i3 | January 04, 2017

The Smart Home: Are We There Yet?

Simon Forrest
Smart home

When will we actually live in smart homes?

First, what is a “smart home”? It’s a home in which most products and services are inter-connected, and the underlying technology makes intelligent decisions to manage those services for the benefit of the consumer and service operator. The technologies and communication standards are now reasonably mature.

We also are beginning to see deployments of smart home solutions in verticals from disparate vendors. However the “smartness” in a smart home will only come once vendors share data from each of the individual vertical market segments. Success requires collaboration and new business models.

Ultimately consumers must benefit or they will not embrace the smart home concept. Consumers are confused over which elements of a smart home offer the most value. Smart home appliances are still expensive. Even smaller items such as networked light bulbs, smart thermostats, door and window locks, and smart electricity sockets are not attractively priced.

Several “smart home starter kits” can cost several hundred dollars. Adding more sensors is prohibitively expensive, so homeowners often abandon their plans to expand the system. Once the components become lower priced the industry will see true smart home solutions, and applications that benefit consumers’ lifestyles.

One big challenge is the proprietary nature of smart home solutions – there is a lack of defined standards and device models. Standards must unify to ensure compatibility between devices and remove the confusion for consumers. Those devices need to communicate with a centralized smart hub within the home, which then relays that information to other devices on the network and also to the cloud where most of the data processing will be achieved.

If vendors don’t agree on a set of interconnected standards; the smart home reduces to a set of disparate services tethered to a smartphone. And that’s not very smart!

And service providers must also benefit through knowledge of their products and services or up-sell of value-added services previously unavailable to the customer (e.g. smart security, geo-fenced features from smartphone, etc.). As an example if an electricity supplier can dim the lights by 10 percent and save on consumer energy bills while simultaneously reducing electricity consumption, they may avoid building another power station. That’s where the “smart money” is.

The smart home needs new business models, similar to those needed for IoT/ M2M. We must identify new ways to monetise services to derive revenues beyond existing subscription and advertising models. We know all the data reaches the “cloud” eventually, so new business models will allow service providers to publish data between clouds, and charge fees for exchange of information deemed useful for services provided by other vendors.

For instance, a smart air conditioning system could include weather monitoring components to help optimize electricity usage, which in turn increases the cost of the equipment. Alternatively, the vendor could purchase local data from a provider of weather information and use that to modify the behavior of the air conditioning units. Both options result in a “smart” home solution, but the latter relies on a new business model made possible via sharing data in the cloud.

Opportunities in the Smart Home

For Imagination, a designer of the building blocks for SoCs in the smart home, we see many opportunities. The move towards integrating new wireless communication standards, along with advances in microcontrollers are two major opportunities. Many smart home devices, notably sensors, actuators and controllers, will need to integrate microcontrollers with connectivity. These “always on” devices need low-cost and low-power SoCs to operate for many years, sometimes in harsh environments, and often on battery power alone. While some may harvest power from their environment (e.g. solar, kinetic), in all cases efficient, integrated SoCs are essential.

The efficiency of IP technologies reduces the power consumption of the SoC, leading to longer battery life and smaller solutions. This is important in the smart home where many sensors/ actuators are expected to live for several years.

Further, as communication standards evolve, so too can those devices using a configurable demodulation engine like our Ensigma communications IP, through firmware upgrades in the field. The smart home is more than a disparate set of sensors relaying data to a smartphone, and the SoCs will evolve to service more intelligent applications.

Another critical ingredient in accelerating development of the smart home is security. As more smart appliances are connected to the home network it becomes essential to secure those devices and ensure they cannot be hacked or compromised. Imagination has been working on this problem for several years, notably securing all elements within the SoC (not just the MIPS CPU, but also the network stacks and the PowerVR graphics processors), and helping customers avoid security issues that could set smart home programs back several years.

Imagination’s OmniShield technology provides a foundation for security in SoCs across markets including the smart home (and IoT). Essentially the concept of hardware virtualization – used in the enterprise segment – is applied to microcontrollers and embedded processors, using hardware security blocks to provide secure boot and hardware root of trust. This guarantees the software running on the SoC is exactly the version intended, whilst virtualization isolates all the features and services running in each virtual machine. For example, in the smart home gateway/router, this allows operators to run their essential broadband router code alongside other elements, such as smart home security and e-healthcare services, or provide access to third-party solution providers. And it also means these software ecosystems can run independently, even using different operating systems.

In smart home devices (e.g. light bulbs, heating controllers, smart refrigerators, etc.) OmniShield allows isolation of the main control functions from the networking stack, so any attempt to disrupt the device’s normal operation would not affect the network, and vice-versa. As more smart devices are deployed, it’s all about reducing the attack surface and minimizing the risk of hackers pivoting into essential services such as your home network.

Artificial Intelligence

There are also opportunities in artificial intelligence (AI). The smart home needs to deliver more than just an app to control a light bulb; it needs to improve beyond simply notifying the user about the status of a device and instead evolve into a system that makes intelligent decisions and manages the home autonomously. AI, whether in the device or in the cloud, becomes an essential part of the solution – that’s where the intelligence truly happens.

AI will have implications on the chips themselves. For example, natural language processing, voice recognition technologies, vision processing algorithms all place demands upon the silicon chip to both process data locally and relay to the cloud for onward processing and data aggregation. Some chips will need more CPU performance; others will need to leverage a GPU for compute and vision processing; some will need advanced security features. There’s no doubt that changes in the smart home will force the chips to evolve to meet new requirements.

The smart home will start to take a central role in consumers’ lives in about three to five years. By then the key communication standards will have been chosen, the collaboration between vendors will have started to happen, and pricing of smart home devices will be at reasonable levels for wide consumer adoption. Once consumers see the benefits they will start to embrace the smart home in their everyday lives.

January/February 2017 i3 Cover Issue

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