Turning the connected house into a smart home

Cramming your house full of smart gadgets doesn't make it a smart home, but there are a range of tools available to pull it all together.

For all the talk of the connected home, our various smart gadgets aren't very good at talking to each other. The smart home ecosystem is slowly taking shape, but what will bind it together?

‘Smart’ is the new black and there's no shortage of gadgets and home appliances getting in on the action. Along with smartphones you've got smart televisions and Personal Video Recorders in the lounge room, while out in the kitchen you'll find smart fridges, ovens, dishwashers, slow cookers and coffee machines. Wander through the house and you'll discover other smart appliances like air conditioners, heaters, washing machines and dryers -- not to mention webcams, motion detectors, security systems, light bulbs, wall switches and power plugs.

The Internet of Things certainly has a foothold in our homes. It seems anything you can switch on and off can be connected to the internet, but this alone doesn't make your home smart.

Were your home a business you'd call in a systems integrator at this point. When it comes to disparate systems around your home, you might dig deep for a professional installer -- basically a prosumer systems integrator with a taste for expensive solutions who will likely throw around home automation names like Crestron, Savant, Control4 and AMX. Or you could cobble something together yourself with off-the-shelf consumer-grade gear.

If your home is a greenfields site, or you're prepared to wipe the slate clean, you'll find that appliance makers are fleshing out their smart ecosystems. Building on the oft-maligned smart fridge, LG and Samsung were showing off their new smart appliance ecosystems at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Via a single app you can text home to turn on the dishwasher, pre-heat the oven, run the robot vacuum cleaner and check if there's beer in the fridge.

Of course that's assuming that you're happy to replace all your home appliances with shiny new offerings from a single vendor. If you're this cashed up and keen then you'll probably look to a professional installer anyway. For the rest of us, the concept of the integrated smart home will struggle to find mainstream acceptance until there's at least a basic level of interoperability between consumer-grade gear.

Unless you've employed a home systems integrator, right now your connected home is probably the equivalent of a lounge room coffee table buried under a mountain of remote controls. You might be able to drive everything in your home from your smartphone, but only after switching between a slew of apps.

Belkin's WeMo home automation ecosystem is one of the more promising consumer-grade options you'll find on the shelves today. Driven from an iOS or Android device, it gives you control over light bulbs, wall switches, baby monitors and power plugs -- the latter letting you remotely switch any electrical device on or off. Belkin also plans to release DIY kits for adding WeMo compatibility to other devices such as garage doors.

WeMo-enabled kitchen appliances such as coffee pots and slow cookers are coming, but what's particularly impressive is built-in support for timers and motion detectors which can trigger events. Rather than waiting for your command, your smart coffee pot can wake up the same time as you or, better yet, wake up when you step out of the bedroom.

The ability to control lights in a similar fashion puts WeMo a step ahead of other remote control light bulb options, such as the Phillips Hue or LIFX Kickstarter project. Both initially focused on changing colours but are now fleshing out their APIs because they understand that, in the future of home automation, interoperability is king.

The logic built into the WeMo system certainly makes it versatile, but a whole new world opens up when you look to cloud-based services such as If This Then That. It ties together cloud services with real-world appliances using ‘recipes’ based on simple conditional statements.

By combining WeMo with IFTTT you might create recipes such as "If the weather forecast is cold tonight then turn on the WeMo plug connected to my electric blanket" or "If the iOS Location Channel detects that I'm at my holiday house, then turn on my lights at home in the evening". This is when your home truly becomes smart: when it can take care of itself rather than relying on you to do everything manually.

The next stage in the evolution of the smart home is to reach into every corner and connect to more devices. This is where short-range wireless protocols such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and Bluetooth Low Energy come into the picture. They're vying to be the low-powered wireless standard which unites appliances spread around the home.

BLE has the advantage that it's already built into many smartphones and is the foundation of Apple's iBeacon system. But ZigBee is the one to watch, because it's already in many Australian homes via the smart meter rollouts. With a focus on integration modules for a range of appliances, ZigBee looks destined to be the secret sauce which holds the smart home together. Home automation players like Belkin and Philips have ensured their smart light bulbs support ZigBee, so they're not left outside the growing ecosystem.

Australian ISP iiNet is incorporating ZigBee into some of its new home routers via a partnership with local start-up Ninja Blocks, which has also found success on Kickstarter. Ninja Blocks also supports infrared blasters, allowing them to control appliances which aren't yet internet-enabled. The Ninja Blocks base station features light, temperature, humidity and motion detectors, acting as a bridge between your devices and your physical environment.

Once smart homes are aware of their environment and able to make decisions, they'll start to learn your habits and anticipate your requirements. We're already seeing such learning features in the Nest smart thermostat/smoke alarm and Canary smart security system, designed to look for unusual events such as leaving the heater on when you're usually not home.

None of this is science fiction. You can do it all today if you're prepared to invest the money and then spend time getting it all to work, or else pay an installer to do it for you. All it's waiting for is a backer with enough money, clout and vision to pull it all together. Just after CES in January, Google acquired Nest for $US3.2 billion in cash. Google's plans for this ZigBee-enabled smart thermostat, designed to sit at the heart of your home, may well determine the future direction of the smart home.


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