We’ve spent five years since the last big breakthrough in the smart home. When Amazon added home control to its Echo speakers in March 2015 it created a new user interface and platform that brought more devices together. Since then Amazon has made plenty of improvements to Alexa while Google and Apple have joined the fray with their own digital assistants.
But until we have some big new breakthroughs, we’ll see more of the same in the smart home space: More integrations, a move towards local control of voice commands and marginally improved products based on chip and radio technology advances.
This is pretty boring as someone covering the sector. So I can’t help but look for the next big technology that will usher in a new wave of change. Here are three.
Presence detection is still hard to find
I’m almost surprised that the mainstream smart home doesn’t yet detect who is where in the house. We have GPS geofencing for when you’re at, near or away from home and the concept is essentially the same. Why can’t another radio technology do the same at the local level?
Presence detection will bring a more personalized smart home experience as devices in the house will change based on exactly who is in a room. I may want a specific lighting and music scene when I’m sitting in the family room, for example, while my wife would prefer different light colors and no music. Presence detection can make that an automatic reality.
The best approach I’ve seen so far is from Intellithings whose RoomMe product I reviewed last year. You place a few RoomMe detectors on your ceiling in different rooms.
These detectors look for the Bluetooth signal of your phone and triangulate where you are in the house. With that data, you can then create automations with your smart home systems such as Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri: RoomMe also just added support for IFTTT and Hubitat earlier this week.
In my testing, however, I found the implementation to be a little short of the vision. The product didn’t work consistently enough or quickly enough for me.
But I do like the concept of using the Bluetooth radio of a phone or even a wearable tag, and sensors around the house to “see” where each person is and have my home act accordingly. My hope is that the RoomMe experience improves and that others create similar products. One recent entry here is Inlo, which plans to sell Bluetooth satellites similar to the RoomMe product.
Device discovery and integrations are still a patchwork
We’ve seen a veritable explosion of new products and brands entering the smart home market since 2015. And while that’s a good thing, it’s also a bit of a bad thing. New companies and products entering the market sometimes use proprietary approaches, either in their radio stack or in the APIs and software used to manage and connect devices.
Amazon, Apple, and Google have worked hard on this, each for their respective systems with corresponding “Works with….” type programs. But it’s been a rough ride. Apple, for example, initially went with a hardware security chip for HomeKit products only to later switch to a software-based solution. That put many hardware partners in the lurch, having to rework and redesign in-flight products.
Google too has hit the reset button more recently, transitioning the “Works with Nest” program to a “Works with Google” approach. It’s been nearly a year since that announcement has been made and only recently have a few hardware partners actually been able to integrate with the new Google initiative. That not only slowed progress for partners but also caused smart homeowners to transition Nest accounts to Google, else lose out on new features.
As a result of this churn and different standards based on different platforms, device discovery isn’t yet optimized. Something like CHIP, Connected Home over IP, could smooth the road here. The group, organized by the Zigbee Alliance, wants to “develop and promote the adoption of a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet.”
That would help solve the major pain points of discovery and integrations. Until that happens — if it ever does — we’ll continue to have the siloed smart home device challenge we currently face. Apple, Amazon, and Google are involved with the project, so I have my fingers crossed.
A new invisible interface: Gestures
Back in 2011 when writing about the launch of Siri on the iPhone, I called the digital assistant and voice commands, the “invisible interface” for our lives. You don’t need a touchscreen, knobs, buttons or switches for this user interface. Eventually, this technology became a mainstream method of controlling devices in the smart home.
Surely it will be around through the next smart home age. And I hope it improves, both with on-device natural language processing as well as better recognition of specific voices. But the smart home of the future could benefit greatly with gestures, especially if they’re tied into individual presence detection.
Voice isn’t always the best way to control devices, although I think it’s better than using an app on your phone, tablet or television. The problem is that it’s not truly invisible, meaning the smart home isn’t the only one that hears it. That’s not good when others nearby are sleeping, reading or quietly meditating.
Gestures would solve that problem but to get there we need new products and technologies that protect privacy and work as well as, if not better than, voice commands. Traditional webcams analyzing faces and gestures aren’t the solution here. People simply don’t want to have cameras all around the house that can capture their images. These products are better suited for security purposes.
Instead, we need sensors that don’t capture exact images; they need to capture and then interpret data for gestures. And we’ll need a standard library of gestures that work the same across all platforms so people don’t have to remember which hand wave does what depending on if their home is run by Amazon, Apple or Google.
That’s one benefit of voice interaction in the smart home: You can generally make something happen the same way across systems with a voice command. The gesture-based smart home won’t have that luxury.
Clearly, there’s much work to be done here from a gesture standpoint, as well as with presence detection and device discovery. If and when it is, we should see a newer and more exciting smart home market.