High-tech living making our homes smarter

Smart homes: what’s next after controlling central heating with your smartphone and switching on the lights before you get home?

The smart home aspect of the internet of things is, like most hot new ideas, actually very old. In the 1959 Rock Hudson and Doris Day rom-com Pillow Talk, Hudson’s bachelor pad comes with remote door-locking, record player and lights dimmer to help the playboy seduce the ladies.

And at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest fair of its kind, held in Las Vegas every January, the smart home ideas hovered around terrain the Hollywood star would have been familiar with.

Once you separate out the gadget enthusiast market, the main reason consumers express an interest in the smart home and the main function they’re looking for is saving money

Samsung showcased a fridge that can play music and check the weather, LG announced a wardrobe that steams and smooths your clothes, while Intel’s Tiny House included a touchpad to control music, TV and weather news. Which are great, but essentially versions of stuff we’ve seen before and, in some cases, the answer to questions the consumer simply isn’t asking. The smart home is still waiting for its killer app, although that may now be here.

Nest Cam can turn on automatically when you leave the house
Nest Cam can turn on automatically when you leave the house

“Once you separate out the gadget enthusiast market, which is a significant one, the main reason consumers express an interest in the smart home and the main function they’re looking for is saving money,” says Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM engineer and early champion of the internet of things, who invented the open source internet of things protocol MQTT some 20 years ago.

He outlines an attractive energy-saving hub where homes with heavy electrical use prepare a washing cycle, tumble dry and electric car charge then barter with the grid for the cheapest time slot available to run. Extended to a community, say a residential estate, this could enable homes to join the STOR system, where large companies can sell their negative use of power back to the grid for cash.

Heat Control

Controlling your heating is currently the front runner in smart home installation. Figures for 2015 from Berg Insight show companies such as British Gas and Google have installed more than three million devices like Hive and Nest across the United States and Europe. As Mr Stanford-Clark points out, this can save some people some money, but often not enough to justify the high cost of the item and installation. And they might be storing up trouble for the future.

“If you have a smart air-con system and a smart radiator system controlled by a computer, it could hit 18 degrees through judiciously alternating between the two or it could turn both on full blast inching them up and down accordingly,” he explains. “We know which is the sensible path, but for a computer there can be two equal solutions to an equation.”

One problem is the issue of standards. At the moment, there are three global bodies setting smart home protocol standards – the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) and the AllSeen Alliance (ASA). The IIC includes Cisco, General Electric, Olympus, Intel and IBM, the OCF includes Electrolux, Qualcomm and Microsoft, while the ASA includes Canon, Sony and LG.

Presently, consumers have to ensure they buy within a protocol group to ensure the new smart lamp they bring home will work instantly with the smart light switch they have installed or hope for a home hub that talks all three languages.

The battle to own that hub has just started. Some offers, such as Logitech’s Harmony Home Hub, have disappointed reviewers, who found it great for home entertainment, but less successful at other things. Interestingly, despite white and brown goods giants such as Samsung and Sony directing research, product and marketing into the area, it’s companies less used to building boxes who have the lead.

O2’s Smart Home App

Screenshot of AT&T’s Digital Life home security/ automation app
Screenshot of AT&T’s Digital Life home security/ automation app

Over the summer, mobile phone provider O2 is launching O2 Smart Home, which is a version of AT&T’s US platform Digital Life. It’s a single app that can handle any protocol and, using a geo-aware smartphone app, can automatically sense when nobody is at home, meaning the heating system can be switched to a savings mode.

“When it comes to our homes as a whole, the experience is mostly stuck in analogue,” says O2’s digital director David Plumb. “Where there are smart devices, often these operate independently of each other making the experience disjointed and complicated to manage. The overall experience isn’t smart. Where ‘digital’ is turning radiators off via your mobile, ‘smart’ is your device knowing how far you are from home and exactly when to turn the heating on.”

Amazon’s Siri for the home

Amazon Echo voice-control smart home device
Amazon Echo voice-control smart home device

There’s fierce competition. Amazon’s cloud-based voice assistant Alexa attached to its Echo home hub is essentially a Siri for the home. Alexa can connect security cameras, lighting systems and even Ford cars. You can order paper towels and snacks out loud and Alexa will buy and ship them for you – from Amazon, naturally. Earlier this month, however, Echo systems in American homes tuned into NPR radio, heard the trigger word Alexa during a programme, so switched on and began performing tasks their owners hadn’t asked for.

All of which highlights one underlying fear – what if our smart homes turn against us? US director of national intelligence James Clapper recently told Congress that smart homes give intelligence agencies ample opportunity to spy on targets. If your smart TV is watching you, isn’t that literally a scene from George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Frank Palermo, executive vice president of digital solutions at Virtusa, argues that the security opportunities of a smart home are actually potentially profitable to the homeowner. “Smart locks, which were at the startup stage last August and now part of the mainstream, are a perfect solution for Airbnb hosts, for instance,” he says. “You can control access and even, with tiny cameras, make sure your home is safe.”

Mr Palermo believes the change will be comprehensive and that it’s almost here. He points to If This Then That (IFTTT), a free web-based service that allows users to create chains of conditional statements as in “if this, then that”. BMW is using IFTTT to set up systems that, for instance, text children as a parent approaches school to pick them up or switches on the heating as their car nears home.

It all sounds very Jetsons, the space-age counterpart to The Flintstones, created in 1962 with automatic doors, sensors to raise and lower the lights, kitchen appliances that prepare food and robots to clean the house. Despite all these improvements, however, the Jetson family still proclaimed how exhausted they were pretty much every day. No matter how high our tech, some things clearly remain the same.