How Smart Homes Work
When you're not home, nagging little doubts can start to crowd your mind. Did I turn the coffee maker off? Did I set the security alarm? Are the kids doing their homework or watching television?
With a smart home, you could quiet all of these worries with a quick glance at your smartphone or tablet. You could connect the devices and appliances in your home so they can communicate with each other and with you.
Any device in your home that uses electricity can be put on your home network and at your command. Whether you give that command by voice, remote control, tablet or smartphone, the home reacts. Most applications relate to lighting, home security, home theater and entertainment, and thermostat regulation.
The idea of a smart home might make you think of George Jetson and his futuristic abode or maybe Bill Gates, who spent more than $100 million building his smart home [source: Lev-Ram]. Once a draw for the tech-savvy or the wealthy, smart homes and home automation are becoming more common.
What used to be a quirky industry that churned out hard-to-use and frilly products is finally maturing into a full-blown consumer trend. Instead of start-up companies, more established tech organizations are launching new smart home products. Sales of automation systems could grow to around $9.5 billion by 2015 [source: Berg Insight]. By 2017, that number could balloon to $44 billion [source: CNN].
Much of this is due to the jaw-dropping success of smartphones and tablet computers. These ultra-portable computers are everywhere, and their constant Internet connections means they can be configured to control myriad other online devices. It's all about the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things is a phrase that refers to the objects and products that are interconnected and identifiable through digital networks. This web-like sprawl of products is getting bigger and better every day. All of the electronics in your home are fair game for this tech revolution, from your fridge to your furnace.
On the next page, we'll take a look at the technology in a smart home.
Smart Home Software and Technology
Home automation has a long and fitful history. For many years, tech trends have come and gone, but one of the first companies to find success is still around.
The genesis of many smart home products was 1975, when a company in Scotland developed X10. X10 allows compatible products to talk to each other over the already existing electrical wires of a home. All the appliances and devices are receivers, and the means of controlling the system, such as remote controls or keypads, are transmitters. If you want to turn off a lamp in another room, the transmitter will issue a message in numerical code that includes the following:
An alert to the system that it's issuing a command,
An identifying unit number for the device that should receive the command and
A code that contains the actual command, such as "turn off."
All of this is designed to happen in less than a second, but X10 does have some limitations. Communicating over electrical lines is not always reliable because the lines get "noisy" from powering other devices. An X10 device could interpret electronic interference as a command and react, or it might not receive the command at all.
While X10 devices are still around, other technologies have emerged to compete for your home networking dollar. Instead of going through the power lines, many new systems use radio waves to communicate. That's how BlueTooth, WiFi and cell phone signals operate.
Two of the most prominent radio networks in home automation are ZigBee and Z-Wave. Both of these technologies are mesh networks, meaning there's more than one way for the message to get to its destination.
Z-Wave uses a Source Routing Algorithm to determine the fastest route for messages. Each Z-Wave device is embedded with a code, and when the device is plugged into the system, the network controller recognizes the code, determines its location and adds it to the network. When a command comes through, the controller uses the algorithm to determine how the message should be sent. Because this routing can take up a lot of memory on a network, Z-Wave has developed a hierarchy between devices: Some controllers initiate messages, and some are "slaves," which means they can only carry and respond to messages.
ZigBee's name illustrates the mesh networking concept because messages from the transmitter zigzag like bees, looking for the best path to the receiver. While Z-Wave uses a proprietary technology for operating its system, ZigBee's platform is based on the standard set by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for wireless personal networks. This means any company can build a ZigBee-compatible product without paying licensing fees for the technology behind it, which may eventually give ZigBee an advantage in the marketplace. Like Z-Wave, ZigBee has fully functional devices (or those that route the message) and reduced function devices (or those that don't).
Using a wireless network provides more flexibility for placing devices, but like electrical lines, they might have interference. Insteon offers a way for your home network to communicate over both electrical wires and radio waves, making it a dual-mesh network. If the message isn't getting through on one platform, it will try the other. Instead of routing the message, an Insteon device will broadcast the message, and all devices pick up the message and broadcast it until the command is performed. The devices act like peers, as opposed to one serving as an instigator and another as a receptor. This means that the more Insteon devices that are installed on a network, the stronger the message will be.
On the next page, we'll take a look at the products you'll need to get your smart home running.
Efficiency and Fun
Belkin markets its WeMo home automation switches specifically to smartphone users. For about $100, you'll receive a smart WeMo switch and a motion detector. Plug the switch into an electrical outlet, and then plug a device, such as a lamp, heater or coffee pot into the switch. Pair the switch with your smartphone using Belkin's app, and then you can control the switch remotely, letting you, for example, turn a light on or off from 1,000 miles away (or just from your cozy bed).
Home automation isn't always about pricey products. Some of the most useful smart home tools are actually free.
The WeMo is one of many products compatible with IFTTT (IF Then, Then That), which is a free Internet service that lets you automate an endless number of processes. For example, with IFTTT (which rhymes with gift), you could create a so-called "recipe" that automatically posts Twitter tweets to Facebook if they contain a specific hashtag or keyword in them. Or you could schedule a text message to yourself as a reminder to call your grandma.
IFTTT is basically just a simple way to create triggers that result in specific actions, and it works with WeMo. For instance, you could set up a WeMo motion detector in your bedroom, and when it sees that you're up for the morning, it will trigger the coffee pot in the kitchen.
The potential for these kinds of "if x, then y" type of actions is limited only by your imagination. Of course, it takes some time to set up all of these fun actions. And that brings up one of the biggest challenges of home automation products.
Many smart home products use their own proprietary apps. In short, you could install dozens of home automation gadgets and their associated apps, and then slowly drown in frustration as you try to control all of them.
The Revolv is a $299 WiFi hub that connects to all of your other wireless home automation products. Revolv attempts to unify all of your home automation gear under one app, and also helps you build pre-programmed capabilities, all in the name of realizing a truly automated home.
Once connected, you control all of your gadgets from the central Revolv app. Revolv currently works best with Z-Wave, Insteon and WiFi products, and it's available only for iPhone users. However, the company plans to expand to hundreds of other products and to add Android compatibility, too. You'll find similar consolidation hubs from companies such as Insteon and SmartThings.
Keep reading and you'll see more challenges associated with home automation.
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