A few weeks ago Amazon added support for the WeMo and Philips Hue lights to their Echo home speaker.
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?
The 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.
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.
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…
@ottomate another standard. I can't keep up these days!
— Steve Pillings (@stevieby) June 4, 2015
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.
RELATED: Smart Home Utopia
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.
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…
Thinking about the smart home, the big battle may not be between Apple and Google but between keeping a local option v. cloud only.
— Stacey Higginbotham (@gigastacey) June 2, 2015
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.