Tomorrowland tech: Your guide to connecting your home to the Internet of Things

Smart homes: Gadgets are revolutionising the way we live

Smart homes: Gadgets are revolutionising the way we live - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Smart homes are the eagerly anticipated sequel to smart phones, so what’s good, what’s bad and what’s ugly about the Internet of Things?

The preponderance of smart phones has forced smart home technology to mature

The preponderance of smart phones has forced smart home technology to mature - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Robots have taken over, artificial intelligence (AI) has surpassed the human brain, your kettle is spying on you and your fridge is ordering you to buy more eggs. Sound like an Orwellian nightmare? The year is 2017, your washing machine knows more about your life than your colleagues, and your thermostat holds all your darkest secrets.

So what is a smart home? What differentiates ‘smart devices’ from gimmick gadgets intended to spin a quick buck, is that they learn. Smart home devices collect data about their surroundings, your behaviour when using the product, and adapt accordingly to provide you with a better service.

“It’s a system with one application that controls a variety of subsystems,” says Samuel Howarth, managing director at Limelight Automation, pointing to CCTV, lighting and heating. “It’s one app that does the lot. Generally what we find is people want a one stop solution.”

The technology has been around for almost 20 years, but the preponderance of smart phones has meant that it has matured to a functional capacity. “With these smart phones, mobile computers we walk around with in our pockets, the possibilities are endless,” he argues.

The good news is that this technology is no longer restricted to the super rich. Retrofitting period homes is not necessarily a problem either, according to heating expert Alec Morrow. “Smart technology works perfectly well in older Victorian properties and is well worth the investment,” he says.

Technophobes have highlighted privacy concerns since smart devices connected to the internet automatically upload and store the data they collect. “The general consensus I’ve had back from people is that’s kind of ridiculous,” says Howarth, “who needs a kettle connected?”

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The greater concern is perhaps that this technology is surplus to requirements. Many of the apps promise to make your life easier when actually they seem to do the opposite. “There is an element of gimmickyness to it,” says Howarth on a future filled with smart kettles and ovens. Yet connected lighting systems, audiovisual technology, blinds and heating are amongst some of the solutions which can make life easier. “These are all really functional things that make sense in properties of a certain size and stature.”

Amazon's Echo is 'the most disruptive tech on the market', according to Samuel Howarth

Amazon's Echo is 'the most disruptive tech on the market', according to Samuel Howarth - Credit: Archant

Many of the smart apps on the market could save not only time, but a pretty penny too, and do their bit for the environment. “One of the issues with non-smart heating controls is that people only ever look at them two or three times a year,” says Morrow. “By having things readily accessible people can engage better with the controls to match energy consumption to lifestyle.” Smart thermostats can even trace users to turn the heating off when they are not at home, reducing your bills and your carbon footprint.

But is all this technology making us lazy? “Back in the day you would have had someone with a washboard washing clothes, until someone came up with a washing machine and now everybody in the developed world has a washing machine,” argues Howarth. “It’s the natural progression of that in the 21st century.

As for the future? Howarth believes Amazon’s Echo home system is the most disruptive tech on the market. Rather than pressing buttons on a graphic user interface, users can talk to ‘Alexa’, the AI voice-operated assistant. Some people are sceptical, and perhaps right to be technophobic, but Howarth believes the future is coming. “All these Internet of Things devices will mature and eventually become the norm, but I think that you’ll see it in the next demographic of people.”

No more house keys?

Hady Abdelnour, co-founder of Smarke, says that house keys as we know them will soon be a thing of the past.

Hady Abdelnour, co-founder of Smarke

Hady Abdelnour, co-founder of Smarke - Credit: Archant

Smarke’s smart lock solution allows property managers and hosts on platforms such as Airbnb to share secure, scheduled access to their rental property with their guests – instantly and remotely, through the mobile app. No key required – as Hady explains.

Imagine a world where keys no longer fill your pockets or weigh down your handbags. As smart homes filled with connected products become more common we could find keys becoming a distant memory.

Instead of keys, it’s likely that our voice-activated home-assistant will control almost everything in our property, including the front door. This will happen through a merger of Face Recognition or other biometric data with Artificial Intelligence and fixed hardware.

To achieve this we will need standardisation in the way locks and doors are designed. Millennials and digital affluents will drive the development of a single universal standard with a secure digital touch point.

Smarke's smart lock solution - no keys required

Smarke's smart lock solution - no keys required - Credit: Archant

Innovative technology businesses are already bringing us products to replace old-fashioned keyholes, peepholes, and doorbells. These include smart locks, sensors, monitors, cameras, and alarm systems. August Smart Locks, for example, sells digital keyless door locks and doorbell cameras which allow the home-owner to provide third-party remote access to their home.

For all of us, security plus convenience are of paramount importance. Our homes are our castles. We need to be secure and prevent unwanted access, while at the same time allowing us to enter without complicated process.

Ultimately, the winners will be the devices that can connect and integrate seamlessly with other home technology, offering maximum security, alongside simplicity and convenience. This is important because all home devices will ultimately run in an invisible background mode, controlled by an overall home intelligence system such as Amazon Echo or Google Home.

Smart home technology is ever evolving

Smart home technology is ever evolving - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We’re already getting closer to this perfect synergy, with products like Smarke’s smart access solution, which can be used as a standalone product or integrated with other smart home hubs. Smarke focuses on allowing people to access their properties using their mobile phones - and it also allows them to share this access with others. So if you let your flat through Airbnb, you don’t even need to be there – simply send, via your mobile phone, the access code with an expiry date. You can control who can enter and when.

Smart locks might still be new to the market, but they will gradually become more prevalent as the concept of smart cities, connected buildings and homes spreads. Smart locks will be part of a broad home safety and access module that incorporates locks, external cameras and possibly even drones detecting people who are close to your property.

Future smart homes will incorporate doors with built-in smart locking mechanisms and smart doors, possibly working on magnetic fields between the frames. Access to your building, home, car and/or office will be controlled by a central hub that runs face, eye or other biometric detection.

What we now call smart locks will in the future become connected locks that communicate with other home connected devices via one truly smart hub. This hub will be controlled by autonomous intelligent software and monitored by users via their mobile app or wearable devices.

Home access and safety technology will be one function of an end-to-end multi-functional smart home system controlling multiple sub-devices via a software and protected by strong cyber security controls.

It is too early to predict accurately which type of connectivity these home access and safety products will use in order to communicate between themselves and other external devices - but the race is on between Wifi, Bluetooth, Mesh network standards such as Zigbee and W-wave or other newcomers on the market. Look out for mobile operators trying to make a comeback on connectivity.

When it comes to access - a controlled lock will run in a back-end mode. Front-end external cameras and drones will run multi-step processes, monitoring activity continuously. Once the system detects the face of someone trying to enter a home, it will run facial recognition and identification tests. If identified, the system will decide autonomously whether to grant access to the person, or not, based on its data. Or it will ask the homeowner or tenant for instructions. The homeowner will be able to monitor these activities instantly and intervene if necessary.

Right now, the technology is not quite ready for our homes. However it is being used in high security facilities such as banks, military restricted zones, corporations, and government institutions. This may bring to mind scenes from TV shows like NCIS. With the continuing surge of innovation and commercialisation if you want it, it will be coming to your home soon.

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Twitter: @sharingsmarke