From cartoon images of robot maids and flying cars to Ray Bradbury’s ironic story of an automated house operating without a family, smart homes are nothing new to the modern human imagination. Only now, companies are racing to release the next generation of connected devices that will make a reality out of this phenomenon dubbed “The Internet of Things” (IoT). In the not-so-distant future, household appliances will be communicating with your driverless car, with the smart grid and with the buildings of the smart city that you live in—and your life will be absolutely hassle free. Homes, cars and cities will be safer and more efficient.
But at what cost? Thanks in part to sci-fi books and films, there’s a prevailing wariness in our society, a belief that people will eventually be forced to relinquish control to the machines that do their bidding. If by 2030 over one trillion sensors are connected to the Internet, as predicted, then there’s still some time left to figure out how the IoT can and will reshape your life.
Americans are just learning about the Internet of Things: what it means, how it works, and whether or not it will improve their lives. It’s not that homeowners are uninterested in smart home gadgets—they undoubtedly want to save time and money and avoid the drudgery of certain household tasks. But the idea of applications that don’t yet exist may intrigue consumers even more than what current connected devices are capable of, and that, according to Forrester Research, is the next and likely more successful phase of the IoT.
“Look at instant messaging—that went from zero to success overnight because it was useful, but this home automation stuff isn’t useful. When the personal computer first came out, it was sold for kitchen recipes! Uses will show up, like the spreadsheet for the PC—or they won’t show up. Our smart homes have been in the works for decades, and we have seen many items come and go. But no one can find the sweet spot yet, and even Nest hasn’t made its way through the rest of home automation,” Michalski points out.
Or, as Allen Gilliland, owner of design build firm One Sky Homes, puts it, smart home devices are still a “solution in search of a problem.”
Many homeowners are still largely ignorant when it comes to connected products (see chart below). They’re not the only ones. According to Green Builder’s recent survey of building professionals, only a small fraction (7.8 percent) were “very familiar” with the concept of the Internet of Things, and only a small percentage regularly spec smart devices in their projects.
Although most homeowners don’t yet budget for smart home devices, that will change very soon. A recent study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that home automation will be one of the top trends in remodeling in the next five to 10 years. And by 2018, the North American market for smart home systems will be worth $9.4 billion (or about 31 million connected homes), up from $1.6 billion in 2012, according to research firm Berg Insight.
Steve Gee, manager of software development for Nexia Home Intelligence, recalls that when Nexia began manufacturing connected devices five years ago, “it was a new market without much recognition, especially during the economic downturn. But then builders were looking for ways to stand out, and home automation was a hot topic. So we got a number of builders excited, and the market has continued to grow. My expectation is that home automation will become like having AC or power windows in the car—everyone expects it. The remotely controlled door locks and programmable thermostats just give you a taste of what is possible.”
Certainly, one concern hovering over the evolution of the IoT is a loss of jobs as everything becomes automated. Taryn Rehn of Seattle-based Johnston Architects believes that with any tech revolution, this could occur—but that there will also be gains in other areas.
“We’re seeing this occur in relation to the sustainable building industry, which is parallel to smart building and automation. There is already a demand for installers and facility managers with this specialized knowledge. Jobs are created as small businesses form to offer high-end custom home automation. It also creates niches for architects and lighting and acoustic designers, not to mention the jobs created as tech companies design and manufacture new products. This tech revolution will likely spur the economy as it encourages spending on electronics, apps, training and services,” Rehn notes.
Another important issue is the loss of privacy, and on this subject there seems to be a general consensus among experts and consumers alike.
Jerry Michalski, founder of San Francisco think tank REX, admits he is a skeptic when it comes to the IoT, and privacy is no exception. If there are going to be sensors on everything, “it’s going to be a privacy mess and a hacker’s delight, and we’ll find some unexpected consequences to what we are doing,” he says.
But maybe that won’t seem so bad if, as Rehn puts it, the concept of privacy as we know it is transformed.
“Google Street View (and now many public interior spaces) blurs faces in an effort to keep identities hidden,” Rehn says. “But if each home, yard and vehicle is equipped with cameras, sensors and tracking devices, every moment of our lives will be documented and quantified. It is unlikely that private surveillance will blur faces for privacy, and this data will be vulnerable to security breaches. On this trajectory, we have to come to terms with the possibility of a complete loss of privacy in every aspect of our lives. The idea of privacy is already becoming obsolete voluntarily through social media, so perhaps this won’t be a concern for future generations.”
While the IoT drama rapidly unfolds, early adopters are entangled in the various networks that connect smart home devices, most commonly Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, INSTEON and Bluetooth. But there’s a race by some of the largest corporations to set industry standards and tame the highly fragmented market.
Intel announced its Open Interconnect Consortium right before Google-owned Nest and six other large companies joined forces in July to establish a new IP-based networking protocol known as Thread. Thread plans to offer manufacturer certification from June. At the end of last year, the ZigBee Alliance launched the ZigBee 3.0 standard, a mesh network which includes over 1,000 devices from manufacturers like Philips, Samsung, LG, Bosch and GE.
Quirky’s general manager Mike Sullivan points out that Wi-Fi—which is a power drain and is prone to interference and bandwidth issues—isn’t the ideal network for connected devices, and the firm is working on a Bluetooth mesh network for its smart home products.
While developers are hacking it out on the standardization battlefield, consumers really just want simple control (one master app) and seamless integration of their connected gadgets that utilize various networks. Achieving this is the aim of companies that have created platforms to serve as a one-stop smart home shop. Hubs are being offered by companies like Samsung-owned SmartThings, Staples Connect, Lowe’s Iris, and Quirky’s low-cost Wink. The free Yonomi app also lets normally incompatible devices get along. Apple plans to release the smart device-unifying HomeKit system very soon, possibly centering around an updated Apple TV as a hub or even controlled via Siri. Still, the system is initially meant for developers rather than consumers.
Start with the Big Three
Current consumer data reflects that those who are either flirting with the idea of a smart home or are already enamored have prioritized the areas of security, lighting and entertainment.
Security. Instead of paying a monthly or annual fee to a security company for home monitoring, homeowners are buying up connected security devices and systems that send text alerts directly to a smartphone, signal LED smart bulbs to flash red and even dial 911. Popular products include Schlage’s touchscreen deadbolt with alarm or the DropCam Pro security camera.
Gee explains that with Nexia’s products, many controls and lock codes are stored locally in the home.
“We take explicit steps to make sure cloud-based services don’t have that information. We identify locations of customers, and that’s stored in a completely different system independent of the Nexia management system. But schedules or alternate/default settings are stored in the cloud, providing additional information so you can find out what’s going in your house, if you want to access the history of events,” he says.
Protecting the home is already a major concern for most homeowners using connected devices, but monitoring and remote care of dependents inside the home is a rapidly growing area.
“Services and support for seniors will extend the time period when they can live independently at home. I also foresee increased monitoring of care, snacks, homework and after-school safety and activities for children [...] due to increasing cost of care and busy schedules with a desire for constant connection and the need for security. And we shouldn’t underestimate the value of convenience and fun. Taking a work break to interact with your pet online by giving her a snack is far more exciting than watching random animal videos on YouTube,” Rehn explains.
Smart lighting. Michalski believes that the lighting arena is going to change dramatically, “but that’s aesthetic, not economic. It’s not a game changer.” Lutron and Philips Hue are probably two of the most well-known players on the market for smart LED bulbs and occupancy sensors. But especially in the lighting arena, there’s a constant influx of new products from smaller startups to stir up the competition—and lower costs. The Alba smart LED bulb from Stack adjusts itself according to the amount of sunlight streaming in from your window—and learns your light behavior.
One of many Kickstarter projects (the popular crowdfunding website has become an exciting breeding ground for smart home products), BeOn Home’s burglar deterrent Bluetooth-connected LED bulbs (which include a microphone to listen for the doorbell) communicate with each other to learn the household’s lighting patterns that are replayed when the house is empty. The bulbs are due to ship in April of this year.
Audio/visual equipment. After Sonos implemented an update allowing all of its speakers to connect to the home’s Wi-Fi network, the company released its BOOST product, which sets up a 50 percent more powerful independent Wi-Fi network solely for its speakers. Roku, a well-known streaming player, recently joined up with Hisense to produce the Roku TV, an edgy competitor to smart TVs from VIZIO or Samsung, whose recent models also include a built-in mic and camera for voice and facial recognition—features that have stirred up controversy and fear over loss of privacy.
Heating, cooling—and learning. Nest has scored big with its Learning Thermostat, which even critics admire for its sleek and sexy design. Unlike the Google-owned Nest thermostat, Honeywell’s Lyric is iOS compatible and uses geo-fencing to adjust the temperature, although the company’s Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat offers up a Nest-like learning algorithm. Apple’s ecobee3 adds a touchscreen interface and allows placement of up to 32 temperature sensors around the house. Quirky’s Norm is similar (but about $200 cheaper); it creates and adjusts to a network with other connected home devices equipped with temperature sensors. Quirky also offers Aros, a low-cost Wi-Fi window unit AC.
While the EPA has said that an automatic thermostat could cut energy bills by $180 a year, Gilliland doesn’t buy the hype.
“A Nest on your wall isn’t going to save you energy if energy is still leaking out of your building. Show me the physics, because your building hasn’t changed. If you’re really looking for energy savings, you’ll get more if you take an old home and use air sealing and add insulation than by using your smartphone,” Gilliland says.
In building or retrofitting a passive home, Gilliland reduces energy bills to “pennies a day” by installing “very advanced split heat pumps or a new generation of smart heat pumps that turn themselves on and off, and modulate refrigerant and compressor. They have their own proprietary thermostats, like the Fujitsu mini-split. They have their own controller and sense indoor and outdoor temperature.”
Appliances. When it comes to serious innovation and value, experts say that the future kitchen is where it’s at. In South Korea, LG recently rolled out its HomeChat messaging service (coming soon to the U.S.) that allows consumers to communicate with its LG Smart ThinQ smart appliances, including a refrigerator that can send you photos of what’s left while you’re at the grocery store and an oven that can boil and grill in 20 percent less time and recommend new recipes—somewhat similar to Dacor’s Android-powered iQ wall oven. Whirlpool and Samsung also offer web-based washers and dryers, which allow the user to start, stop or pause loads from afar. But with a price tag of around $1,600, homeowners aren’t yet sold on the value of a texting appliance.
On a smaller scale—but not a smaller budget—is Scanomat’s TopBrewer, a deceptively simple coffee-from-a-faucet connected device that goes for a cool $12,000. But for just $150, there’s the coffee pot from Mr. Coffee and Belkin’s WeMo platform. Another clever gadget that, for some, may be worth its $8,000 expense: the Sleep Number FlexFit 2, a connected bed that, besides many other tricks, gently nudges your snoring partner.
But perhaps a more meaningful application of the term “smart appliance” refers to those that can interact with the grid, and throttle back on energy use at times of peak demand. A few leading brands, including Whirlpool and LG, have released smart grid-ready appliances already.
Shading. “Smart shades” are motorized interior or exterior blinds and shades that include sensors which automatically adjust them for privacy and respond to changing daylight conditions. As Rehn explains, smart shades are more than just a weekend DIY project.
“It depends on whether you want sensors that control shades based on daylight levels or if you simply want to control shades from an app.” Next month, Jalousier is sending out the first shipment of its Comfee product that will turn old school blinds into smart ones. Connected via Wi-Fi or ZigBee, this DIY device reacts to temperature, light and weather conditions and time of day and can be controlled from an app.
In-home digital assistants. Although smart computers (like UCIC’s Ubi and Amazon’s Echo) haven’t exactly taken the market by storm, it’s important to note that in-home digital assistants could take the smart home to a whole new (although slightly creepy) level with the ease of voice control. Think of Ubi (short for ‘ubiquitous’) or Echo as the Siri for your home. The concern of privacy may be one issue that keeps consumers initially at bay, as smart computers like these store all conversations in the cloud; however, both companies state, as they always do, that no one has access (legally) to these logs besides the consumer and the company.
Another possibility lies in Keeker (another Kickstarter project)—a tiny, wireless robot with a projector that among other things, turns the walls of your home into a screen and can monitor the home. Currently priced at $1,900, the number of helpful household functions performed by Keeker will be endless.
The Allure of Novelty
Home automation still isn’t cheap, but the introduction of low cost, Lego-like DIY smart home products (from Home Depot, Target, Lowe’s) might be one solution for consumers who don’t want to pay for a custom installation or a fancy smart appliance.
In a partnership with GE, Quirky launched seven new smart home items in November, all under $100, while a Smart Home Kit from littleBits (on their website or at RadioShack) goes for $249, turning regular household items (a lamp, coffeemaker, fridge, pet food dispenser, blinds, etc.) into connected devices by attaching a sensor and using the included CloudBit hub ($60 for each additional hub). littleBits also works with IFTTT (If This Then That), a nifty little web service that allows users to program devices to follow simple routines based on triggers and conditions: if the coffeemaker turns on, then play my morning playlist on the kitchen speakers.
The functionality of devices like those from littleBits remains basic—if your fridge door is left ajar, a temperature sensor will notice and send you a text. If you’re not at home, well, there’s nothing you can do about it.
But at least consumers can choose for themselves what connected functions are actually useful for their home and reduce waste caused by throwing out old “dumb” appliances—although more connected products are being designed to allow remote updates, which can extend a product’s useful life.
Toward More Sustainable Infrastructure
Like chatty gadgets in the home, the smart grid is a two-way street, where connected appliances will help maximize energy efficiency and minimize costs by operating at the most opportune times, when demand is low and good weather boosts renewable energy production from photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.
Applying the IoT to the smart grid is not a new idea—the utilities sector has been remotely monitoring equipment in the field for years. Tax incentives and rebate programs from utility companies, on top of dropping costs, are enabling more homeowners to add solar panels and purchase electric vehicles (EVs)—two components that will build up the smart home/smart grid system.
It’s this very system that is creating a foundation for the automated infrastructure of the smart city—a concept that could be essential to the conservation of natural resources if two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities by 2050. Siemens and Cisco have already committed themselves to the construction of brand new smart cities around the world, and are working on ways to smooth out the challenges faced by existing cities worldwide with intelligent traffic management, city management and development systems, security management and, of course, smart grid technologies that will push the need for automated homes and buildings.
But one thing to note about those EVs: eventually, they’ll be driverless. Some experts predict that even a decade from now, only half the number of automobiles on the global market will feature an advanced driver assistance system or be completely driverless. And the results of a recent Pew Center survey showed respondents split between a future of mass unemployment due to driverless cars and robots and that of a world where jobs simply shifted. Michalski admits he is also unsure about the consequences.
“On the one hand [...] I think driverless will take a huge piece of the market faster than we imagine it will. I see a trifecta coming: driverless, electric, shared vehicles. Then the whole fleet turns over, all the ownership models change and our built landscape can be repurposed in huge ways: what would you do if all garages could be turned into living or working space? Street parking spots? On the commercial side, though I think an automated big rig is likely in the works, that’s not an easy job to automate. I think that process is slow. But when it takes hold, those people have no work, because the needed repair people are already available repairing today’s vehicles. I don’t think we’ll need more.”