Everyone is talking about the smart home but there is a lot of disagreement about what that really means. What is a connected device? What is smart? And most importantly, what do end users really need and want? Cees Links of Qorvo, a US-based semiconductor company, explains.
For decades, we have had devices and appliances in our homes that could be considered ‘smart’. For many devices, just the fact that you had a remote control made the home device smart, i.e. a box on the wall that allowed the residents to control the lighting, music, security. For decades, thermostats have enabled residents to select various times and days to turn the heating and HVAC on and off. If the house gets too cold, the heater kicks on. If the house is too hot, the AC comes on. That’s smart, isn’t it? Well sort of.
In the last five years or so, technology companies have been adding internet connections to these existing devices and marketing them ‘smart’. Essentially the remote controls for these systems have been put on the web and are now accessible via a smartphone or any other web connected device. Does this make them any smarter? Well, not really.
We are now in the era of web connected devices. Many marketers like branding these as ‘smart appliances’ or ‘smart home systems’, but they are no smarter than the automated home devices and controllers we have had for many decades.
So what is smart? What can we do to make our connected devices really smart?
Smart means that not only can they be managed and controlled via an internet connection, but they need to be able to do something intelligent. And they need to be able to do something without a human being in the loop. They need intelligence for being able to learn from the past and take intentional action to address the future. A true smart device is more than just a device, or a network of devices. Essentially a service, it consists of a group of sensors that transmits its data to the web, where a cloud-based intelligence analyses the incoming data, compares it against what is normal for that household and for similar households, and then makes a decision regarding what to do in the home.
Consider a leak detection system for water heaters. After a decade or so in use, water heaters often start leaking and need to be replaced. Sometimes the leak is gradual and can be noticed by the resident and the problem dealt with. However, in some cases, there is a catastrophic failure and hot water starts pouring out, making a big mess, damaging the house and wasting lots of expensive energy and water. A smart leak detection service not only senses the leak and sends the resident a message alerting them to the leak, but also can do something about it. Once the leak is noted, the leak detection system actually turns off the water going into the water heater and also shuts off the gas and/or electricity powering the water heater.
Instead of finding their entire garage or basement flooded, with lots of ancillary water damage, the damage is limited and minimal. There is no big bill to pay for all the water that was wasted. No big energy bill to pay for the power bill that was generated heating up all the water that was not used. This is a smart service - with smart devices.
Another interesting example of a smart home service is what is known as Family@Home. Often called Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS), it consists of sensors located in strategic spots in the home to monitor motion and movement and provide a view of what is happening in the home. Even better, it allows the home owner – via web intelligence – to monitor the health and well-being of the residents within. It does this by utilising the service’s cloud intelligence to analyse the data generated by the home’s residents over a period of a few weeks or so and then creates a pattern of what is normal in the household. If something goes wrong or changes abruptly, an alert can be generated.
For example, a senior citizen/person is living alone in the home. Without using cameras or forcing the person to carry a special fob or wear a special bracelet, the system tracks the movements from when the person first gets up. What time does he or she get out of bed? When does the bathroom door open and shut? What time does he or she go to the kitchen or leave the house? As long as the person stays on schedule, all is fine. However, if suddenly the person does not leave the bedroom or the bathroom door does not move, an alert can be generated and sent to children or caregivers.
Qorvo’s Senior Lifestyle is a type of Family@Home Smart Service technology specifically targeting senior citizens who prefer to live out their elder years independently.
This is just with a limited number of sensors. More sensors can be added to monitor the home’s temperature, lighting control, window and door security, and even hot water heater leakage. In addition, health monitoring systems can be integrated into the system as needed. What makes this service really interesting is that the cloud intelligence also monitors gradual changes. If it is starting to take longer for the resident to get from the bedroom into the kitchen, the service can send an alert to the senior’s children or caregivers to give her a call and check in. For instance, because the person is having more difficulties with walking, or balance or not eating breakfast.
Throughout the world - especially in countries like China and Germany, systems like this are being rolled-out by large operators in order to provide comfort and care to the many thousands of ageing seniors who want to age in place - who do not want to move into senior care homes and prefer to live out their days in their own homes, as long as reasonably possible.
These kinds of smart services can also be used with families - monitoring the state of the home as well as the movements all those living inside - the adults, children and even pets.
So what do consumers want from the smart home?
First off they don’t want a collection of connected devices. They want a smart service to provide all the essentials and just send them a bill at the end of the month. Aside from a few early innovators and tech heads who really enjoy setting up technology, most consumers prefer to enjoy the benefits of the technology without having to go through the difficult tasks of deciding what kinds of sensors to purchase, how to make them all talk to together, installing and maintaining them, etc.
One very important advantage of a consolidated service, with a single service provider or integrator handing the installation, maintenance and operation, is that they can provide a single smartphone app or online dashboard that can be used by the consumer to manage all the home’s smart services. Instead of a smartphone with a handful or more different connected home control apps, consumers want a single unified app that can handle all the smart service options from a single interface. And, as the family changes over time, the services can grow as well, adding new services to the existing user interface.
The Smart Home industry is a potential trillion-dollar market. The secret for success is not to get overly involved in developing stand alone connected devices but instead, to see the entire picture, and develop a system or components for services that are unified, standardised and easy for consumers to understand and use.