into the smart home. For example, Siemens Corporate Technology has unveiled an innovative frequency selective window coating that can improve mobile reception in moving vehicles, such as trains. From there, it’s a short step to cars and to stationary home windows. In other words, windows become antennae for over-the-air signals.

Consumers are ready to buy into the long-promised concept of home automation. For its third annual Life at Home report, retailer Ikea surveyed 12,000 people worldwide. About one-third of respondents called reliable Wi-Fi an important home feature; in Shanghai that figure jumped to 49 percent.

The Ikea report confirmed that “the idea of people watching TV (together) on a sofa is dead. That’s changing because of the rise of mobile devices,” Ikea says.

And the 2016 Houzz Smart Home Trends Survey, conducted in collaboration with CEDIA, found that when families renovate their homes, they are more than twice as likely to add a smart system or device (51 percent after renovation versus 20 percent previously).

About 30 percent of the upgraded systems include a central hub, according to Houzz, which calls itself a remodeling and design platform as well as a home furnishing e-tailer. The study found that about three-quarters of the upgraded homes cost under $1,500 and the most frequent investment was for “smart home entertainment” systems, although security/safety is also a primary feature.

Whether it’s Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Nest, Lowe’s Iris Home Management System or the infrastructure being built around Amazon’s Echo device – intelligent residences are becoming a major factor in both new home construction and, even more significantly, in home renovation.

Chris Rose, a member of the American Institute of Architects Customer Residential Architect Network (CRAN), has watched the 30-year migration of what he calls the “dumb smart house” into today’s connected, interactive facilities. Back then it was all about lighting controls, thermostats, security systems and motorized drapes, he explains. He acknowledges that insurance incentives spurred a lot of the security device installation.

Now consumers expect dynamic sensors to manage controls, such as turning lights on/off when people enter/leave a room. They want real-time feedback from energy monitoring systems and home thermostats, says Rose, who is president of Christopher Rose Architects in Charleston, SC.

“Residential architecture is one of the places that is on the cutting edge,” he says, “especially with customer home owners who are willing to invest” in the latest technology. He expects such installations to “trickle down” throughout the industry.

No More 'Wall Acne'

Wireless controls and the growing use of smartphone and tablet apps are accelerating adoption, Rose believes. But putting in a bank of switches, each controlling a different device, turned off customers, who didn’t like the lineup of wall plates.

“Wall acne” is his term for the blotch of individual control devices arrayed across a surface. That’s why Rose is so enthusiastic about tablets, smartphones and wireless frequencies, which give homeowners “a lot more interfaces” through devices they already use.

“We’re steering away from connecting physical things, so the system can’t become outdated,” Rose says. His immense enthusiasm for wireless is based on a larger vision of connectivity. “As the whole apps environment evolves, we’ll see that the portable device interfaces with your home, your car and office,” he says. Rose also sees that home automation is trickling down into the mass market.

“We are putting smart wiring – Cat5, coaxial and fiber optics – into medium-priced homes because those will be the methods of wired technology,” he says, adding that in some locations, architects are designing empty conduits in anticipation of future requests to install advanced wiring infrastructure.

Eric Davidson, president of American Automation & Communications Inc. in Bowie, MD, also sees the increasing appreciation of the entire home automation category, not only among his customers, but throughout the country. “Awareness is really high. Home control is a term that people understand,” says Davidson, a member of CTA’s Small Business Council who has been involved in home automation and custom electronics installation for nearly 30 years. He points out that Home Depot and Lowe’s “keep adding more shelf space” for such equipment, which he considers a “gauge of what people are buying.”

“It’s not a do-it-yourself process yet for the more complicated systems,” he says, but he acknowledges that “our industry has moved in that direction with both hardware and software.”

Davidson says, “Market success will depend on interoperability,” which is where he sees the need for specialists who can integrate devices and services. He believes that the long gestation of home automation stemmed from distributors’ belief that the market “was not going to happen” or a decision “not to go beyond their existing product lines.”

“Small, independent distributors were the first to see the opportunity,” Davidson explains. Yet, many of the “early false starts” were tied to “lack of tech support and consumer support.” Now, he points out, many consumers can set up a home network, “even though some are very klugey.”

Davidson’s company specializes in “high-end but not ultra high” installations and is handling a lot of new construction, including work for previous customers who are building new homes. But a mainstay of the home automation projects involves retrofitting existing homes.

Like Rose the architect, he believes that customers want a centralized way to control an array of entertainment, security and home utility features. Davidson also cites the growing demand for streaming media entertainment as a motivator for integrated home systems.

“Our customers like using their phones and tablets as an interface to control the house,” he explains. Proprietary interfaces are being replaced by off-the-shelf products, which enable controls for alarms, lighting and other products. “The industry is getting better in terms of user interfaces, but it’s a difficult process,” he says and more progress is needed.

Platform or Stand-Alone Devices?

The proliferation of video doorbells, remote locks, smart appliances, intelligent thermostats, voice-activated speakers and shelves-full of knowledgeable hardware raises the stakes in the home automation arena. While the concept of a refrigerator that can “talk” to a microwave oven about dinner plans (as exhibited at CES) is fascinating, the reality is that it’s often a one-way conversation between the homeowner and the machine.

Sensors make it possible for a thermostat to recognize when a room is full or when everyone has gone elsewhere. It can then set the heat or cooling for that room, as well as turn the lights on/off.

The bigger challenge is how or if to integrate dozens of such smart features, and share responsibilities for managing the whole system between humans and machines. And then it’s a question of which machine or network will run the system. As Forbes pointed out, “Everyone wants to own the platform.”

For example, the Wi-Fi Alliance unveiled its HaLow platform early this year, tailor-made for the Internet of Things. Yet, as many point out no one company will be able to dominate a unified smart home market. And that leaves plenty of room for competition.

Amazon’s Echo, especially its Alexa intelligent voice control feature, is the basis for a home control system. Among its recent adherents is Lowe’s, which has integrated it into its Iris home automation family.

Meanwhile, Apple (at press time) is expected to introduce Apple Home, a platform that will add voice control (Siri) for home locks, thermostats, entertainment and other home automation features and would become a next generation successor to Apple’s HomeKit. Advance word was that Apple would introduce “more advanced microphone and speaker technology” than is available on Amazon’s Echo, possibly including cameras for facial recognition. And “Google Home” featuring similar functions has been released.

In its U.S. Consumer Technology Sales and Forecasts, CTA estimates that U.S.-based shipments of digital assistants will top 2.2 million units. Worldwide, CTA expects shipments of 2.8 million units. Strong double-digit growth rates are expected through 2020 when shipments of digital assistants are forecast to rise to nearly 15 million units worldwide. A s the diversity of platforms continue to expand, so too will smart home expectations.

Gary Arlen