For as long as I can remember, tech companies have been touting home automation as the next big thing. And for just as long, it has failed to happen as systems that were too expensive, too complicated, and too unreliable failed to catch on with any but the most gadget-crazed of consumers.
Today, however, a confluence of the hardware and software that make up the Internet of Everything is poised to make simple and inexpensive home automation a reality. The technologies are coalescing to drive the trend: The low-cost sensors and actuators; cheap, low-power radios to communicate with the sensors; and perhaps most important, software for smartphones and tablets that makes it simple for people to make a system, which may consist of sensors and switches from a number of manufacturers, behave according to their wishes.
A key to making this work is software that replaces traditional programming with "recipes." A typical, simple recipe would link a motion sensor to a light switch with the instruction, "Turn on the lights when someone is in the room." A somewhat more complicated one would say, "Lock the front door behind me when I leave the house and unlock it when I approach the door." A smartphone can be used both as a console to create and modify these recipes and as a remote control to turn things on and off manually. The breakthrough is that a single app running on a single device can manage everything.
One company working to make this a reality is Washington-based startup SmartThings. Its basic product is a $299 starter kit consisting of a SmartThings Hub, two combination sensors that can detect door openings and closings, temperature, and vibration; a motion sensor, and two presence sensors, key fob-like devices whose presence can be detected by other sensors.
The Hub communicates with Zigbee and Z-Wave low-power radios as well as anything that can transmit over wired or wireless IP networks. This allows it to control switches and sensors offered by a wide variety of companies, including switches and outlets from Belkin, Leviton, and General Electric; Philips Hue networked LED light bulbs, and remote-control door locks from Kwikset, Schlage, and August. Support for heating and air conditioning controls, including the Nest smart thermostat, is coming.
None of these programmable devices is new, but the problem in the past was that each manufacturer provided its own control software. SmartThings offers a single app that lets an iPhone, iPad or android device control everything—and link everything together. "The biggest thing is the smartphone revolution," says SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson. "Now you are carrying the perfect controller with you. And consumers now expect the world to be connected."
Connecting critical systems in your home to the internet is not something you want to do lightly—you don't want just anyone to be able to unlock your doors or turn off your heat in the dead of winter. SmartThings seems to have taken security seriously. Each piece of hardware, whether a sensor or a smartphone controller, is bound directly to the Hub and access is restricted through access control lists.
SmartThings also allows a very granular approach to access rights. You could, for example, give your teenage daughter full administrative control over anything in her own room, including the power to add sensors and recipes, but only the rights to use existing recipes in other parts of the house.
Other players are likely to jump into this market for unified home automation control. And the attractiveness is likely to grow as rising sales volumes drive sensor and actuator prices down, from the current $50 or so for a Zigbee- or Z-Wave-controlled light switch or outlet.
Another business likely to emerge is sensor-based managed home services. For example, a sensor reading indicating trouble in your furnace or air conditioning—say irregular temperature readings—could trigger a service call from your HVAC contractors. "We're adding lots of new devices and apps," says Hawkinson, "but the future is building connected services."
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