How smart home products empower users with disabilities

23/10/2017

How smart home products empower users with disabilities

Smart home products are often marketed for their convenience, but the technology also can help people with disabilities become more independent.

Smart home products are objects connected via Wi-Fi or a different technology to other things in the home; they can be controlled remotely by a touch panel or an app on a device. Smart home technology remains a nascent category, but some consumer products include functions that previously were found in assistive devices.

Smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi-connected homes made the overlap possible, said Stephen Ewell, executive director of the Consumer Technology Association Foundation. Apps use smartphone accessibility features, like voice commands or touchscreens, opening interaction with various home technologies. The consumer market’s economies of scale can make smart home products cheaper and with better technology than assistive devices, he said.

Attractively designed smart home products also remove the stigma some disabled feel when using a clinical-looking device, Ewell said.

“What I hear more and more from the disabled community is that they really are looking for the same devices that the general consumer market is looking for,” he said.

Both the people with disabilities and product manufacturers are just starting to realize the empowering potential in these products, said Cristen Reat, co-founder of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

One of the top smart-home devices is Amazon’s Echo line, which use Amazon’s Alexa voice service, said both Reat, and Alexander Glazebrook, director of training and technology for Older Adults Technology Services in New York.

The Echo Dot ($49.99) is Amazon’s voice-activated speaker, and the newest product is the Echo Show, ($229.99), which has video-call integration. Reat said Echo can be used for audiobooks and voice shopping, and it even picks up communication devices used by nonverbal people.

“Voice shopping is tremendous for people with disabilities. Someone with a cognitive impairment can be taught to order things,” she said.

Reat said she was very impressed that Echo recognized robotic voice commands. “That’s a huge impact for people who cannot speak for themselves and rely on technology to speak for them,” she said.

Glazebrook said senior citizens his group works with enjoy interacting with Echo, and he sees a lot of promise that the Echo Show’s video capability could reduce the feeling of isolation in the elderly.

Smart locks and smart doorbells offer convenience and safety for people with disabilities and their caregivers. Popular lock brands include August Smart Lock (starting at $149) and Schlage (starting at $199), while a top smart doorbell is Ring (starting at $179).

“Smart doorbells are good for all ages. Ring has a video camera on the doorbell, and you can see on your computer (or phone) who it is and communicate through the doorbell, even if you’re not at home,” Glazebrook said.

Reat said smart locks make it easier for people with disabilities to enter and exit the home, and caregivers don’t have to run home to let someone in or give out permanent keys, since they can control entry from their phone. Some higher-end smart locks have video cameras.

Reat said smart ceiling fans, like the Signal line from Hunter Fan ($349), combine safety and comfort. Especially in hot areas, ceiling fans help with circulation, but manual fans can be difficult for people with disabilities if they require standing on a chair to switch speeds or direction.

Money can be an issue for people with disabilities, as many cannot work, Reat said. An inexpensive way to add smart technology is with smart switches, like those from iDevices (starting at $29.95) or Belkin’s WeMo (starting at $34.99). Users plug manual objects into the smart switch, and the object can be controlled from their smartphone.

Smart light bulbs, like Philips Hue ($99.99 for a starter kit), are energy efficient and come in color palates, said Glazebrook. Not only can users control them remotely, they can change the colors if they’re sensitive to lights.

“I love that product. I‘ve had it close to four to five years, and they’ve not gone out,” he said.

Debbie Carlson is a freelance writer.

What lies beneath: the smart home that wears its technology lightly

9/10/2017

What lies beneath: the smart home that wears its technology lightly

Picture a tech-savvy home and you will probably envisage a slick, white cube where the blinds whirr up at a preset hour and sensors turn on the shower. But a smart home doesn’t have to be robotic and flashy. “We wanted to use technology to make life easier,” says Gigi Sutherland of the home she and her partner, Matt Sellers, redesigned in East Sussex. With walls clad in basic building materials, the mood here is far from futuristic. The rough and ready aesthetic has hidden depths, though, from concealed speakers and motion sensors to app-controlled energy and security systems.

The house dates from the 1950s and, while the building itself is not so special, it backs on to Camber Sands. “It was just a set of boxy rooms and two garages,” says Sutherland, a stylist. “We wanted to join up the spaces and integrate the garages into the house.” The pair rebuilt the interior from scratch. Walls are made from OSB, a type of chipboard, and plaster-like dark grey Artex. “It creates a tadelakt-style finish with a nice chalky texture,” says Sutherland. The flooring is grey poured concrete.

Technology was integrated from the start, but it isn’t the main focus: fittingly, for this beachside house, it is all about helping its owners to switch off.

A wood-burning stove provides old-school heat in the living room (above). Elsewhere, an app, MiHome (mihome4u.co.uk), operates the 300‑litre MegaFlo boiler and Haverland RCTT radiators; it uses geofencing technology to send a signal to the wifi-enabled radiator valves to turn them on or off when the couple are a certain distance from home. “When we reach a GPS point – we chose about 16 miles from the front door – they turn on, so it is warm when we arrive,” says Sutherland. “For us, old‑fashioned timers would waste energy, because we don’t always get home at the same time every day.” App‑linked energy monitors on the radiators give an instant snapshot of how much electricity is being used. “If I’m away from the house, I can look on my phone and see instantly if, say, we have left the hot water on,” says Sutherland.

Tucked out of sight on the living room ceiling, a projector screen slides down at the touch of a button, partnered with a Benq 3D HD projector (benq.co.uk). “It’s like being at the cinema, but with a wood burner and comfy sofas,” says Sutherland. The screen plays DVDs, Blu-rays, YouView TV or images streamed via a five-channel Yamaha RX-V473 AV receiver.

The sofas are from Ikea, the cushions from marimekko.com and the Vitra bench – used here as a coffee table – by George Nelson. The framed print is from playtype.com.

The entrance hall (above) is painted in Bedec’s multisurface paint in satin black, available at brewers.co.uk. For similar vintage wall hooks and bench, try Sunbury antiques market. The hammam towels are from thesilversheep.co.uk.

Solar-powered motion sensors light up the decking, just off the kitchen/dining area (above), while a Yale (yale.co.uk) SR-330 smart home alarm with PIR – passive infrared – motion detectors and camera are part of a security system that, again, is linked to the owners’ phones. “If a sensor is triggered, it sends us an alert, along with an image of the area,” says Sutherland. They recently spotted someone having a good nose around. “There’s a built-in speaker, so I said: ‘Hello, can I help you?’ They quickly disappeared.” At the front of the house is an HD video doorbell from Ring (ring.com), which can be answered from anywhere via a phone, PC or tablet. “I can see and talk to someone at the door without them knowing whether I’m busy inside or away from the house,” says Sutherland. “It’s useful for asking couriers to leave a delivery by the door – and even better for politely sending cold callers on their way.”

Small but powerful Pioneer S-HS100 speakers are concealed in every room, even on the decking outside.The AV receiver that is used to screen films also plays music via Spotify or iTunes in every room and is controlled from the pair’s phones or tablets. They have playlists for every room.

With so much tech linked to their phones, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when the couple rewired the house, they chose plug sockets that include USB ports for most rooms (then attached a bunch of power cords) to make charging easy (above). This has the added advantage of leaving the three‑pin sockets free.

Smart Home Products Are Getting Cheaper

4/10/2017

Smart Home Products Are Getting Cheaper

Photo by Jake Kastrenakes / The Verge

August’s revamped smart lock is now $149, down from $229, a price that should draw far more people in to consider buying a smart lock. Sidebar: August’s smart lock doesn’t work on garage doors, which is where most people who have a garage would like their smart lock to be (unless you have a deadbolt on your garage door, which is very rare). I rarely ever open my front door, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. So, August (hi!), please make a smart lock that works for garage doors.

And then there is Ikea, with its low-cost line of smart light bulbs. Ikea’s Trådfri smart light bulbs start at $12 for a white bulb, compared to $20 for a TP-Link or $30 for a Philips Hue bulb. (There’s also a $15 Philips Hue bulb, but it can’t change the white temperature like the Ikea bulb can.) Given how many light bulbs you have to purchase if you want most of your home to be outfitted with them, the savings can be massive using Ikea bulbs instead of the alternatives.

That’s only three examples, but here’s the thing: you don’t need a lot of products to have a smart home. I have my entire house outfitted with Philips Hue bulbs (not cheap) and a Nest Thermostat E, and my home feels very smart. I can turn on my lights from across the country and my AC automatically cuts off when I leave the house — and that’s only two devices.

Photo: Amazon

Even the devices you need to control your smart home have become easier to use. You don’t have to deal with four or five different apps for the devices you get. These days, you can just use smart assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s HomeKit to manage your collection of smart home devices. And those devices have fallen in price as well. Amazon just released a new Echo at $99, far cheaper than the $199 original version cost. Also, according to recent leaks, Google is expected to release a Home Mini at $50 to compete against the Echo Dot.

Theoretically, people can now outfit most of their house with smart bulbs, a smart assistant, and a thermostat or a smart lock for less than $400 — an impossible feat just a few months ago. The smart home may not technically be cheap, but it is getting cheaper, and that’s good for everyone.

Amazon’s Alexa Is A Real Smart Home Platform Now

2/10/2017

Amazon’s Alexa Is A Real Smart Home Platform Now

In the battle over smart homes, Amazon steps up from its supporting role.

Alongside all the new Echo devices Amazon announced on Wednesday, the company also revealed a subtle but significant shift in its smart-home strategy.

Alexa is no longer just a layer of voice controls that supplements other smart home systems such as Samsung SmartThings, Alphabet’s Nest, Philips Hue, and Lowe’s Iris. Instead, it’s becoming a full-blown smart-home platform, replacing many of the functions that those other systems provide.

The implication is that Amazon doesn’t want to play a supporting role in smart homes anymore. Instead, it wants a hand in every interaction, even if voice isn’t always involved.

ALEXA’S NEW SMART HOME SKILLS

Part of Amazon’s shift comes from the tools it’s now offering to device makers. In a press release, Amazon describes a new version of its Alexa Smart Home API as “the largest improvement … since it was launched in April 2016.”

The most notable change is support for routines that trigger several actions at once. This allows a user to say “Alexa, goodnight,” and have the system lock the doors, turn off the lights, and lower the thermostat. Alexa will also provide more feedback on device state, so users can check on the thermostat temperature or ask if any lights are on. Meanwhile, the Alexa app will serve as a central dashboard, where users can monitor and control their devices.

These are not new concepts for smart-home systems, and they’re not even new to Alexa. Samsung’s SmartThings platform, for instance, already supports multi-device routines that users can trigger through Alexa voice commands, as does Wink. But that’s the point: Instead of leaning on those companies for home automation, Amazon now wants to handle the automation itself.

[Photo: courtesy of Amazon]

A BIG BET ON PROTOCOLS

Still, Amazon can’t fully replace other smart-home hubs without offering one of its own. To that end, the company announced a new connected speaker called the Echo Plus. It has the same design as the original Echo, but adds a ZigBee radio inside.

Although ZigBee isn’t a household name, its energy efficiency and long range have made it a popular wireless protocol for smart lights, switches, sensors, cameras, and locks. The Echo Plus can communicate with those devices directly, eliminating or at least minimizing the need for additional hubs and bridges. (To drive the point home, Amazon has a promo that throws in one Philips Hue bulb with each Echo Plus.)

Amazon’s fellow tech titans have been reluctant to take this step. Apple has avoided building a HomeKit hub, content to let users deal with third-party bridges instead. And while Google’s OnHub and Wi-Fi routers both include ZigBee radios, they can only control Philips Hue bulbs through a smartphone app. Google hasn’t used those radios to build a broader smart-home hub.

By comparison, Amazon’s going all-in on ZigBee. In a blog post, the company says existing ZigBee smar- home devices should support Alexa voice commands “with little or no additional development,” and Ars Technica reports that more than 100 devices will work at the outset. To connect them, users just need to say “Alexa, discover devices.”

ENTER GADGETS

Some smart-home vendors might argue that their own hubs and bridges are still necessary. For instance, George Yianni, Philips Lighting’s head of technology for home systems, told me in a previous interview that the Hue Bridge has tighter integration with the company’s light bulbs compared to third-party bridges. He reiterated that point in an email this week.

“The Philips Hue bridge isn’t going anywhere; it enables us to keep adding to this experience,” Yianni said. “Consumers can enjoy the 700 third-party apps, Hue sensors and switches, custom scenes, new entertainment capabilities, and much more with the Philips Hue bridge.”

But Amazon may have an answer to this as well, buried within the strangest announcement from its Wednesday press event: Later this year, Amazon will launch a new category of “Alexa Gadgets” that can send and receive commands from devices like the Echo. The first of these gadgets will be a smart button that lights up and serves as a buzzer for trivia games.

For now, Amazon is pitching Alexa Gadgets as a fun diversion. Still, the underlying tools include the ability to move motors, react to Alexa notifications, synchronize with sounds or music, and send commands back to Alexa. In theory, these capabilities could power a wave of new smart-home triggers such as light switches, door locks, and motion sensors–all with deep ties to Alexa. This in turn could fill in the one missing piece in Amazon’s smart-home platform, which is the ability to have one device prompt an action on another.

All of this should put Amazon on a level playing field with Apple, whose HomeKit framework already includes both the voice interaction layer (through Siri) and the underlying routines and triggers (through the Home app). The new strategy also turns Samsung’s SmartThings and Alphabet’s Nest into more direct competitors, even as they support Alexa voice commands on their own platforms.

In other words, Alexa is no longer just a benign voice assistant that plays nicely with other smart-home platforms. With millions of Echos in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, and a year-and-a-half of accrued knowledge about how smart-home devices should work, Amazon’s going to war.

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