What is home automation?
I’m sure Hive (British Gas’ connected heating initiative) won’t mind me pinching their oh-so-catchy jingle for this one: “When you slowly start to freeze, turn up your heating a few degrees, ‘cause with Hive you control your home from your phone.” If you watch the whole advert, you’ll see all kinds of possibilities for a remote-controlled, home automation system. Using an app, you can turn on your lights before you reach the house, control your plugs / sockets (in case you left the iron on), or switch on the hot water or air-con – all from your phone, wherever you are.
In case you think Hive are paying me to write this, (they’re not, I promise) there are all sorts of home automation companies whose job it is to help bring physical aspects of your home, such as heating, lighting, entertainment and even cooking, under remote or automated control.
Smart home technology
Smart home technology has been around for a while in the form of home automation devices, software and applications, generally centered around particular tasks or rooms.
Let’s take the connected kitchen as an example. There are many devices available to take the stress (and the guess-work) out of cooking – such as the smart oven. The smart oven is your fairy godmother. It is Santa Claus, Aladdin’s genie and the Easter Bunny rolled into one if you’re a struggling chef. Guided by the oven’s app, you’ll get step-by-step instructions on how to prepare whatever culinary delights take your fancy. Then you enter the weight of your dish into the oven and it will work out how long to cook it for, automatically switch itself off and let you know when your dinner’s ready.
If you happen to own a smart refrigerator like this one, the two devices can communicate with each other to determine what ingredients you have at your disposal (the fridge can tell this thanks to small cameras secreted inside), what their use-by date is, and their nutritional merits.
Intelligent home integration
So much for individual rooms or tasks. But what if you were able to control your heating, check on the contents of your fridge, and switch on the TV (which you could watch from a panel on your fridge) – all through the same app?
Providers that are offering something like this include Apple HomeKit, Google Home (on its way) and Amazon Echo: a connected, voice-activated entertainment and information system that can also integrate with compatible devices to control lights, switches and thermostats. The system can play your music from Prime Music and Spotify, answer questions, read audio-books, give weather and traffic updates, check your schedule and give you a foot rub. OK, that last is untrue. But it can do an awful lot. Interaction devices like build on their own core functionality by working with other brands, providers and devices to offer additional capabilities.
The ability to integrate various systems and be continually learning and adapting through complex data analysis is the next stage of intelligent home integration. This learning process powers a centralized system that integrates the major systems in your home – lighting, heating, security, audio, blinds – you name it. In this scenario, a smart home is like an ecosystem, overseen by a central ‘brain’, and controlled via smartphone. It quickly detects usage patterns and your personal preferences as to temperature (for example) in order to predict what will suit you best. Here’s a quick overview of how this might work:
- Blinds and shading: Control your blinds automatically, individually or in groups from your smartphone. You can even integrate your blinds with your burglar alarm.
- Security and alarms: Sensors detect the presence of intruders and send you an alert. You can also discourage unwanted guests with loud music or bright lights, to suggest someone’s at home.
- Energy: Sensors pinpoint areas where energy consumption is highest and help you understand where you could save energy. You can set the system to automatically turn off power-hungry devices when not in use.
- Heating: Kitchen too hot but living room an ice box? Whack up the heating in individual rooms and turn it down in others.
- Multizone audio: You can stream music from any room – listen to your favourite tunes in the shower, while cooking or before you fall asleep.
Once you’ve made particular choices a few times, your home automation system will start to understand your preferences and make recommendations for you.