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Smart homes – ready for prime time?

Smart Home Main Pic

Remember all those homes of the future portrayed on old television programmes from the 60’s and 70’s? It has taken nearly forty years, but the era of the smart home could be just around the corner…

When you’re away from home, everyone has those little doubts – did I remember to turn the coffee machine off? Did I turn on the security alarm and lock the doors?

Nest Smart Home Thermostat
Nest’s Learning Thermostat

With advances in “smart home” technology, imagine being able to check all these things anywhere on your smartphone or tablet. You could wirelessly connect every device and appliance at home so they can communicate with each other and co-ordinate your entertainment, communications and security.

The dream is slowly becoming a reality – after all, most of the technologies are readily available, but in the past it was an expensive challenge to build such a system at home (at least one that wasn’t aimed at tech-savvy early adopters).

For most people, so-called smart devices must be incredibly simple to install and use. For example, how do you connect your lights, garage door, set-top-box and thermostat? Do you need a WiFi network or is it all done over Bluetooth? And how to you interact and manage it all via a single, central control centre?

What can smart homes do?

The purpose of a smart home is to make our lives easier and more convenient. Whether you are at home, at work or on holiday, it should be possible to monitor and see what’s going on at home at all times.

Typical scenarios might be:

  • Set your home’s smart thermostat from your smartphone, so it’s the perfect temperature when you get home
  • Door locks open automatically when you approach the house
  • Turn on the garden sprinklers remotely when you’re on holiday
  • Cameras equipped with infrared sensors send you a message when movement is detected
  • Change the colour and brightness of LED lights from your tablet, based on which room you’re in or even your mood
  • Watch a movie in the living room, then go to the bedroom and the video plays automatically on the bedroom TV

Even traditional utility companies such as British Gas and Honeywell are getting in on the action with connected heating and cooling systems, and we seem to be nearing the point when home automation is ready to go mainstream. Much of this is thanks to improvements in low power wireless technologies like Bluetooth and increasing miniaturisation in consumer electronics, but the smartphone perhaps has the greatest role to play.

Hue Smartphone App
Location-based light activation with Hue

Smartphones become the smart home hub

The rise of smart devices is being fuelled by the explosion in smartphones and tablets. These devices are now everywhere, and should allow us to control all our Internet-enabled sensors, appliances and computers. In effect, your smartphone becomes a kind of digital home hub that lets you control every aspect of your house.

Unfortunately, the problem for consumers is that every manufacturer seems to have their own incompatible system. Philips’ excellent Hue lightbulbs for instance require a base unit that connects to your WiFi network and can be controlled by a smartphone app, but the Nest thermostat must be controlled via a completely different smartphone app. So you end up with a whole collection of standalone apps that don’t talk to each other.

Hopefully, with HomeKit, we’ll start to see greater integration and interworking between different manufacturers’ products.

A growing market

The idea of a truly smart, connected and intelligent home might make you think of futuristic science fiction movies, but what was once only the domain of the wealthy, smart homes and the home automation industry are slowly maturing – the availability of more consumer-friendly products is helping to drive adoption and awareness.

In Europe, the installed user base of home automation systems is expected to reach over 17 million units by 2017 according to Statista – a huge increase from last year’s 1.45 million.

Installed Smart Home Systems
Installed base of smart home systems in Europe, from 2012 to 2017


Apple HomeKit
Apple’s HomeKit enables new smart home apps

But how many people do you know right now that have anything that could remotely be called a smart home? It’s still perceived as a niche by the majority of consumers, but that is slowly starting to change.

Major technology companies such as Google (with its Nest Learning Thermostat) and Apple (with HomeKit) realise that smart home systems are a huge untapped market. Google caused headlines when it acquired Nest in January this year for $3.2 billion, and Apple has included the HomeKit framework in iOS 8 so that developers can create apps that talks to your smart home hardware.

Apple’s vision isn’t to create the smart home devices themselves, but to turn its iDevices into the interface through which you control your smart home. Perhaps a future Apple TV will also turn our living room televisions into a smart home hub.

Even Internet Service Providers and mobile operators are waking up to the potential of smart homes – some offer advanced home gateways that act as the intermediary between the home itself and the outside world.

Smart home security concerns

For homeowners, there are legitimate concerns over the intrusion of privacy that smart home technology might bring. In an age where our personal information is being mined by companies like Google, do we feel comfortable knowing they will have intimate details about us, such as the time we go to bed or leave for work.

If this sensitive information falls into the wrong hands it could be disastrous for consumers and the smart home industry in general. Smart devices are also not invulnerable to hackers, many lacking effective passwords and encryption. How much trust would we place in smart locks if we discovered that hackers could access them?

Rather worryingly, a study earlier this year by HP found that 70% of smart home devices surveyed used unencrypted network services. In other words, they didn’t provide adequate security and could expose your personal data. And last year, LG had to issue a security fix for its smart TVs when it was discovered they were sending details about viewing habits (even content on memory sticks plugged into the TV) over the Internet completely unencrypted.

On the flip side, added convenience and security is one benefit that smart homes could bring. For example, your home could learn your daily routine (lights, doors, and curtains) and then make it appear like you’re at home when on holiday. And with motion and window sensors, the police (and you) could be alerted if there is an intruder.

The future of smart homes

We’re just witnessing the start of what future smart homes will be able to do, and the technology is improving to the point where it’s more unobtrusive and easier to use than ever. With more advanced devices that talk to our smartphones and tablets, it is becoming easier to automate nearly every aspect of home security and entertainment.

But the key question is will smart homes make our lives easier and more productive? That remains to be seen, but it looks like the vision from all those old TV shows is nearly upon us…

Let us known in the comments below what you think about smart home technology, and what it could do for you.

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