Don’t invite the Jetsons over for dinner just yet

At a time when Spark’s Digital Ventures unit is currently trialling a SmartHome system with a view to launch it in the market in early 2015, we are stepping ever closer to a time when our homes become automated entities that respond to what we are doing and where we are. So, in an effort to see what all the hype is about, Vanilla Brief director Ben Slater recently underwent a smarthome trial.   

Our Smart Home test home is not a modern house. Having been built in the 1970s it had standard wiring, no data cabling and was a normal sized  four-bedroom home.

The first step in the trial was converting over all available light-sockets to use the LED and WiFi-based Philips Hue bulbs.

In Australia and New Zealand the majority of homes are fitted with bayonet style light fittings, so our first connected home prep involved a visit from a friendly electrician to change over all sockets to the less common and more modern screw fitting.

Once the fittings were changed over, plugging in the lights and setting up the Philips Hue system was a breeze. It was quite possibly the most enjoyable and obviously beneficial experience of the entire Smart Home trial. Tethered by GPS-based location services to our mobile phones, lights came on when we arrived home, turned off when we left, or turned on and dimmed at dusk from a white light to something warmer and more conducive to relaxation.

Plus, although we didn’t use it that often, it certainly was neat to be able to turn lights on an off using a Pebble and Huebble.

The only frustration was having multiple people coming and going in the house meant that we needed to think carefully about the rules that were set up. Initially, when one person left the house, it caused those left behind to be plunged into darkness, but we quickly worked out what to tweak.

This did however raise the first problem with the Smart Home revolution — it is built primarily for the single person home, or more hopefully it performs best in this situation.

Having experienced the ability to change every room in the house to pink for a Baby Shower, and maroon for a State of Origin match, we had a thirst for more. It was time introduce the Belkin WeMo home automation system into our test environment.

One of the more helpful advantages we discovered, as introduced above, was the ability to turn all lights in the house on and off at will. However as some rooms of the house had only recently been refitted with LED down-lights, the expense of converting these to Philips Hue (plus as the requisite Philips Hue down light bulbs are not available in Australia yet) was not an option.

The elegant and modern WIFI enabled Belkin WeMo Light Switches were the obvious choice for controlling the lights which had not been converted to the Philips Hue system.

Installation was a breeze, once again simple replacement of the existing light switches was easy and worked perfectly. Lights could be turned on and off using the Belkin app, or timed to turn on or off at certain times, much like the Philips Hue system.

However, this installation of a second form of home automation raised our second problem. How to get the lighting systems to integrate with one-another?

It’s all well and good to have apps for turning off lights, or time and location based events triggering certain actions, but arguably the goal of the Smart Home is to simply get out of the way. If we have to open an app every time we want to turn off a light, then we may as well simply walk to the switch on the wall.

Introducing our saviour IFTTT, the current connected brain of many smarthome experiments and installations.

IFTTT describes itself as being ‘a service that lets you create powerful connections with one simple statement: if this then that.’ Essentially you create recipes which link differing services which are tied to the IFTTT service, which allow sequences of events to occur.

For example, in order to solve our issue of being able to turn off all lights in the house with either one button push or command from an app we created the following recipe: if the Belkin WeMo dining room light is switched off, then turn off all Philips Hue lights in the house, and turn on the main toilet light and dim to 10 percent.

This is the last action to be performed at night before going to bed, and can be prompted simply by pressing the Belkin Wemo light switch on the wall in the dining room, or from within the Belkin app.

The simplicity of the three services, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue and IFTTT working together is a symphony of automation. It has never failed, and even if it did the worst case scenario is having to walk around the house actually physically turning off lights. #firstworldproblems

Having mastered automated lighting, it was about at this stage where we thirsted for more. More automation. More fancy gadgets. And as it turns out, more headaches.

Our next discovery was that IFTTT really only goes so far, the extra steps of “if this then that then that then that” is currently unavailable, so advanced automation was still unattainable.

Based on this, the next obvious step in our Smart Home trial was to introduce a hub which could control all of the Smart Home services we had acquired through a central system.

Having followed the Kickstarter success of SmartThings in 2012, and reading reviews of competing Smart Home hubs like Revolv, we settled on SmartThings as our preferred guinea pig. The starter kit was purchased from Amazon, and within a week the SmartThings hub (the brain of the system) and various sensors arrived.

Once again setup was a breeze, the SmartThings hub found the Philips Hue system and we quickly set up the bundled motion sensor to detect when someone was up at night to turn on extra lights, or the door sensors to tell us when doors were open.

(Initially, when we received the SmartThings hub the Belkin WeMo Light Switch was not able to be paired with the SmartThings hub, but as of a week ago the new SmartThings iOS app was launched and the Belkin WeMo Light Switch is now easily paired.)

SmartThings is busy adding more devices and services to its connected home platform, their system is being touted as the front-runner in this market, their customer support is highly responsive and the iOS app is comprehensive and well-thought out.

Adding a Sonos audio system to SmartThings was the next test, with the promise of audio announcements of the weather when we woke up, or setting the music to play specific albums when we arrived home. After some initial teething problems with speaker selection (Sonos works in zones which didn’t play nice with SmartThings) we had the system set up so that when we arrived home Hendrix started playing, or when the front door was opened this was announced by a Siri-esque voice.

And therein lies the problem. Setting up rules to do certain tasks is great in theory, but in practice we do not live in a ‘set and forget’ world.

Very quickly we discovered that having the lights turn on in the toilet at night using the motion sensor was not smart enough to have the lights dim to night-time levels, and it was less disruptive to sleep to simply fumble around in the dark.

Also, we don’t always want to listen to Hendrix when we get home, or the latest news podcast when we wake up — or rather those in the household don’t want to wake up to news podcasts playing once the “wake” button is hit on a Jawbone UP24.

In summary, our experience in moving from relatively linear automation through to the advanced level of automation that SmartThings provides has not been as smooth as would cause us to recommend making the leap to anyone other than the most committed Smart Home pundit — at this stage.

However, word on the street is that this is about to change. With Google’s investment in Nest, and rumours of a buy-out of Dropcam (and remember Andy Rubin’s big play in 2012 regarding Android in the Home?) plus the obvious linking between Android Wear and home automation in the launch video only a few short months ago, Google is clearly making a play for the home automation market. (Update: Google’s Nest is buying Dropcam for $555 million).

Then you have Apple. iTunes chief Eddie Cue took the stage at the Code conference recently and said that Apple has the best product line up he has seen in 25 years coming later this year.

Voice control is the missing piece in our Smart Home trial. Simply being in your home and talking to it naturally from wherever you are and have it react is the obvious next level. Going to bed? Don’t hit a switch, just say “Hi Siri, good night.” Waking up, don’t hit the Wake button on your Jawbone, just say “Hi Siri, good morning.” Or to dim the lights for a movie, just say “Hi Siri, it’s movie time”.

Bundle Siri with a new AppleTV as the hub of the home (check out this Apple patent for an “always listening iDevice dock” from December 2013), plus an Apple watch and the Apple retail juggernaut — which inhabits both bricks and mortor and online — and Apple is poised to extend their reach into our homes in ways which we can only guess at.

It’s just a matter of time, but the reality of a truly connected home has never been closer.

(Update: Samsung has acquired home automation start-up SmartThings.

  • This story was originally published on Medium.com.

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