Being at the Maker Faire this weekend has reminded me of "the next big thing" that you don’t seem to hear about any more:  “home automation”.

Home Automation has been around as a concept for decades, of course, but it seems to have hit the intersection between reality and its "coolness factor" apex around 2009. I'm honestly not sure why, but my guess is that there are a few distinct reasons you don’t hear as much about “Smart Homes” lately:

1.  Most of what seemed new and cool has now either been integrated into many high-end homes and/or is just too expensive or superfluous to find itself on the shortlist of constrained budgets. Such things include hidden, interconnected speaker systems, "mood" based lighting control, and security systems (including cameras) that are either more expensive than the items they'd protect (or than the insurance premium to protect those things) or just too creepy for most people. 

2.  Most required quite a bit of in-wall wiring, rendering it impractical for renovation applications but not yet a sufficiently desired feature (in most markets) to be used by tight-fisted spec builders (who build homes on speculation that they will sell to a yet unknown buyer).

3.  Almost all of these systems tied you to a particular service provider, either technologically (through proprietary hardware and integrated software) or legally, through service agreements and the like. This almost always meant that a particular company comes in (for a fee), does the installation (for a fee), configures the system (for a fee), connects you to their server which runs it all (for a... we'll you get it), and must to be hired to reconfigure the system when your needs change. 

4. The notion of needs configuration is another bottleneck to the widespread adaptation of home automation systems - you have to decide what you want the system to do, and you kind of need to stick with that for a while  (unless your reconfiguration budget, and tolerance for 4 hour tech support visit windows, is inexhaustible).

A NEW APPROACH TO HOME AUTOMATION

However, I think it's time to get excited again about home automation.  Many of these costs, limitations, and annoyances will soon be going away as a few technological paradigm shifts push themselves into the mainstream.

Whereas many of the older systems had their own "components": lights, speakers, cameras, keypads, or touchscreens, a new breed to technology focuses on linking with existing,"off the shelf" components. Essentially, most of what the "brains" of Home Automation systems really did was turn things on and off.  And,of course, this is basically just a switch, which, added to the price of an off the shelf component (speaker, light, etc.) is much cheaper than purchasing a proprietary component with integrated switch.

CUT THE CABLES

But, if it's just a switch that's doing the work of actually controlling the component  (the "last mile," as you could call it), then the communication to the switch can be extremely simple ("switch on" or "switch off"), which makes it extremely easy to communicate over wifi, Bluetooth, RFID, light signals, etc.  No more additional wires through walls.

And now, there are so many "devices" that can emit a "on/off" signal, like smartphones, tablets, “Mesh” tags, Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi microCPUs, and even the kids’ toy "Little Bits".  That is only a list of popular consumer devices. Hardware sending a binary (“on” or “off”) signal is among the least expensive and generic.

FORGET THE EXPENSIVE SETUP FEES

Most of these devices are either all "programmable" using the same computer language or will play nicely via translation tools with any language, so one can write simple apps enabling a user to control them or integrate multiple devices, changing which switches each device communicates to (and therefore what components they control) easily and on the fly. Your cellphone can control your light, then your radio, then both when it's time to go to sleep. 

While there was a period around 2010-11 when a handful of companies made "apps" for home automation, many of these apps were specific to certain proprietary systems and still only affected certain components in the kinds of ways they are programmed to affect them. You weren't switching lights and speakers, you were selecting options for preset configurations. 

PIY (Program It Yourself)

However, a paradigm shift in what it means to program and how this is done will change all of that. "visual" programming languages (VPLs - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_programming_language), pioneered in systems like Scratch, take the drag-and-drop and button clicks of computer Graphical User Interfaces  (GUIs), and extend those to much more open-ended functions, like "drop this button on this switch so when I click that button flip the switch".  We are starting to see even children programming their own toys using the digital (on screen) equivalent of those word match games where you draw a line from one word in one column to another in the other column.  One column has input devices, the other has each switch (or the component to which the switch is connected - more on this connection below).  Just replace the toy component with a light or stereo and you have a Smart Home system that used to cost thousands of dollars but can now be programmed and maintained by children. Want that Bluetooth button to switch this light as well as that light, just drag another on-screen line going from the button to the light.

THE INTERNET OF (YOUR) THINGS

And another technological paradigm, the Internet of Things (IoT), is removing the space between the controller and controlled columns. For very little additional cost, components (lights, stereos, fans, appliances, thermostats, and anything else that is electrically powered) can be enabled to send or receive a signal.  Dumb switches, even the digital ones, that once only received inputs to turn on or off can now themselves send signals to other component-devices ("Smart Components"), removing the need to pick up a remote or pull out your cell phone whenever you want to turn on your coffee machine.  Maybe just 3 quick taps on the bedside lamp and your coffee machine is sent a signal to turn on. (Finally, we can bring back those awesome touch lamps!)

Whereas the use of separate switches to turn on and off components requires the switches to be plugged in between the components’ power sources and the components  (such as via a wifi-enabled switch box with a male and female 110 plug on each side), IoT switches are integrated into the circuitry of the component/device itself, meaning that it can do a lot more than just turn the component on and off. Imagine your Blu-ray player's clock being set when you set your microwave's clock, or your coffee machine making your coffee a little stronger if you turned off your TV especially late the night before. (Note that, unlike with earlier manifestations of Home Automation, these device-components are independent and do not need to be purchased from the same vendor.  They are just able to speak the same language.  Not a nuclear family of products, just cordial roommates.)

RESPONSIVE INSTEAD OF REACTIVE PROGRAMMING

Finally, how your IoT components get signals and how they can be "programmed" is just in the earliest stages. Of course, IoT has the word Internet in it, so that's there, so they can not only talk to you, they can respond to invitations in your email and even (ok, getting creepy again) set your friend’s alarm once she's accepted to meet you for an early breakfast. Your frig could show a red light (via technology like the Walabot (www.walabot.com)) if you don't have in it a certain ingredient for a recipe you are reading online, and your IoT thermostat can turn up to get you in the mood for summer when it gets a signal from your IoT blender that you are making protein shakes.  Ok, all of these examples are meant to sound frivolous, and they are, because we don't actually know what is possible or what is desirable yet.  However, there are some applications that already seem able to be both easily integrated and which could have a meaningful impact on our homes.

Critical in my opinion is also the ability for Smart Components to also be "sensitive" components, meaning they have sensors relating to information that might be valuable to receive for their function. A lamp should sense light.  A washer should sense when it has enough weight in it to start a load. And a thermostat can sense that the humidity is relatively high, so it doesn't need to add as much heat to the room (because 60deg feels more like 70 when it's humid).

THE SENSITIVE, RESPONSIVE HOME

Moreover, these can be sensitive to less artificial input from home inhabitants (as opposed to buttons or silly voice commands). There’s no reason the room thermostat can’t know you are there, change the temperature accordingly, and tag out the other rooms’ thermostats.  Instead of constantly running, an air purifier can “hear” sneezes and so sense the presence of someone affected by allergies, thus kicking into high gear.  Bed sheets, perhaps with embedded sensitive films similar to the UniMorph project at the MIT Media Lab (http://tangible.media.mit.edu/project/unimorph/), could sense changes in biometrics, tailoring the nocturnal heat to the inhabitant’s sentient comfort-level, downshifting when “typical” ambient temperatures are unnecessary.  

Indeed, if there is a future for “Home Automation” or “Smart Homes,” the manifestation will be neither “automated” nor “smart”, at least not in the typical sense.  It won’t be a centralized HAL 9000 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HAL_9000) robobrain, but rather a loose network of sensitive and gregarious everyday objects, listening, feeling, and seeing what we need at any given moment, then passing that infromation along. 

Perhaps not less creepy, but certainly more interesting.

Thanks for reading...

- Dennis

Dennis Michaud | President | Homebuilt: Precise Kits for Personal Buildings

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