Routines, scenes and automations, oh my! These are some of the advanced smart home features that our digital assistants have or recently gained, but what are they and which are making our homes smarter? Let’s start with what I think are the lowest tier: Routines and Scenes, which are basically the same but have different names. With Google Assistant recently adding support for Routines, it has some feature parity with the Amazon Echo. Alexa has had such routines for some time, which allow you to bundle several smart home actions into a single voice command. Apple’s Home application has long had such a feature, although in the iOS world, it’s called a Scene. There are some minor differences between the implementations taken by Amazon, Apple and Google, but over time, I’m sure all three companies will improve the ability to use one command to control multiple actions. At least I hope so. Google Assistant Routines are limited to six different presets (shown below) and for now you can only choose from a select group of smart home actions, for example. This is good momentum for the smart home. But the reality is that routines or scenes, aren’t truly “smart”. All these do is extend a voice command from a one-to-one action to a one-to-many action. Essentially, this is still a UI, or user interface tweak. Automations though? Those are a step above routines in my book because they make your home take actions on device-triggered or time of day events. And they don’t require any voice interaction, which is extremely useful in certain situations. They do, however, require a smart home hub or some other centralized smart home “brain”, unless you want to use a third-party application that can tie some of your devices together. I’ve had some readers suggest that we don’t need hubs. Instead they argue that we need defined IoT standards or that we can just use the cloud as a hub. Those are valid thoughts, but the reality is that widespread IoT standards aren’t coming anytime soon, if ever. Using the cloud is great until your home’s internet connection goes down: In that case a local copy of your smart home devices with automation rules running on a small computing device would work, but that essentially is a hub. Hubs solve a key challenge: individual devices in the smart home typically don’t know about each other. Instead, a hub is what bridges data from smart switches, bulbs, locks, webcams and sensors that can all use different radio technologies. Put another way: The hub is the traffic cop in the intersection of data created by all of our smart devices. It knows the user-programmed rules of who should do what and when in the smart home. Let me offer a simple example: If I want to walk through my front door at 10pm and have the inside lights automatically turn on, how can the smart door lock tell the lights to illuminate? Currently, it can’t. The lock and lights have no relationship that they know of. Nor do they have any processing power to programmatically make some cause-effect event happen. That’s where the hub comes in. It can see from the door lock that I’m home. And using a rules based system, along with the time of day, it can tell the smart lights to turn on through automation. This is is why I think it’s so important that Google create a hub, especially since both Amazon and Apple both have one for the home. Granted, the Amazon Echo Plus doesn’t yet support such automations but it’s a matter of time before that happens. If you have an Apple TV, HomePod, or plugged in iPad, you’ve got a hub can automate your HomeKit devices. Apple’s implementation is in the Home app, and it’s surprisingly easy to use. In my vision of the smart home capability ladder, routines sit below automations because they make the home experience “smarter” with less user input. Currently, automations are as smart as the home gets. Above automations though, I look to autonomy. By autonomy, I mean a central home hub that combines context, user patterns and personal information to anticipate actions and even suggest them to us. But, that’s a ways off just yet, so for now, I’ll be content to use routines and automation in my home. If like me, you enjoy reading reviews of all the latest smart home products and devices, then head to BuyersImpact.co.uk for more.
We definitely need hubs – I like my HomeAssistant (https://home-assistant.io) because it’s open-source and thus a neutral third party, able to integrate with pretty much any IoT producer that will open up enough to let them do so (as well as several that have just been straight up reverse engineered).
For those reasons, I think any hub made by an IoT producer is likely to be a long-term fail, unless they’re neutral enough to allow other device makers to integrate – at which point they no long really belong to that IoT producer. Standards would make things easier (networks didn’t take off until there was a ubiquitious standard – ethernet – and hubs were cheaply available), but the breadth of devices – from thermostats to blinds to whatever – make standards-defining difficult, so for now I think the sweet spot is an open source project that can thus integrate with whatever.
Kevin C. Tofel says
Spot on! I think I’ll have to put together a post on various DIY / open-source hub options for those that don’t want their data going to the IoT companies. Thanks!
Ed Meredith says
That is a great idea. I know that I use Smartthings and with the recent outage with that platform there has been much discussion in the community for more local control of devices instead of everything requiring the cloud to work.
Kevin C. Tofel says
I’m on it, Ed. 😉 Thanks!
It’s a little hidden, but all the ‘Components’ that HomeAssistant supports have an ‘IoT class’ that indicates how HA communicates with the device. Full details at https://home-assistant.io/blog/2016/02/12/classifying-the-internet-of-things/#classifiers , but the summary is: Cloud|Local and Push|Polling . Personally, I try to only invest in Local devices, preferably Push.
Mark B. says
Hubitat is one such provider focused on local processing to keep an eye on.
Robert Hafer says
I would add another level to the hierarchy. To be really smart, a home Hub has to support complex conditionals; like multi-branched it-then-else statements or scripting support. Something like “If the motion sensor detects movement, and it’s a weekday, turn on this light, unless it’s after five pm then turn on this other light, otherwise open this window unless the outdoor temperature is less than 70F.
The next level above that would be the hub figuring that out on its own and save me writing the Python script.
Kevin C. Tofel says
Agreed, although one could say that’s really an advanced form of automation. And to be honest, you can do some of what you suggest with multiple automation robots/recipes/etc… For example, I could create two distinct rules based on the motion sensor scenario and one could use the weekday setting in a cal along with the time of day to choose which light to turn on. Unfortunately, most automations stop there so the next step of “otherwise open this window….” wouldn’t likely happen. I think that’s partly because it’s early days yet and also because device & platform makers want to keep things simple for consumers. At least for now. Thanks!