Smart home automation and connectivity

By Tony Jeff:

Since at least the introduction of The Jetson’s television show in 1962, the hope of a fully automated “smart home” has been an alluring and tantalizing idea. Unfortunately, though, few areas in technology have been as disappointing and elusive as smart homes that really make our lives better. There just haven’t been many “killer apps” despite lots of efforts to try to introduce technologies into our homes and the applications that have been introduced have seemed more like novelties than truly valuable innovations. I feel that is about to change, though, so I think it’s interesting to look at the growing potential for several killer apps in the home automation space.

By far the most successful smart home device has been the Nest Thermostat. This simple device replaces your home thermostat and functions in two key modes – it learns your habits and sets the heating and cooling accordingly or it allows you to change the temperature from your smart phone or tablet. The Nest Thermostat folks strongly tout their energy savings, but the energy savings aren’t appreciably more than what someone would expect from any programmable thermostat. It is much cooler to show off, though, and as more Nest connected devices come on board, the functionality will increase significantly. There are also competing smart thermostats on the market.

Another related device that I’ve followed closely is the Keen Home controllable vents. These smart vents replace the regular vents in your home and take temperature readings in each room. They can then open and close to adjust the temperature differently in each room. Keen Home had a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign and is rolling out new connected solutions. I’ve personally never lived in a house that didn’t have some rooms burning up while other rooms were freezing, so I’m really looking forward to getting one of their sets soon.

One device I do have – and can’t stop showing off – is the Ring Doorbell. The Ring Doorbell replaces your regular doorbell with a motion sensing HD camera and voice conferencing system. Any motion triggers the sensor to turn on streaming video from my front door and if someone does ring the doorbell I can answer it from anywhere using my smartphone. All motion detection and ring-triggered videos are stored on the cloud and can be sent or saved as needed. My 6-year-old son recently rang the doorbell just to call me to tell me what was on his mind – which is the only video I know I’ll save so far. If an intruder triggered it or the accompanying add-on cameras, though, I’ll have that video to give to law enforcement. I can even tell the intruder in real time that the police are on the way and he is on video. The Ring Doorbell integrates with other cameras, some security systems, and other home automation systems.

Another set of devices I saw at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show is now more widely available – the BeOn smart light systems. These cool lights look just like regular light bulbs but each bulb contains a battery and smart connection system. The lights can imitate your normal light patterns when you are not at home, turn on all the lights when your doorbell rings or a fire alarm sounds. They can even run the lights for up to 5 hours when the power goes out. The coolest thing to me is their simplicity. They come out of the box ready to be plugged into a regular light socket, require almost no setup, and have a simple user interface through a key fob or smartphone.

The other major category of killer apps all focus on home connected solutions that enable easier purchases from home. Amazon introduced their Dash buttons and Walmart/Peapod have followed suit with their Hiku scanner. Both systems allow you to quickly and easily reorder household items while it’s on your mind, but they have completely different approaches. Amazon has 250 individual Dash buttons with a different brand name on them. Push the button and that specific product is ordered though Amazon Prime. Walmart’s Hiku is a scanner that connects to your smartphone and thus has a wider selection without placing 1000 logo buttons around your home. Amazon then will deliver via Amazon Prime and Walmart/Peapod do the same in their relevant delivery territories or make it available for in-store pickup.

Whether it’s Samsung’s smart refrigerator that allows you to look inside your fridge to see if you need milk from your smartphone at the grocery store, or roaming kid’s robots that act as security systems, there is no doubt smart home solutions are already hitting the market in big ways. It’s hard to say which ones will prove themselves worthy of finicky consumers, and a solution as smooth as The Jetson’s Rosie the Robot is still not quite here, but the future is certainly looking bright for smart home automation. Let’s just hope the most valuable solutions are just around the corner.