My home automation experience goes back to the Radio Shack Model III. I deployed an X-10 controller via a serial port. Lights turned on and off on a schedule. Friends and family thought it apropos that science fiction loving Dan was automating his home. As the years went by, however, not much changed. Until just a few days ago I was still running my last two X-10 controllers to manage nightstand lights—companion controllers long relegated to a box in the garage when my home wiring proved too daunting for the X-10 signals.
I was recently asked to explore home automation for a magazine article. I sent out my call and devices arrived that talked over home wiring, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Although I had fun playing with all kinds of new technology, I also found myself rather frustrated. Devices that were supposed to work together didn’t. Wi-Fi devices randomly dropped from the network, no longer manageable by their apps. Every set of devices required its own learning curve from set-up to programming rules, and devices I hoped to control in one logical place ended up being controlled elsewhere. And every set of devices required their own app and cloud account.
As I dug into the industry, it became clear that while the technology has become increasingly modern with features like wireless communications, apps and a predominance of LED lighting, turf wars for protocols and hardware are fueling a battle that threatens to keep home automation enlightenment in the dark ages.
Through this process I discovered five things that every person looking at home automation needs to know, and here they are.
Thing 1: It is the best of times, sort of
Interest in home automation — spurred by impressive demonstrations, mobile devices as controllers and the entrance of major industry players like Apple — has created the sense of a market on the move. There is no shortage of things to buy, including connected light bulbs, appliances and sensors. While the industry is booming, like many emerging tech markets, the boom is uneven. Leeo recently announced layoffs, Wink appears to be for sale and many Kickstarter programs are not delivering on their promises. Other new companies, like Poland’s OORT, continue to move into the market.
The well-heeled can still achieve home automation nirvana by hiring consultants and buying fully integrated systems from the likes of Insteon on Crestron. At the next tier, average consumers can reach out to cable companies, including Comcast, Cox and Time Warner, along with mobile carriers like AT&T and USCellular, to bundle some home automation in the service of security. These companies will install systems in anticipation of monthly monitoring fees.
As with any explosion of diversity, the home automation market has too many companies, many of which are moving into niches for differentiation and protection. There is very little clarity over which of these experiments will survive, and as the disruption of Honeywell in the market demonstrates, size and incumbency are ineffective shields in a rapidly evolving technology market.
Thing 2: Most stuff doesn’t work with other stuff
With this explosion of options, we also get a hodgepodge of competing standards. While individual brands, like Z-Wave, Zigbee, Insteon, Wink, SmartThings, Nest and WeMo work well within their own ecosystems, signals and hardware from one system can’t communicate with those from another. Because the technology and the market are constantly evolving, a Cree connected bulb, for instance, won’t yet connect to a Belkin WeMo system even though they have announced an intention to interoperate.
The issues of compatibility kick in right at the selection of IEEE networking standards. WI-Fi based solutions use IEEE 802.11, while Bluetooth systems are built around IEEE 802.15.1, and those that use personal-area-networks, or PANs, run atop IEEE 802.15.5. And then we have radio frequencies: Insteon runs over power lines and wireless at a frequency of 132KHz for wiring, and 915MHz for wireless. Z-Wave also runs at 915MHz but uses a different communications protocol. Bluetooth, Zigbee and Wi-Fi all communicate at 2.4GHz, but protocols and interfaces vary widely beyond the shared spectrum. Z-Wave is mostly proprietary, though their lower layers apply ITU-T G.9959 for short range, narrow-band digital communications.
Home automation is an interoperability mess.
Thing 3: It’s Expensive Because A lot of your existing stuff can’t be automated
While you can turn on the Mr. Coffee you already own with a switch that sits between the wall receptacle and the plug, you won’t find that a satisfying experience for very long. If you want to manage the schedule with precision, you will need a Belkin WeMo controlled Mr. Coffee. Many other things, from door locks to window shades, from garage doors to sprinkler system controllers, home thermostats to CO2 detectors will likely need to be replaced. If you want automation beyond basic lights and appliance control, you will need to invest heavily in automated components.
Thing 4: Neither the Cloud, nor Apps, are The Great Consolidator
My home currently employs home automation from five solution providers. I have five different apps on my devices, six if you count that the Belkin Wi-Fi camera isn’t yet completely integrated into the WeMo ecosystem, seven+ if you include the Comcast Xfinity 1 platform as home automation. The cloud is supposed to be the answer to aggregation and consolidation, but so far, it offers little more than a place to backup configurations and a home to executing processes for systems like WeMo that are essentially hubless. The apps too are tied to their devices, and little beyond, save the Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostat that I can control from my Logitech Harmony universal entertainment remote. Go figure.
Thing 5: There are no rules for rules
While the industry squabbles about spectrum and delivery methods, they haven’t even begun to create a rational, shared approach to programming home automation experiences. Every app, in every ecosystem presents its own approach to programming devices. Multiple system experiences make programming the next instance easier, but a learning curve remains. That some of these systems also employ If-This-Then-That (IFTTT) rules making the programming environments even more complex.
Home automation offers much promise for creating comfort and providing convenience and safety to home owners, but if the industry doesn’t find a way to anchor its promise, and create a meaningful engagement model, the good vibes from the current hype will dissipate, leaving the industry adrift. My day-to-day experiences are good now that I have things working, but I’m pretty much the only one in the house who knows how everything works, or what controls what. If lights go off too early for a routine out of sync, then someone yells from another room, asking for me to turn the lights on. Sure, I’m an edge case, lucky enough to experiment with different platforms, but unless people do their research, they may also end up with pieces of solutions that don’t meet their needs, multiple applications for which they are the only coordinator, and another few passwords to memorize. Welcome to the 21st Century.