New Technologies - Moving Towards Smart Homes

This week I wrote to me Nan. Now before you say anything about poor grammar, "me Nan" is correct.  When you're from the northern side of the divide within the UK., it is 'me Nan'. Not 'My Nan'.  "I'm going to see me Nan". See. It makes sense.

Anyhow, me Nan is 99 years old. Impressive (she swears by drinking hot water daily btw). As you can imagine, she's seen and experienced many changes since 1917. Apparently, she was fortunate (her words) because she had a basic fridge and cooker when she was raising her seven children.  She didn't have a dishwasher, washing machine, microwave, freezer, tumbler dryer or electric vacuum cleaner. Let alone a TV to entertain the kids while she used, filled, emptied all of these appliances.  I've often marveled at this as I've raised my mere two.

 Me Nan would have had a kitchen like this in her child rearing days. Image Source: homerenovations.about.com

Me Nan would have had a kitchen like this in her child rearing days. Image Source: homerenovations.about.com

So automating the home isn't anything new. It's been going on for decades. With every invention or advancement, we claw some time and ease our living. How much of your time is saved with the appliances listed above? You can be washing the dishes and doing the laundry whilst also cooking dinner. Simultaneously.  Or even better, whilst not even being there. "Appliance enabled multi-tasking" saves us hours every single day. 

But the current wave of home automation we're seeing has moved on from the invention of time saving appliances  (although I did see an advert for a clothes folder the other day). Today it's all about controlling those appliances and the other systems around the house at a tap of an icon. For technophobes, the thought of 'home automation or 'smart home' or 'intuitive home' may be overwhelming. The concept is really simple. It's the technology that is complicated!

 Home automation is about controlling systems. Image Source: www.taylorintime.com

Home automation is about controlling systems. Image Source: www.taylorintime.com

Put simply, home automation gives you the ability to control the environmental, security and entertainment systems as well as appliances in your home. The environment system includes lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation and irrigation (clearly outside!).  The entertainment system includes smart TVs, music systems and information technology in all its forms. Whilst the security system includes security cameras (internal & external), door and window locks, sensors, smoke detectors and alarms. It's been reported that the purposeful automation of the environmental system can create considerable energy savings.

 At the tap of a icon or swipe of a tab. Image Source - http://ip-mpls.com/

At the tap of a icon or swipe of a tab. Image Source - http://ip-mpls.com/

The systems and appliances connect through a home network, which can be either hard wired and/or wireless, and controlled by panels mounted around the house. Remote access is achieved through the internet, so you can monitor and control what's going on using an interface on your computer, tablet or smartphone.  Some systems go one step 'smarter' and recognise personal preferences and patterns, automatically adjusting settings accordingly. Too soon? Thought so.

But there are hurdles. Two big ones.  Ironically the first hurdle is technology. There is no single standard protocol, interface or hub that all automation links into. Different providers have their own hubs and interfaces and none talk to each other. Why would Brand 1  allow their product to talk to Brand 2? They want you to buy Brand 1 after Brand 1 after Brand 1. They're all at it.  In addition, with so many different brands of appliances and hardware in our home, it's really hard to get one system to talk to them all. Don't even get me on the topic of internet dependability. It's all messy and iggledy piggledy (that's technical speak and not for the faint hearted). Consumers have often bravely started out only to be whittled down into technically challenged jibbering wrecks.

 Brand Loyalty. Image Source: fastgrowingtrees.com

Brand Loyalty. Image Source: fastgrowingtrees.com

As a result, the few systems that we can get our hands on in deepest darkest Australia have been less than reliable and have been known to leave us in the dark. Literally. Your smart bulb won't turn on because your WiFi has dropped out.  The complexity of it all has created barriers to the uptake.

The other big hurdle has been cost, but that's set to change. With home automation technology being complicated and mostly hardwired by professionals, take up has been for the few. But as wireless technology has grown within the home, the cost associated with installation has been reduced. With more accessible interfaces on smart devices, home automation is really opening up to more consumers.  Other issues of hacking wireless systems have also been raised.  Your system is only as strong as your weakest link. Someone might be able to open your front door by hacking into your fridge first! 

 Come right on in, its cold inside. Image source: www.memecenter.com

Come right on in, its cold inside. Image source: www.memecenter.com

So do you want to control your home from a centralised hub? Without moving off the sofa? Or even when you're not there? For those of you that lead busy lives, home automation can be really useful. It's not going to save you any time, other than a few minutes here and there. But it's going to make running your families life a little easier.  You could let a delivery driver through the gates whilst you're at work.  Turn on the heating or start dinner 20 minutes before you arrive home.  Check that the kids have got home from school (and lock the biscuit tin).  Turn off the lights once you realise you've forgotten to do so during the crazy house exit with only two minutes to school drop off. Or sensors altering awning positions or opening windows when the cold change comes in without you having to blink (that's for the Melbourne people). I guess the key question is: How much will it improve your life and is it worth the investment? 

 Hifi Wireless Speakers and Home Audion System. Image Source: Sonos.com

Hifi Wireless Speakers and Home Audion System. Image Source: Sonos.com

We  automated our entertainment system about five years ago and it has made a huge difference to the way we access music and multimedia. There was a lot of investment of time (ripping all our CDs onto the server for a start) and money. But now, with a smart TV, a networked music player and a network attached storage system (NAS), we can use our smart devices to select music and programs to play. Gone are the days of the CD, the DVD, the recording and playing. Our habits have changed as a result of this investment. We rarely watch realtime TV. We listen to, or watch, what we want, when we want, all from one source. It is fantastic. Mainly because it's simple and even I can use it.  But it's only fantastic whilst it works. Turns out our TV isn't so smart after all. In fact it can be really dumb and causes much frustration. When you put a door key in the lock you know that 99.99% of the time it's going to work. It's reliable. The fragmented delivery of home automation at present makes it unreliable and complicated. Until home automation is like a key, completely reliable and simple, its not likely to be taken on by the masses. 

Even though home system automation still needs refinement, the industry is moving on with new developments in terms of communication and information management.  Combining home automation and intelligent software such as Siri and hardware like Alexa its only a matter of time before we could each have our own Personal Assistant. As you ask for information or tasks to be done such as "Add this to the shopping list"  "Whats the weather going to be like today?" technology is set to take over how you run your lives and the homes you live in. Personally I wont be interested until said hardware can hang out, bring in and fold washing. Then I'm in!