The future of home automation
- 03 August, 2016 10:25
Every emerging technology, like a child, goes through its difficult phases, and IoT is no different. To extend that analogy, you could say that automated home products are currently experiencing the technological equivalent of the terrible twos. While home IoT shows incredible potential—not just to enhance residential luxury or convenience, but to precisely regulate energy use, provide more precise home management, and to assist elderly and disabled residents—it’s not gaining the kind of ground that tech thought leaders had initially predicted. In fact, there’s some evidence that those who previously adopted automated products are turning their backs on the technology.
What’s to blame for this drop-off? First, there’s no unified standard for device connection — smart appliances may communicate through a variety of different network protocols — everything from WiFi to Z-Wave — making it difficult for objects to “talk” to one another to coordinate automation schedules. Next there’s the issue of predicting residents’ needs. Home life follows less fixed routines than work, meaning devices need to be smart enough to read a huge range of environmental and situational factors in order to hone in on the appropriate response. That’s left users with devices that don’t exactly sync up to life events—like lights that switch off at the wrong time, or thermostats that don’t perform as advertised.
Still, by all predictions, these snafus are simply growing pains — a tiny dip in home automation’s accelerating returns. So-called third-wave computing is not so much a trend as it is a digital inevitability, given the rise in AI and IoT development, and these kinds of fits and starts will be well behind us 20 or 30 years from now. So where does that leave homeowners, and how will interiors change in the near future?
IoT Precedes a New Era in Energy Use
You might not think of a network of digital sensors and connected appliances as a way to save energy—all those devices will pull a lot more power off the grid. However, there’s plenty of evidence showing that smart objects will nonetheless reduce energy consumption. Today’s automated devices overwhelmingly tout energy-consciousness as part of their sales pitch; efficient appliances like smart thermostats are leading the charge to convert homeowners to IoT enthusiasts.
That trend isn’t likely to dead end any time soon. As carbon-based fuel sources grow more scarce and alternative energy simultaneously gains in market share, grid-connected energy resources may become much more decentralized. They could end up less predictable, too, since solar and wind energy production can’t necessarily be throttled up to manage demand, the way we can with coal and other conventional power sources. That makes analytical tracking all the more important, requiring real-time energy usage and generation data to be communicated back to the grid for demand load analysis, keeping grids responsive—and the lights turned on. IoT objects should allow for more precise energy consumption analysis, especially across households. But it will also result in more efficient devices. In the future, smart devices will do more than just manage your thermostat. They’ll also be able to match energy cycles in large appliances — like refrigerators, water heaters, and in the future, solar energy systems — to grid loads, to keep whole utilities working more efficiently, or even potentially act as backup energy storage for providers.
Energy efficiency is not the only way smart homes will respond to the environmental challenges of the future. As climate change advances, homes will bear the brunt of protecting residents during extreme weather events. That means they’ll need to be able to predict and adapt to environmental data—area weather forecasts, humidity sensors, thermometers, and air quality monitors — which will all feed information directly into home security centers to keep residents informed and on alert during emergency events.
It won’t be just appliances and devices that get the smart home treatment. Futurists predict that eventually, surfaces like walls, ceilings, countertops, and window glass will all be connected organically, coated with self-cleaning materials, or able to act as makeshift computer screens, equipped to interpret environmental data and respond in tandem. The first place this is evident is through the development of so-called “smart glass.” This material reads external and interior temperatures and reacts, reducing glare or increasing air flow through the glass, depending upon the localized environment. Eventually, however, engineers imagine it as a projection surface for consumer electronics.
The computing world isn’t the only set vying for more high-tech glass. Solar energy developers want to claim this prized real estate for themselves, as well. Advances in solar cell technology have birthed organic photovoltaics, an alternative to traditional solar panels where small solar cells are suspended in flexible polymer coatings, which could transform windows into energy production centers.
In the connected smart home of the future, developers see networks of sensor-connected surfaces working in concert with systems throughout the home. If smart windows predicted a cold front, then they’d not only adjust glass settings, but also relay that data in order to ramp up thermostats, turn on a pipe warming system, and send alerts to end users so they could choose appropriate clothing and make travel plans.
Sensors in smart homes might even get effective enough to read and predict not just behavioural changes in residents, but also to interpret biological data as well. For instance, researchers at Washington State imagine the homes of the future as “smart environments,” potentially tracking minute changes in blood composition to keep residents on track with medications. Meanwhile, connected floors and walls could sense unexpected changes in pressure or movement, cutting down on emergency response time. With the general population aging rapidly and living longer, those kind of safety precautions may one day be part-and-parcel of at-home living.
That’s a dizzying amount of information to track, analyse and predict. The challenge now will be how to translate huge volumes of data back into a form that homeowners can easily understand so they can manage and control preferences simply and seamlessly — something that no smart device has yet to do, at least not without a few hiccups along the way. IoT developers hoping to capture homeowners’ dollars need to put ease-of-use, rather than technological wizardry, at the top of their priorities. Until some enterprising company is able to do that, we’ll continue to see homeowners frustrated with smart products that are actually kind of dumb.
Erin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener and aspiring homeowner. She currently resides in Austin, TX where she writes full time for Modernize.com, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.