Automate your life – Home Automation 101

Anthony Caruana
19 January, 2016
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Star date: 46254.7. Captain Jean-Luc Picard walks into his quarters. “Lights – 35 percent, tea: Earl Grey, hot,” he says to no one. A few seconds later all of the captain’s requests are fulfilled.

Welcome to the world of home automation.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation was being made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the sorts of applications and hardware that were common in that fiction were fanciful compared to what we could do at the time. Voice control, artificial intelligence, fast processors and storage – what was hard to imagine in a large computer system is almost here today and we carry it on our iPhones.

So, like the original series of Star Trek that foreshadowed the mobile phone, the crew of the Enterprise D demonstrated what we’d be able to do just a few years later.

Today, near ubiquitous connectivity, low cost sensors, Siri, Apple’s HomeKit and numerous other standards, hardware and software make it possible to control and automate almost every device in our home from almost anywhere.

Where are we headed?

The challenge with home automation, and pretty much any other emerging technology, is coming up with scenarios where it will be useful.

If you’ve hung around enterprise, IT boffins you’ve probably heard about the Gartner Hype Cycle – we’ve mentioned it in the past, but in case you’ve forgotten, here’s how it goes.

When a new technology is announced or developed it goes through five distinct stages in its life.

At the start, there’s some trigger that makes it possible for the new technology to develop. If you think about new services such as Uber and Airbnb, the development of the smartphone and availability of data networks made it possible for developers to create new apps and services.

Once the new technology is created, lots of hype builds and there’s what Gartner calls the “peak of inflated expectations”. At this point, people are using words like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘paradigm shifting’. If you follow technology, when this starts happening, it’s time to get ready for the ‘trough of disillusionment’.

At this stage, vendor and developer hype is failing to deliver on the inflated expectations. It’s like when someone tells you to see a particular movie and tells you it’s sensational. Your expectations are so high the movie can’t be anything but a disappointment when you finally get to see it.

The good news is we can dig our way out of the pit and move towards enlightenment and, finally, productivity. That’s when the technology matures, we set more realistic expectations and find a practical use for the new service or application.

Where are we with home automation? We feel that we’re past the peak of inflated expectations. The good news is we don’t think the trough of disillusionment will be too deep. While many of the products on the market are quite new (see our round of smart lights and Belkin’s WeMo ecosystem on pages 60 and 64 respectively), the technology underpinning them is quite mature.

That means we’re moving towards enlightenment and productivity quite quickly. Already, it’s possible to remotely control many devices and there are frameworks and protocols in place for linking different devices and using features such as voice control.

However, it’s still all emerging. That means having realistic expectations about what the technology can do today while keeping an eye on tomorrow.

Fortunately, Moore’s Law is on our side. Sensors and processors continue to fall in price, so the cost of entry to basic automation is coming down. It’s possible to automate and remotely control a lot of your home for under $1000.

Although that’s no a paltry amount, it’s a fraction of what it cost five years ago and we can do far more today.

The significant investments will come when major household appliances such as heaters, air-conditioners and refrigerators are connected to your smart home. But those will also deliver benefits in cost savings as you’ll have much better control of them when energy prices fluctuate.

Should we care about HomeKit?

HomeKit is a curious beast and is one of the many signs Apple is planning to be a part of our entire way of living.

Long-time readers of Macworld Australia will recall that in the early 2000s, we had a section in the magazine called The Hub. It was a deliberate strategy for the magazine to walk in step with Apple’s strategy for the Mac being the hub of your digital home.

Apple has not abandoned that goal, although its way of achieving it is different.

HomeKit is a framework allows hardware and software developers to integrate their own solutions. It was introduced with iOS 8.

Until recently, if you wanted to set up a home automation system, you’d need to choose a vendor. Then you’d be committed to that vendor and whatever hardware and software they made available. If another manufacturer came up with a nifty device then you would, most likely, not be able to take advantage of it.

HomeKit allows hardware and software creators to build solutions that can work together using Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs. By using common APIs for the discovery, configuration and communication, it becomes possible for devices from disparate manufacturers to interoperate.

For example, your air-conditioning and lighting systems most likely are made by different companies and can’t work together. However, if they are both HomeKit enabled, you can create a set of rules that dim the lights slightly and change the temperature by collecting power pricing information from a HomeKit-enabled electricity meter.

Although your comfort level may not be impacted – lights dimmed by 10 percent and a temperature change of a degree or two are not likely to be noticeable – you could save significantly when power prices are at their highest. It also means you can cut back on greenhouse emissions.

The control and monitoring of this can be managed by any iOS device and, in time, we’d expect this to be a feature of the Apple TV.

The neat thing about HomeKit is its openness. Almost any software developer or hardware maker can use it. However, there is downside – it locks you into Apple’s ecosystem.

How does HomeKit Work?

Homekit, ces, macworld australiaAs HomeKit is a standard defined by Apple, in order for products to operate they need to be certified. That means looking for the ‘Works with HomeKit’ logo on the box. However, as it’s still quite new to the market, it’s possible that existing products might be retrofitted through firmware updates to work with HomeKit.

That’s potentially good news if you have some home automation gear already installed, although there’s no guarantee everyone will upgrade their gear. Our guess is that some equipment – particularly if it’s more than a year old, may not be upgradeable to work with HomeKit.

Remember, that doesn’t make it useless – it just means you may need to run two different systems side by side until your older equipment is ready for replacement.

Every HomeKit-ready device has a unique ID that is used during setup.

Once the device is set up on your iOS device, you can use Siri to control things, For example, you can walk into a room and tell your home to turn on the bedroom lights at 50 percent brightness. Or, if you group some devices such as the lights, coffee machine and TV, you can tell your home to get ready for breakfast. The the lights will turn on in the kitchen, the coffee machine will start and the TV will turn on to your preferred morning viewing.

Beacons

Apple also supports iBeacons – a standard it published in 2013 for small devices that can transmit and receive information. These small devices use Bluetooth LE to broadcast and receive a signal.

As they use Bluetooth, the beacons (iBeacon is the name of the Apple-created standard – beacons are the devices) can react to your presence. For example, a beacon in a car can automatically launch your logbook software.

At home, you can have a beacon in the room that detects when a particular person enters with their iPhone or iPad. Then, appliances such as lights, music and climate control can be automatically started, set to the person’s preferences, and turned off after they leave.

When Bill Gates built his home in Seattle, he created a system like this using pins that people wore on their clothes. Given practically everyone carries a smartphone, there’s no need for the pin as a beacon and some smart software and hardware can achieve the same outcome.

The standards game

The challenge of great home automation isn’t a lack of innovation or clever ideas. The real challenge is integration.

For example, in our home, there are light switches, power points, an air-conditioner with its own thermostat, a heating system with another thermostat, a sound system that works with cloud services, a smart TV, router, exercise equipment and many other connected devices.

While point to point connectivity is easy – I can easily use an app to control the sound system, or another app to control the lights – getting some interaction between the two, so the lights dim and Barry White starts playing during a romantic dinner is the stuff of Hollywood and not suburban Melbourne!

For different systems to communicate, you need them to either speak the same language or communicate coherently with a universal translator that can take information in from one device and pass it on to another.

For that to work, you need some standards – particularly around connectivity and information exchange. If devices can communicate and react to each other’s data home automation becomes very difficult.

Most of our mobile devices already use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. So it makes sense for these communications standards to be used. Many switches and light bulbs use these as they make it easy for people to get started.

Bluetooth used be notoriously power hungry, but recent changes mean it no longer empties batteries in a few short hours. So, look for Bluetooth LE or Bluetooth Smart labelling if you’re considering Bluetooth-enabled smart devices.

iOS, Android, Windows Phone, OS X, Linux and Windows 8 all natively support Bluetooth Smart, and the Bluetooth SIG, the body that manages the Bluetooth standard, predicts that by 2018 more than 90 percent of Bluetooth-enabled smartphones will support Bluetooth Smart.

The other home automation communications standard you may hear about is ZigBee.

ZigBee

ZigBee is a low power communications protocol that’s been around for over a decade. Although it’s not one you may have heard about, it’s commonly used in smart electricity meters.

Like any home automation scenario, ZigBee is only limited by the developers of equipment and the people using it. There are some obvious applications such as adjusting thermostats during times when power prices are at the highest or automatically activating swimming pool pumps when prices are at their lowest.

Recently, the ZigBee Alliance – the body that manages ZigBee – published new specification covering the charging of electric vehicles and new control systems for TV and other home devices that offer better control than current remote controls.

Rolling your own – IFTTT

With HomeKit still in its infancy and vendors still playing their silly ‘my ecosystem is the best’ game, it can be challenging to link up different systems.

If This Then That, or IFTTT (www.ifttt.com), lets you either create your own automation recipes or borrow those published by other users.

The beauty of IFTTT is that it works with a massive number of different services as well as home automation.

For example, you can create an IFTTT recipe that grabs all of the tweets for a particular hashtag and writes them to a new note in Evernote. Or you can capture a list of what you listened to with Spotify and have it emailed to you each week – thus solving the “what was that song I listened to on Wednesday?” problem.

The beauty of IFTTT is how it connects services that weren’t designed to be linked. For example, Fitbit activity trackers can monitor your sleep. It’s possible, using IFTTT to have the lights turn on automatically when you wake up. As the Fitbit ‘knows’ when you’re awake, it can communicate with smart lights from Philips. Or a similar recipe can be used to turn something on that’s connected to a Belkin WeMo switch.

As the name suggests, IFTT looks for some event to trigger another – if this happens, then do that.

Although we’ve been largely focusing on home automation, there are dozens of everyday tasks we carry out that could use some automation.

In your business, you can create an IFTTT recipe that captures every post and comment made to your company’s Facebook page. This can be handy as there are times when Facebook makes it hard to find past posts because of the way its display algorithms work.

Or, if you’re at a conference you can have all the tweets using the event hashtag added to a note in Evernote. Of you can have all your Facebook images automatically stored in Dropbox.

Before you can create recipes using IFTTT you need to add the channels you’re going to connect. A channel is an application or service you plan to use in your recipe. For example, if you want to use IFTTT to turn the lights on with your WeMo system when you wake up, then you’ll need to add the WeMo and Fitbit channels.

When you wake up in the morning, assuming your Fitbit is automatically logging your sleep, the light you’ve linked in the recipe will turn on.

If you have a device or service that collects or creates data you can use that to trigger some other event or action.

Planning a home automation set up

With so many options on the market – how do you plan a home automation set up?

It’s tempting to go all in and buy a bunch of gear and start automating everything, but our advice is to start small and add devices as you go. That way, you can tinker and refine each piece before adding too much complexity.

Have your final goal in mind, however, so you make smart decisions about what devices you choose to add.

Here’s what we did.

Audit and plan

We started with an audit of what power and light we have. We also noted what devices we wanted to control, such as the entertainment system.

We live in a three-bedroom house with a main living area. The area between the bedroom is almost the size of a small room and has its own power and light, creating a small foyer in the centre of the home.

Each bedroom has a central light fitting and double power outlet on the wall. One of the bedrooms is also a study and the main bedroom has a TV and small sound system.

The lounge room houses the entertainment system and there are two light fittings, each with a three-bulb fitting.

For lighting control, there are two options: smart switches and smart bulbs. Here, the question is almost entirely financial. If a smart bulb costs around $60 and a smart switch costs around $100, then it makes sense to change the switch on multi-bulb fittings and the bulbs on single bulb fittings.

Assuming we’re planning to make almost every light in the house smart, we had seven single-bulb fittings and two three-bulb fittings controlled from a single switch. We didn’t bother with the garage and laundry.

So, with lighting, we’re planning to ultimately change all seven single-bulbs to smart bulbs and the switch controlling the two three-bulb fittings to a smart switch.

There are two wall outlets that we particularly want to control: the entertainment centre in the lounge and the TV and audio in the master bedroom. Although there are many more outlets we could control, there seems little benefit for now. If things change, we can always add more control systems.

Choosing a platform

For us, given the nascent nature of consumer friendly home automation, there were two factors we were particularly focused on – support for HomeKit and support for IFTTT.

The neat thing about these is that you aren’t limited to a single vendor. For example, you may like one company’s switches, but another’s bulbs. This makes it possible to mix and match the products that best suit you without having to compromise.

Of course, cost is an important consideration. By taking a ‘whole house but one room at a time’ approach, we’re able to add pieces as we go, reducing the upfront cost without preventing us from supplementing the system in future.

Deployment

The majority of the systems we’re seeing that either support or will support HomeKit can be installed with limited expertise.

The one exception is the addition of any device that is wired in, such as a sight switch. For this, you should engage a registered electrical contractor. But light bulbs and devices that plug into power outlets can be installed by almost anyone – just be careful if you need to climb a ladder to change a globe.

The final word: security

Part of what makes your home automation system useful is the ability for it to be controlled from your iPhone or iPad. But, as Spider-Man knows, with great power comes great responsibility.

When you start connecting devices in your home to the internet you increase what the experts call your threat surface – the part of your network that can be potentially accessed by a suitably skilled and motivated party.

The rules for connected devices in the home – part of the so-called Internet of Things – are the same as for any other connected device.

  • change all default passwords
  • keep all firmware and software up to date
  • where possible, carry out the initial setup disconnected from the internet
  • ensure your iPhone and iPad are locked with a passcode, so your house stays safe even if your mobile device is stolen, and
  • don’t connect a device to your smart home network just for the sake of it – look for a concrete benefit such as convenience or cost saving so you don’t increase your threat surface for no reason.

One Comment

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  1. Greg says:

    One other major home automation protocol is zwave. This is similar to zigbee, but uses a lower frequency that doesn’t suffer from interference issues with wifi networks like zigbee does.

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