The American Dream is a wonderful ideal that brings with it children, a stable job, and usually a home. There are few events as elating as buying a house for the first time; it’s a signal that our formative years are over and our days as a productive member of society are about to begin. But it doesn’t take long before that elation wanes and we’re left with the reality of owning a home: It takes a lot of work! From mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, and scrubbing the floor, to making sure the house is properly heated, cooled, and secured, the many tasks associated with home ownership are seemingly endless.
Yet, we live in a technologically advanced era. All these housekeeping tasks could use a little bit of 21st century streamlining. Fortunately, a typically ignored subset of the consumer electronics’ industry is gaining some traction lately. It could help turn the tide for all the tired homeowners out there. We’re talking, of course, of home automation.
A wide array of home automation devices are on the market right now, from robotic lawn mowers and smart thermostats, to Internet connected washers and dryers, to smartphone-controllable wall outlets. All aim to simplify and automate the many mundane but cumbersome home-ownership chores, so that in the end a home becomes only that: a place to live in and enjoy. This article is a quick survey of 10 of the most compelling offerings in this segment.
The iRobot corporation has been thriving in the home automation market for quite a few years now. Initially selling their robotic wares to the military, the company now has a wide range of home cleaning robots.
Likely the most famous of iRobot’s products, the Roomba ($350 - $600) vacuums your floors in an intelligent manner. Its sensors allow the Roomba to remain within a designated area, only leaving its charging dock occasionally to do its job. Your floor is always be dust-free with no intervention on your part. (Your cat, however, may volunteer for duty.)
The Honda Miimo
iRobot is not the only company in this segment however. Honda recently unveiled the Miimo (Price yet to be announced, expected 2013) which does pretty much everything iRobot robots do, except on the lawn. It takes several shifts during the week, cutting off 2mm to 3mm of grass at a time, so that your lawn is constantly perfect. The Miimo uses a buried guide wire to avoid wandering off into the street and always comes back to its docking station before running out of juice.
The Ecovacs Winbot
While we’ve become somewhat used to seeing robots that clean floors and cut grass, it may be surprising to know that there is a bot that cleans windows. The Ecovacs Winbot W555 ($399) is a robot that splits in two. Both halves are joined together by strong magnets, with your pane of glass sandwiched in between. The cleaning is done through a 3M cloth that has both a dry and a wet area, so that the glass may be streak free.
Quite probably one of the most talked-about entrants in this field, the aesthetically pleasing Nest ($249) thermostat was designed by Tony Fadell, an Apple alumni. It was launched in October of last year, and initially the demand quickly outstripped the supply. The Nest is a learning thermostat that takes about 7 days to figure out your habits. Usually turn the heat down at 11pm, before bed? After a week, Nest does it for you. You’re in the habit of turning the AC on as soon as you come back from work everyday at 6:30pm? Again, the Nest will do it for you.
“But the Nest isn't simply a thermostat that monitors and adjusts the temperature,” promises the company. “It also measures things such as ambient light, humidity, and motion, ultimately using any information it gleans to fine-tune its program. If it detects that you're not home on, say, a Sunday afternoon, it adjusts accordingly, even if the standard program dictates otherwise.”
The Smart Si Thermostat From Ecobee
Similar in functionality to the Nest, the Smart Si Thermostat ($469) also connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi and allows you to control it remotely through a smartphone application or a web browser. Its LCD touchscreen displays several programming functions, an energy conservation mode, and even a five-day weather forecast.
The Security System
Vivint Home Automation
This home security company has an all-encompassing approach that tries to cover almost every aspect of home automation. Their products cover the gamut from a simple connected alarm system, to a complete overhaul of your home to include sensors, detectors, and switches that can all be monitored and controlled remotely. They have packages starting at $49 per month, going up to $69 a month depending on the level of sophistication.
If you want, however, you can purchase their offerings with a more piecemeal approach. The Go!Control Touchscreen Panel ($699) is the nerve center, to which you can connect video cameras ($149-$199), automatic door locks ($199), motion detectors ($120), and even glass break detectors ($120). Monitor any and all of these remotely, or let the system do it for you.
The Lighting And Appliance Automation Devices
This product works a lot like the Nest smart thermostat, except instead of learning your temperature adjustment habits, it learns your lighting habits. The Luminode ($130 for two) consists of an array of smart switches which contain a radio chip. They communicate not only with each other, but with a backend system that tracks which lights are on when, at which brightness, for how long, etc. It uses this information to anticipate your needs, and to recreate lighting arrangements the next time you need them. It also allows for remote management, should you wish to have only certain parts of your large home illuminated once you come back.
The Bluetooth Bulb
The Bluetooth Bulb ($TBD, prototype) is a simpler device that communicates only with a smartphone within Bluetooth range. But with it you can set the bulb on a timer, adjust the brightness and even the specific color it emits, since each bulb is made up of an array of LEDs.
Belkin’s WeMo Gear
The WeMo Switch ($49) is a modular, scalable device that plugs into a wall outlet, connects to Wi-Fi and lets you remotely control anything plugged into that particular plug. You can buy several switches and scatter them around the house, remotely activating your air conditioning, heater, iron, coffee machine, or anything else. You can set them on a schedule, too.
Now when you leave on vacation and start worrying that you left the stove on, just log in with your iOS application to make sure the entire appliance is disconnected.
Samsung’s Smart Washer
Samsung’s newer range of appliances is getting more and more technologically advanced, and WF457 washing machine ($TBD) promises to step things up a notch. Its Wi-Fi abilities put the washing machine online, and of course, controllable by you from afar. Not only can you start and stop the cycles remotely, but you can know when they’re done. That way, you don’t have to keep running back and forth between your tasks upstairs and the laundry room in the basement.
Pulling It All Together
After reading through this (by no means exhaustive) list of home automation devices, you should come away feeling relatively pleased at the state of today’s tech. You might also be overwhelmed by its heterogeneity and diversity.
The irony is that there exists a plethora of products to automate almost every conceivable chore, but at the same time their existence ends up creating a brand new array of tasks for you to perform! Products from different brands don’t talk to one another, and each one requires learning its own particular control schemes. (Does this sound familiar… like the evolution in desktop computing?) You have to know how to work the alarm’s control panel, as well as remember how to program the smart wall outlets, as well as being able to stay on top of the smart washer’s smartphone application… This can create an overwhelming techno-cacophony with its own steep learning curve, which is something some homeowners might actually shy away from.
So Microsoft is in the early stages of creating an operating system for home automation. They’re calling it HomeOS, and the idea is to create a standard communications protocol for every device that you might want to integrate in your automation efforts. Ideally, there would be a centralized “command and control center” that you would need to learn once, and then use to orchestrate everything else.
It’s a daunting project and it’s only in its initial stages – though Microsoft has been talking about a “digital home” for at least ten years. Of course, they’re trying to cash in on what they perceive to be a potentially lucrative market, but their presence in this field could understandably upset some people burned by their previous efforts at gaining the upper hand (remember the early browser wars?). Those worried about Microsoft’s hitherto monopolistic and closed practices may find comfort in the knowledge that there’s strong competition from the Zigbee alliance, a consortium of companies working together to build a standards-based, open source protocol for device interoperability. There are already hundreds of Zigbee certified products, many of them under the Zigbee Home Automation category.
Knowing there are people working on developing a HomeOS leaves room for the hope that one day all these exciting but disparate products will work in an integrative and homogenous fashion. They’ll be simple to use and program, and won’t require more effort to operate than the very tasks they replace.
But for the moment, it’s still possible to spend a bit of money on some strategic devices and create an environment where some of the more mundane obligations of home ownership are automated, albeit at the cost of learning how to get it all working right in the first place.