Will The Cloud be the Integrator in the Sky to Save Home Automation?

A few weeks ago Amazon added support for the WeMo and Philips Hue lights to their Echo home speaker.

Suddenly people who had the Amazon device plus the lighting products in their home could say things like, “Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights” and it would just work.

Two disparate systems suddenly talking to each other, literally in this case, with little or no input or configuration from the user, all courtesy of the Cloud. Smart home bliss.

The Echo now has its own IFTTT channel and late last year the Honeywell evohome heating system gained geofencing capabilities with the launch of its own IFTTT channel as well. In addition it ties in with the Netatmo weather station via IFTTT too for added functionality.

It’s clear when stuff works together there are great (90’s buzz word alert) synergies to be had.

Can Apple Succeed?

IDS Smartphone Shipments Worldwide 2010-2014The first products are starting to appear that support Apple HomeKit with more news no doubt coming later today from WWDC. This is Cupertino’s vision for the smart home and while it’s hard to bet against Apple these days there are a few things that might spoil their party.

First of all there’s that notoriously high walled garden. The iPhone is a huge success in the upper echelons of the smartphone market, but it’s much less prevalent in a global scale. Can HomeKit become a world leader when more than 80% of smartphone owners can’t use it?

In addition, despite years of trying, Apple still seems to struggle to create decent Cloud services.

HomeKit & Siri Lighting Control Demo from MacBreak Weekly

The Google Plan

Google has no such limitations. It builds great services and is happy to provide them to most, iOS users included. At last weeks Google I/O developer conference they announced “Project Brillo”. Described as the “underlying Operating System for the Internet of Things”, Brillo uses the lower layers of Android to run on minimal IoT hardware, like door locks for example.

Googles acquisition of Nest has brought even more smart home ambition and in addition they revealed project “Weave”, a communications layer by which the IoT can communicate. It’s a common language for devices to talk to each other, to the Cloud and to your smartphone. The system uses schema, just like xAP and xPL that were developed well over a decade ago by Automated Home readers. You can think of a schema a bit like a driver on your computer. A little bit of software that tells your system what the new device can do and how to talk to it.

Google I/O - Brillo Weave Diagram

Developers can submit their own custom schema and there will be a Weave certification program to guarantee products will work together – via the Cloud of course. It’s cross platform, can be employed independently of Brillo and provides API’s for developers to hook into. Brillo will be released as a developer preview in Q3 of this year and the full stack of Weave is coming in Q4 (check out the announcement video at the bottom of this page).

Google also showed off “Project Soli” an innovative miniature solid state radar.  Watch this demo video and in particular the section on the method for understanding the position of the hand, derived from the seemingly incomprehensible jumble of data the sensor collects.

It’s not a huge leap to imagine this powerful pattern recognition employed in the smart home, once Google’s machine learning and deep neural networks get to work on your data who knows what will be possible. How about this for an example scenario:

You come home after being at the gym. Google knows your weekly schedule from your calendar, it confirmed you were at the Gym from your GPS location and it knew you’d worked up a real sweat from the heart rate reports on your wearable. It knows you’re home from your GPS and its confidence score is especially high as it was your RFID chip that unlocked the door too. It knows you’ve had a bath as soon as you get home from the gym 87% of times in the last year so it starts it running to your preferred temperature and queues up your warm down playlist on the bathroom speakers.

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Whether you think that’s creepy or not this is real home automation, rather than merely the remote control that we so often talk about. Of course there are far more important and planet friendly applications of this technology, relating to our energy consumption. There has to be a simple way to control this learned behaviour though and how are users going to ‘program’ stuff manually?

Won’t Everything Be In The Cloud?

Back in the 90’s when Automated Home began covering domotics, many of us ran our own email servers and ripped our own CDs / DVDs for our media servers too. Yes some of you g33ks reading this will be saying I still do, but the real world uses Webmail, Spotify and Netflix.

So isn’t this all just taking home automation down the same route? Removing all the complexity and time required to build, maintain and integrate smart home systems and making them much simpler and yet more powerful.

You will no longer be tied to the investment in that expensive hardware controller running your home. Its tech gets more outdated each day, whilst the new generation of Cloud controllers get smarter, adding features over night. Faster internet connections and reduced latency has meant the power of the Cloud has already brought speech and image recognition and other useful services like Google Now. It has done this by moving the heavy lifting off the mobile device to take advantage of the huge horse power in the Cloud.

Last week we ran a story on Ultra Low Energy home automation. The first response was common and understandable, Steve Pillings said…

But if these crazy smart home automation hubs in the Cloud did exist, and they were so widely used that they had a driver for nearly every protocol then you wouldn’t care what standard your new light bulb used. Your last generation Z-Wave switch beside your bed would just control it.

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Closed propriety protocols aren’t going to fair well in this world, things will need to be much more open. But just as your Sony Blu-ray player plugs into your Onkyo AV Receiver and out onto your Samsung TV, shouldn’t the same not be true for the smart home kit you buy? The time for smart home interoperability is way overdue.

For this to work you’re still going to need a physical hub with all the radios in the home, but this can be a relatively dumb bridge, perhaps using SDR, routing the data to and from the Cloud.

Dark Clouds

And so to the two rather large grey mammals in the room, Privacy and Security. Users are already questioning the benefits of exposing all their data. Tin foil hat brigade? Maybe, but maybe not. Certainly the events of recent years have made people much more aware of surveillance and the willingness of advertisers and world powers alike to scoop up all the data they can.

Apple are keen to talk about their focus on user privacy and how they don’t even get to see your data. Ironically that may become a major disadvantage if this machine learning AI future turns into a reality.

Reliability will be key here too. Last week a buggy update Sky released for their iOS app caused it to crash on launch meaning I could no longer control my DVR from the bedroom. Annoying, but how would that play with you if suddenly you couldn’t unlock your front door because of some hiccup at a Google data centre in a foreign country? Any successful Cloud based system will have to have robust fall back strategies for local control. Fortune’s Stacey Higginbotham has been considering the same issue…

Weighing It Up

So will the Cloud bring auto-discovery and configuration for a home automation nirvana of the future? Will Google or Apple or Microsoft be your integrator in the Cloud or will you continue to manage this mess yourself?

In the end individuals will decide if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, if the added convenience compensates for the privacy and security concerns, if Home Automation ever gets to reach its true potential or remains a sideshow. Whether you think it’s a good idea or not, if I was a betting man I’d put my house on the future of home automation moving to the Cloud.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Apple HomeKit  :  Google Project Brillo

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20 Comments on "Will The Cloud be the Integrator in the Sky to Save Home Automation?"

  1. Paul Gale | June 8, 2015 at 9:40 am |

    It’s certainly an exciting time – HA has always needed the likes of Apple and Google to get behind it and push it to the masses, not just the enthusiasts like us.

  2. I’m old enough to remember the days when most computing was performed on what we now refer to as a ‘cloud’. Looks like we have gone full circle :-). I suppose the main enabler is the increasing availability of fast and low cost broadband connections (in some parts of the world).

    Ok so how does this help Home Automation? Availability of greater computer power at the ‘centralised’ location and centralised service provision can help by offloading some more intensive computing tasks such as voice analysis, image analysis and complex ‘AI’. A centralised structure also helps to facilitate interconnectivity between disparate data sources and services. You want a weather report to help manage your heating? Well you can draw it easily from some other provider via the centralised structure. Centrlaised provision also helps in terms of software maintenance. If your HA software is mostly operating on a centralised structure then when features are updated there is no need for individuals to download updates themselves – which may or may not interact badly with their existing computing hardware. Indeed no need to update/maintain local computing hardware no matter how much more elaborate the features become.

    Sounds great, but some obvious pitfalls have been pointed out, such as:

    – Loss of internet connection and all of that goes up in a puff of digital smoke. Not so funny if you are doing real home automation.
    – Centralised provision makes for more juicy(worthwhile) hacking targets.
    – Who’s to say that your centralised provider will always play nice/fair? And what will they do with your data – maybe even be forced to do by governments under some ‘for your own security’ guise.
    – Latency issues for automation which regularly requires fast dynamics.

    Whilst such issues can be addressed to reduce severity in some way or another I think most people tend not to think too much about them because their exposure to home automation has in the main been exposure to simple home CONTROLs or non time critical tasks. If your heating can’t communicate with its controller for a few minutes or even longer then chances are you won’t notice. However, if your light doesn’t come on within half a second of entering a dark room, believe me you will notice! Which is probably why few companies other than IDRATEK are stupid(?) enough to try and provide customers with true lighting automation :-).

    So, we do have to be careful about some technical aspects relating to having the computing platform at the end of a long wire via loads of routers and so on.

    Secondly, lets consider the ‘unification’ aspect. As the article implies this will only work if everyone agrees to adopt the unification standards. Having seen so many failed attempts to unify home automation standards at lower layers I’m still a bit sceptical about it being much different at higher layers. There are many vested interests. Also, a reverse problem with ‘standards’ is that they can sometimes ironically stifle innovation by later proving to be too restrictive, costly, or badly planned. I don’t know that it is really necessary to have one company or body holding the keys either. Web APIs are becoming an increasingly popular method of exposing HA equipment for access by 3rd parties. If the API detials are published then it does at least help others to communicate with the final physical equipment. To get some kind of generalised automation structure suited to every user just because you know how to talk to the devices is another kettle of fish.

    IMHO I think what people still don’t realise is that ‘true’ home automation involves much more intricate detail than some simple IFTTT type of logic and that this often depends very much on the specifics of the final customer usage. I always say that home automation is more defined by how often it fails expectations rather than what it can ‘potentially’ do in theory. Let’s start with the example of simple motion sensor based lighting automation – you know, the type where if you sit still the light goes out and you have to keep waving your arms… good idea in principle, works ok in some specific applications, but fails miserably in others – notably real domestic environments. Next consider some popular geolocation aware heating controllers. Supposed to save you xx% on your heating bills (ha ha). As if it isn’t bad enough that these are often still basing the control of an entire house on a single sensory feedback point, how many of you prefer to turn off location services due to battery drain? How often might some people approach their home but stop off at a store nearby on the way? And what of those increasing numbers who work at home most of the time? I’d hazard a guess that such crude attempts to automate in a more glmorous sounding way probably increase not decrease bills due to a greater proportion of prediction failures than successes, as compared to a dumb device. I say this because I know very well from years of data which show how difficult it is to predict detailed and individual human behaviour correctly. Even the article above highlights this very issue whilst missing it in the excitment of potential. How can it not be considered a serious failure when your HA system unnecessarily fills your bath tub 13% of the times you return home?

    In a nutshell then, my opinion is that Cloud based services will undoubtedly help HA in the long run but keep your feet firmly on the ground when it comes to believing how. Big names tend to believe in the ‘minimum viable product’ principle (quoting a Google rep.). That to me is not an altruistic driver of innovation, so I think it pays to keep some healthy scepticism going so as we don’t end up being corralled into some pen.

  3. I really don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket in terms of “the cloud”. I’ve been in situations where I couldn’t get mail due to the service going down – Finding out that your CCTV or alarm system has been compromised is another matter. Call me a luddite but I would rather keep things local for HA and should a service fail then at least I can resolve and fix with the ability to manually take over if the HA services fail.
    Can a cloud provider really support 24/7/365 ?. Not fun being woken @ 3:00 if the internet connection goes down and we have an alarm go off because of this.

  4. @David – My experience of running our own email server in work was a nightmare. We switched to a well known webmail service around 7 years ago and have never looked back. Infinitely more reliable than our own and free vs the cost of the server hardware, software, OS, antivirus, maintenance etc etc.

    I know most of us here like to build our own stuff, but any sort of meaningful home automation is still far too complex for ‘normal’ people.

  5. @Karam – Great reply thanks.

    I’d say one of the biggest pluses you’ve not mentioned is the removal of the costs associated with running and maintaining a PC or other hardware controller in your home.

    I don’t think I talked of a single unifying system (the glue to join all the standards). There can be several of these (I mentioned Apple, Google, Amazon, IFTTT, Microsoft for example). Although all that said the fewer the better I think. In mass market desktop computing we have PC, Mac & Linux. Remember the time when there were hundreds of competing computers – I’d argue things are much better with a more limited choice now.

    Your point on the light in the dark and latency is well made, as is your unused bath. My model isn’t perfect 🙂

  6. One thing that excites us about the move to cloud platforms is the possibility of breaking out of the isolated app silos.

    The Lutron Caseta example in the video demonstrates the potential (if you can see beyond the “wow isn’t this cool presentation…” The functionality isn’t much more (in many ways it’s less) than the standard Lutron Home+ app but what is significant is that Homekit can do the heavy lifting of the integration with thermostats, door locks etc. It’ll be interesting to see how much weight Apple puts behind it.

  7. Not sure the idea of trusting my INTERNAL home based system to anything external not under my complete control is something that’s particularly appealing…

  8. As for the Apple “walled garden” response, they consistently aim at the higher end of the market which by its very nature leaves all of the nasty script kiddies out in the cold. This is a very good thing. The more expensive the better, wether I can afford it or not, but not in the Lutron or Crestron sense whereby you are just buying someone else a Mercedes….

    I have my Mac’s connected to static IP’s on BT Infinity with no firewalls, antivirus software or cookie blocks – not even NAT OR DHCP! I have had no ‘security’ issues whatsoever for several years. Imagine how much time and money I have saved by NOT having a Windows PC and all of the associated problems and angst associated with them if they were connected in the same way! I can tell you it would be substantial when I see the problems my PC friends (still) have. Having Apple in the HA game will bring the same sense of security that they always have done.

    As for the Cloud – someone should bring out a cache engine to act as a virtual “back up generator” with perhaps different sources (4G, etc) to tide over the smaller breaks. I agree, Apple are a bit sucky when it comes to their cloud services. Bring back the iDisk environment – that was very cool….. And it was not the same as DropBox et al to those who didn’t use it.

  9. Every sensible person (in my opinion) would oppose the idea of giving away their last bastion of privacy. Allowing some company (and possibly even government) to mine data directly from their home feels completely insane for me.

  10. The simple answer to all this is yes, no and probably not what you are expecting.
    For the enthusiast the cloud is never going to be the whole solution. Not because of security or privacy but because the very nature of the cloud services is that they deliver a general solution. The enthusiast will want to push the boundaries, add, extend, adapt, to connect something unusual. That frustration of hitting some limit on a website when you know that if it were running on your own server you could make it work..This is not to say the cloud won’t help, it would just be part of a solution. It could bring a whole host of inputs and outputs to a system that could never be practically done locally but these would augment the basics so it could all just carry one working without them.
    I can’t see the issue of latency or internet reliance too much of an issue to most of the proposed solutions. While they all are configured by cloud services it looks like the actual work is done by the local hardware so slow connections or failures simply stop changes being made rather than the system failing. Obviously remote control or external feeds could fail but local control would remain. Uptime wise I can safely say my gmail has had a better uptime than my local server and that has only been down for minutes during updates.Security wise the decent cloud providers give better security than a simple home username/password protected device. While they are a far bigger target the push of 2 factor authentication, u2f and other protections are superior to the typical home device. That is assuming they are used! I accept this is all possible locally but how many do?
    For the mainstream user the cloud can work. We’ve seen it work for email, productivity apps, even specialist items such as dropcam cctv. Give a way of allowing a person to remotely control a light bulb from their phone and you technically have home automation to the masses. Especially if it is done standard way where the vendor doesn’t matter. It’s not what you or I would call HA but they will.
    The probable reality is that none of these new services will really deliver. 2011’s Android@home went nowhere and there is nothing radical or supported enough proposed to do better. It is obviously a big deal to see the likes of Apple and Google push into this sector but as the moment this very much a side project for them.
    So where might it go? One area that might really benefit are services such as Google Now or the new Siri. These are systems that provide contextual information/alerts based on a series of inputs. Usually these are based on web trends, calendars etc but think what it could deliver if also had sensors around the the house. Finally could easily get the alert you left the whatever on now you are away. Again is this what you would call HA?
    The one really interesting announcement is Google’s Soli . That sensor really is something new, just need the room size version.

  11. @Mark – Yes I agree that one ‘advantage’ is not having to maintain your own PC and software. However in some ways this is becoming almost a matter of semantics. In our system every module contains a small computer in the form of a microcontroller and the overall system gets its greater intelligence and integration via a PC platform. However for a modest system (which by our standards means much more than people might imagine ;-)) you can nowadays employ a tablet for the latter costing less than £80. Not only doing the computation but providing a display, internet and 3G connectivity, audio functions and a battery back up to boot. That is probably more cost effective even than a Raspvberry PI and with greater computing power. Some dumb hubs which simply allow you to connect dumb modules to the Cloud cost more than this. It is true that you also need the software for the PC but at the end of the day is anything really free or are the costs just distributed in different ways?

    So the question then is: If you have your cloud based automation will you have no intelligence or computing in the home at all? I think the worry of loss of external communications alone might negate this. Like I said before, my opinion is that few people appreciate such potential issues well enough because few people have practical experience of extensive and time critical automation. We on the other hand have had to consider all of this long ago and so you will find that our system will even fall back to working with the module microcontrollers alone, let alone having a local PC to take over from a cloud. Not only that, we have provision for multiple PC’s to automatically provide PC backup too! This is not at all an indication of unreliability, it is rather a reflection of our long experience in the business and recognising that even one ‘loss of control’ incident in several years can be traumatic. In fact more so, because after a long hands off period you forget how to deal with issues.

    This model does not prevent the use of cloud services to augment the automation on the ground, using for example Web APIs to ease complex data exhanges with others. It may in fact provide the best of all worlds – in line with our existing resilience philosophy, whereby you get temporary degradation of services rather than total loss of control.

  12. @karam – First let me be clear the above is not my opinion on the absolute money-no-object best setup possible. I’m taking about what is likely to move home automation into everyone’s home, rather than remain a techie’s hobby. I believe the vast majority of the population wouldn’t consider anything much more than a little hub device around $100.

    > So the question then is: If you have your cloud based automation
    > will you have no intelligence or computing in the home at all?

    Local control would absolutely need to be there. But using a Cloud service doesn’t mean *only* Cloud decisions. For example SmartThings have announced V2 of their hub will add local decision making, while keeping the advantages of the Cloud.

    For a traditional non-Cloud system what would I need to buy and install for lets say voice recognition? Would that improve on a daily basis? Does it have the advantage of millions of samples from around the world each day making it work as well with a Northern Irish accent as BBC English or Boston American? Would it support that new Amazon Echo? Could it work with my Belkin WeMo or Philips Hue light bulbs tomorrow without any more investment from me?

    As you say your model doesn’t prevent the use of Web APIs, but I think (again I’m talking about the majority of the population here) that’s the wrong way round. The winning systems will be Cloud first, not Cloud as an add-on.

  13. The cloud is always a tradeoff. When you choose cloud-based anything, you’re renting rather than owning, and that’s an individual choice that depends on each person’s needs and concerns. For so many people the cloud means access to cool tech at an affordable price and fewer maintenance headaches. For others, giving an outside company access to what happens in their homes is a perceived risk.

    Friends who have an Amazon Echo seem to love it so much that they are extremely willing to sacrifice some privacy in exchange for how well it works.

  14. The discussion of cloud based Automation, Smart Homes and the Cloud as a one stop shop for integration seems to crop up more and more frequently these days.

    I often get asked what my personal thoughts are on it and how we as a manufacturer perceive this trend and if the cloud giants like Google will actually be taking over this market.

    It is very hard to tell exactly what will happen and I am sure it will come down to consumer demands most of all, but there are few thoughts that I have on this topic.

    1. Specially in the US we see that people are becoming more and more aware of privacy. They don’t quite understand privacy yet and what people do with data, but they are becoming aware of it and having a none cloud based system, where no data leaves the house is seen as a selling point of our system. We have had to sign statements previously for some very large scale developments to testify that our systems were not sharing data about user behaviour for analysis with the Cloud. So I would not under estimate the security concerns users may have about a cloud based system.

    2. Reliance on an internet connection. Relying on the cloud for simple controls and automation seems like a poor choice to me. Whilst I have had hardly any down time on my connection over the past 2 years, I would not want to rely on it for my heating, lighting or anything else that I just need to be working. As such having the cloud as in integration platform to provide the translations between different devices seems wrong to me. An area where I can see a clear benefit is the use of the cloud for data analysis. With much more number crunching power available it seems to be the obvious choice if the products in the home have not got the power to do certain computational tasks for themselves.

    I personally recon that eventually a hybrid system will be the final solution. This system will have enough processing power to take care of everything in the house on its own and provide all the critical live functions. But it can make use of processing, libraries and data storage in the cloud for configuration, backup or maintenance tasks.

    Cloud first or cloud as an add-on? I don’t think that matters as long as cloud-less is an option for users with privacy concerns on no internet connection.

  15. @Philipp – thanks for your reply. It’s interesting to hear that Cloud discussions and questions are cropping up more and more with you guys.

    1. Privacy – Definitely a big issue as I mentioned in the piece. Having a “none cloud based system, where no data leaves the house” is a selling point for some I’m sure. But when most of us have our email in the clear going out across (and probably stored) I think people forget what important stuff they already have in the Cloud.

    2. Reliance on an internet connection – I think this is fast becoming a fallacy. Yes I’m sure we can all quote that time the road was dug up and broadband went down for 2 days but this is mostly a nervous carry over from a past less reliable time (remember when people were angry that your email sig was a ‘waste of bandwidth’) 🙂 And anyway we’re talking about having hubs in the home that can carry on without the Cloud for the critical tasks.

    3. I think your ‘Hybrid’ system is just what I was talking about. How much is Cloud and how much is local is the debate perhaps.

    It’s understandable for HA manufacturers to be nervous of this disruption. And again I’m not saying this will be the best money-no-object system. But I think it will be the *volume* home automation system that ends up bringing it to the mass market.

  16. Technically, some balance between the cloud+local ought to be possible. Smart systems within the home, capable of operating highly autonomously but connected so they can get all the benefits that brings – updates, remote control stuff, triggers from datasources outside the home (weather forecasts, say, or news about power cuts). It should also be technically feasible to have secure systems in the home which can do amazing things, whilst retaining householder privacy – cloud-integrated systems which don’t involve every bit of data being shipped out to the cloud.

    However, we’re a way off from these futures, especially whilst we’re in a period (bubble?) where personal data is seen as hugely valuable, so that companies attempting to build smart home products will find investors etc interested in the value of the household data they can collect and monetise. So there are business pressures which encourage central data collection, damaging potential privacy (especially as selling off that data in some form or other is the route to money for so many businesses). To have connected systems which preserve privacy will take companies with clear and strong revenue streams not relating to personal data. To have good secure cloud-connected systems, not just secure today but secure in 5 years time, takes engineering effort (again, not impossible, but effort/money) and a market which is willing to pay for the security (including paying into the future, as today’s installed box is likely to need patching next year, unless the security engineering is quite exquisite!).

    I hope we’ll see an evolution in systems design to bring in more affordable platforms which offer privacy and security built in, but we aren’t quite there yet. As you mention, Mark, broadband doesn’t go down often but when it does (or when your home wifi has a glitch or whatever), critical systems such as healthcare, energy, etc, need to keep operating locally, and engineering that is another cost that needs to be covered. It’s one of the reasons why it’s much easier to produce a fitness wearable at plausible cost (and therefore scale) than to produce a decent product to address challenges like supporting frail or sick people in their own home – less ‘sexy’, needing robust engineering, costing more, harder to see the business model …

    I remain optimistic but it does feel like some fairly fundamental shifts in business/impact model, considering the systemic challenges, will be needed before we see lots of great HA systems which really help people and incorporate cloud+home components 🙂

  17. @Laura – Thanks for your comments, I know you’ve been involved with companies that have setup up these sorts of services in the past so it’s good to hear your opinion of the other side.

    I’m left wondering how users would get the benefits of something like Google Now, whilst retaining their privacy. The two seem mutually exclusive.

  18. Use the cloud and be prepared to give up privacy and security. No thanks.

  19. If I had the cash for a home automation system, I would build my own system and write my own software, and screw apple and google. And most importantly, I wouldn’t even think about using ANY cloud services. Local processing is the best (most secure, most private) way to go.
    There are 2 types of cloud users: those who are (or have been) victims of identity theft, privacy invasion, service disruption or similar problems, and those who WILL BE.

  20. PS I forgot to mention that my system would be wired all the way. Nothing wireless. There are too many security issues with wireless stuff, so why does everything HAVE TO BE wireless? And for that matter, why does everything HAVE TO BE in the cloud?

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