Change Starts at Smart Home

Episode 1: You have just left home for a morning meeting at the office, never too soon. Did you make sure to shut the gas cooker? What about turning off the air-condition? Conversely, if you have a security system, is it activated? And is the door locked? Even if already in the car, you can check and set these systems to the desired mode if necessary from your smartphone. A few hours after leaving home, your washing machine will start automatically working on your laundry, after it identifies that electricity demand is at a relatively low level or it may use renewable energy (also at a lower usage tariff).

Episode 2: You are about to start your way back home at late afternoon. You notify your house via your smartphone so that it can start cooling the place to a desired temperature. As you approach, the electronic door lock opens, the lights in the hall, kitchen and living room are turned on; the TV turns on at your favourite channel for this hour (or music starts on your audio system); and the microwave starts after a few moments to heat the meal you left there in the morning. By the way, clean clothes are waiting for you to pick up from the machine.

This is just a taste of the services that a smart home can provide to its residents. Many more scenarios may be constructed like those above, involving various devices and home appliances, and offering different sequences of activities to the convenience of the resident (e.g., lift the window shades as the alarm clock wakes you up, water in the bathroom is warmed up, and the coffee machine prepares your morning coffee). Smart technologies for the home are not so common as yet, and the field is still young, but they are on the rise and available to early experimenters who want to benefit from them.

Our home is the ultimate host for the Internet of Things where devices and appliances that normally do not seem in any way related to the Internet become automated, controlled and co-ordinated via the Internet (e.g., refrigerator, washing machine, lights, audio system and speakers, etc.). Many products or ‘things’ whose operation can be managed this way are the more likely to be found in the house or apartment. The concept of a smart home did not start with the Internet but it got greatly faciliated with the advance of broadband Internet. Furthermore, it is becoming even more feasible and practical in the age of mobile or wireless Internet transmission. Instead of approaching, for instance, a touch screen on the wall to monitor and command your home, you can do it while lying on the couch with your tablet or smartphone. Moreover, you may do this when away from home. In fact, mounting touch screens or touchpads on walls usually adds substantial cost to smart-up the home. Hence, using a mobile device to manage products at home not only increases convenience but also lowers costs for the residents.

This is, however, where implementation tends to get complicated. The market is as yet not so well organized. It is already accepted that operating each smart device separately with its own app can quickly become cumbersome and unmanageable as one adds-up ten smart products or more. The solution is offerred in the form of a hub box to which one can connect several devices and appliances at home, wired and wirelessly, and command them with the aid of a computer or mobile application that communicates with the hub box. Such hubs are available from several companies (e.g., Revolv, SmartThings, Wink). Multiple problems reportedly soon surface: the number of devices a hub box may control is often small (e.g., five devices), the connections have to be wired, and the hubs utilise different communication protocols (e.g., ZigBee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi) that do not communicate well with each other. Additionally, products are made to work best with a particular protocol and hub, often mandated by a business co-operation between companies (e.g., General Electric and Wink). Also, some devices (e.g., Philips’ smart lighting bulbs Hub) may need their own control unit to be connected to a hub box. Thus, operating several appliances and devices, that work with different communication technologies, is likely to require a number of hub boxes, each managed separately, with all their wired or wirless connections. The picture clearly emerging is that making all necessary connections and setting up the hub applications is not a practical task for a common homeowner with an average computer technical competence or literacy.                      

Two key types of target segments are often suggested. First, those savvy in technical matters of electronics, computers and networks, who frequently also work in these areas, are attracted to and capable of setting a smart network at their home on their own. But another segment of affluent consumers is also argued for, who can afford more extensive smart home projects and hire technical professionals to set them up. The more comprehenive and expensive systems of smart homes are installed during the construction of new houses. It of course helps when the homeowner understands about these things and can plan and supervise the project. The online guide HowStuffWorks.com recommends in its section on smart homes that when looking for a qualified technician, a homeowner should check for a combined certification (CEA-CompTIA) from the Consumer Electronics Association and the Computer Technology Indusrty Association; this certificate indicates that the technician has proficiency in installing, maintaining and troubleshooting a smart networking equipment.

There are obviously different scales of smart networks that can be built for the home. The real-estate portal of MSN by Microsoft describes a range of smart home projects. The simplest network can be managed with iPhone apps and includes a few devices like outdoors lights, burglar alarm, electronic door lock and a thermostat; it would cost $2,500. A more serious network may incorporate more lighting zones, video cameras for a security system, and swimming pool controls, all run through a hub box and a smartphone central app; cost: $11,000. The more advanced networks connect and command more lighting, video and audio zones, security and air-condition thermostats in the house; these projects cost their owners $133,000, $300,000 and up to $1.8 million (that upper-end system includes among other things a home theatre, 21 climate zones, 17 audio and 13 video zones, pool and lighting controls, and a baby-monitoring unit).

A simple small scale network may add some fun and comfort to the home, but it may be just nice-to-have and not a real smart home — is it worth the set-up cost and maintenance trouble later? The more comprehensive and expensive systems above $100,000 can be extravagant luxuries. It appears that a smart network of substance and practical value would require an investment of several tens of thousands of dollars.The examples given by MSN miss the inclusion of essential products like smart electric appliances — this is the area where, according to some experts, the real potential and future practical value of smart homes lies.

The entry of some of the larger global companies in consumer electronics, computer and information networks, perhaps provides the strongest indication of the potential and value they see in the future of smart homes. Companies like General Electric and Samsung Electronics develop appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, dish washers and ovens that can be controlled from distance, provide useful information (e.g., milk shortage in the refrigerator), and not least allow more efficient energy usage. Some appliances are just ready for marketing. Samsung also works on the networking equipment and joining applications of their make. Google, which is getting deeper into the domain of Internet of Things, acquired Nest, a company that developed a unique smart thermostat, for $3.2b in January 2014; it now relies on the founder Tony Fadell to develop similar capabilities with other products. The thermostat of Nest does not need to be programmed by residents of the house because it learns their behaviour. More recently Google acquired Dropcam for its web-enabled security camera (1). Apple took the challenge from its rivals and introduced about two months ago its software platform HomeKit for developing apps that can operate home appliances from their mobile devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad). It is an unusual move for Apple to accommodate equipment of other companies. On the other hand, manufacturers of the smart appliances become concerned that Apple will draw from them control of their own products through the apps of HomeKit. Apple intends its TV to be the future hub for its smart home network (2).

Simson Garfinkel of MIT Technology Review addresses the more urging technological issues that still need to be resolved for smart devices to be reliable and usable: secured Wi-Fi network; reliable and seamless connectivity; control and authorization (e.g., routing via e-mail account); and compatibility between devices or home appliances. Garfinkel also notes some of the absurdities that may arise (e.g., family conflicts on ownership and access to the e-mail account, failures in Wi-Fi connectivity and bugs that may cause loss of control of the front door lock or air-conditioning, a breach of security may be exploited by thieves or just malicious hackers for messing with the home). Technical system failures and interference in normal functioning of devices due to viruses and other malware attacks are of the more serious problems, similar to concerns raised with regard to driverless cars. But equally concerning are issues of privacy and data protection: apps that collect data on the smart home network or devices for their operation actually store it in the ‘cloud’ on their servers. Would people want information on their private daily behaviour to be accessible in the cloud to unauthorised strangers? And will that information not be used for marketing purposes of the service provider and third-party companies? Worries of this kind are directed particularly towards Google due to its advertising policy and related practices.

There are some additional implications of living at smart homes on behaviour that warrant attention. Smart technologies could induce consumers to be more lazy and less attentive or agile, reducing their alertedness to changes or events in their surroundings. And while consumers may need reminders, could exempting them from remembering to perform routine tasks weaken their memory performance? Will replacing ordinary routines with automatic operations truly improve the quality of life of people? Yet, smart systems can fulfil a positive role in watching from distance over little children on one hand or the elderly on the other hand. It is suggested that a smart nursery system can help to remind the elders to take their medicines, or alert their family relatives if electric devices are left working unattended, and furthermore in the case of accidents in the house.

Smart homes are increasingly tied with energy saving and efficient utilisation of renewable or green energy sources (wind, water, sun). This may prove as a most significant motivation for setting-up smart homes in private houses and community housing projects. A special section of Time Magazine was dedicated in July (2014) to developments and progress in the field of smart homes — nearly half of it was related to environmental and energy aspects (3). Relevant aspects we may find in this context include the structure and design of houses with emphasis on materials and insulation; simple but resource-efficient housing units (e.g., floating houses); smart distribution of electric power across different souces (e.g., public grid and private solar panels); use of smart meters and moderating electricity consumption by home appliances. In late 2013 Panasonic has taken a dramatic move — cutting back on much of its activity in consumer electronics, where it gained its global fame, and shifting to construction of houses with environment-friendly technologies. They started with technologies like solar power systems, LED lighting, and sensors for reducing energy consumption that can be integrated as part of smart home systems (4). While their clients now are more industrial or commercial, their end-users remain the consumers, and they may well return to offer smart and energy-efficient appliances in the future.

However, consumers may not consider energy saving as a key or sufficient reason for using smart appliances. A key driver for consumers to adopt smart home technologies is currently concerned with home security, protecting residents and property. Gaining energy efficiency through smart technology requires greater awareness and willingness of consumers to change their behaviour respectively. Factors that would persuade consumers to accept appliances that use electric energy in a smart way are financial gains and assurances about reliability and security (e.g., when leaving the washing machine working in absence), signalling the technology is mature. Using a “green” appliance could make them feel good that they are helping the environment but it is regarded as a “side-effect”. Putting consumers on track may start with providing them detailed information made available from smart meters about actual electricity consumption of specific appliances and devices during different times of day; the information may be displayed on a screen in the kitchen, a personal computer or tablet, easily accessible to the home residents (5).   

Setting-up a smart home requires a strategy. It is easy to drift with numerous gadgets in the market, which can be amusing and fun. However, a smart home is not meant to be just a game. It may affect the lifestyle and quality of life of its residents in various and important ways. One may take into consideration benefits like security, entertainment, convenience and energy efficiency. Fortunately, there is plenty of time into the future for consumers to figure out what they want to achieve from smart homes.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

1. “Home Smart Home”, Time Magazine Special Issue: Section on Smart Homes, 7 July / 14 July 2014, 184 (1).

2. “Apple Seeks to Open the Door to Simplified Smart Homes”, Tim Bradshaw, FT.com (Financial Times Online), 27 May 2014. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/4c454faa-e577-11e3-8b90-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk#axzz38NvfWo3u

3. Ibid. 1.

4. “The Reinvention of Panasonic”, Eric Pfanner, International New-York Times, 28-29 December 2013.

5. “Get Smart! Consumer Acceptance and Restrictions of Smart Domestic Appliances in Sustainable Energy Systems”. Wilma Mert and Wikbe Tritthart, 2008, Inter-University Research Centre for Technology, Work and Culture, Graz, Austria. http://www.uni-muenster.de/imperia/md/content/transpose/publikationen/mert.pdf  (Also see website of the Smart-A project); “Will Smart Home Technology Make Consumers More Energy Efficient”, Martin LaMonica, The Guardian (Online), 22 January 2014.

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/smart-home-technology-energy-nest-automation