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Latest in Home Automation: Smart Homes are surprisingly dumb
Q: Although 25% of US households now own at least one Home Automation gadget, Smart Homes aren’t mainstream yet. How come?Pavel: Before I describe the current state of Home Automation products and technology advancements, we need to define what a Smart Home actually is. We live in the digital era, so every new device that is released to the market is labelled as smart. By “smart” 90% of gadget manufacturers actually mean that their device can be operated via a smartphone. Does replacing a light switch with a mobile app really make a house smart? For example, you’re watching a TV show and want to dim the lights via your mobile phone. First, you need to fetch it from the kitchen or wherever you’ve left it. Second, you open the connected switch app and wait for it to load. Finally, you configure the settings. By the time you turn the lights down, you’ll miss half of the show. That’s why companies that want to build a Smart Home system should take a few lessons from remote control manufacturers who intended to create a universal control device with a sensor screen some 15 years ago and reached a dead end. The average remote control has between 10 and 20 buttons of different shapes and colors. We can distinguish them to the touch without taking our eyes off the TV screen – and that’s the way a remote control should work.
In my opinion, a true Smart Home is a home that learns your habits and preferences and requires little to no management on your part.Several brands have actually made a serious step towards real Home Automation. The famous Nest Thermostat, for example, analyses your temperature settings and automatically sets the desired temperature when you’re home (only to turn it down while you’re away). Also, there’s Amazon Echo, a connected speaker that manages your Spotify playlists and can get you a ride with Uber, and a fairly good Belkin WeMo Switch. However, those gadgets neither manage all the devices that comprise your home electronics ecosystem nor work in sync. In fact, it’s not just Smart Home systems that suffer from the lack of interoperability standards. The problem is common for all connected gadgets, and that’s why IoT has so many barriers to mass adoption.
Q: Do Smart Home manufacturers attempt to solve the interoperability issue somehow?Pavel: Although most companies that produce new Smart Home solutions come up with their own technology, security and interoperability standards and hardware (thus making things even worse), there have been some positive changes on the market lately. ZigBee Alliance, for example, has developed universal standards of wireless communication, thus enabling connected gadgets which are built by different brands to exchange messages over a network in a secure way. Also, ZigBee allows home owners to integrate new gadgets into a Smart Home ecosystem. There’s also Z-Wave, a wireless protocol which supports one thousand IoT devices. Amazon, the company that disrupted the entire Home Automation market with its Echo speaker powered by the Alexa AI assistant, has launched the Amazon Lex platform enabling vendors to create voice interfaces. The company has also made its latest Alexa REST API open-source, thus cementing its place in the Home Automation market and giving both software developers and hardware manufacturers an opportunity to connect to Amazon’s IoT.
However, these are the exceptions rather than the rule. According to Business Insider, the biggest barrier to Smart Home adoption is the “technological fragmentation within the connected home ecosystem” – and I couldn’t agree more.