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Introducing the new smart(er?) home

Introducing the new smart(er?) home

Driving towards a mega mansion and watching the house light up as the gates open. Clapping hands to dim the lights and turn up the music. Blinds opening automatically to reveal a stunning vista from the exclusive perspective of a minimalist holiday home / evil lair. If these scenes sound familiar, it’s because they’ve been TV and film tropes for years, used to illustrate a certain kind of conspicuous consumerism. But home automation has come a long way from its inception in the 70’s and is no longer the domain of the super rich.

Contemporary smart home systems allow users to automate a huge variety of manual functions. Think of something you’d normally have to be home for – or something you hate getting off the couch to do – and a smart home system can probably do it. All those jokes about having a robot to grab a beer for you in the middle of a match? Not that far off reality any more.

You might have heard the phrase ‘internet of things’ (IoT). This describes the way the internet now connects a variety of devices, not just computers. According to some theorists, contemporary smart home tech has come to the market in three waves:
(1) wireless devices with a proxy server,
(2) AI that controls devices, and
(3) actual robots as we’d recognise them from those shows and movies.i

There is a wide range of functionality available. More sophisticated platforms on the market allow you to pre-set a variety of conditions for any activity; blinds, lights and heater for a cosy movie night, or music and flashing lights to get the kids up in the morning. If you’ve ever seen an ad for the Google Home or Amazon Echo/Alexa, you’ve seen an example of second gen devices.

On the up side…

Speaking of those two devices in particular, the good news is that the technology is getting cheaper and cheaper. Where once a home automation system – even first generation – would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to install, home control AI now starts at under a couple of hundred bucks. What’s more, the fact that the systems are modular means they can be built up over time. There’s no massive initial investment, and you don’t necessarily have to buy all the components from the same manufacturer. In other words, it’s an increasingly scalable lifestyle investment.

The other benefit is that if used well, home automation systems can reduce your energy costs. Smart thermostats can detect when you’ve left the building and adjust heating/cooling on the fly and lighting controls use sensors to turn lights on only when rooms are occupied. Smart power strips shut power hungry electronics (like DVD players, video game consoles and coffee machines) down when they are not in use.

Too smart for their own good?

Smart homes are more affordable, scalable and effective than ever before. So what do you need to consider? Well, one of the concerns that’s been raised with the advent of AI systems is privacy. Some units are ‘always on’, constantly listening for your next command. That means they hear everything. Wi-Fi-connected units may also have the potential to be hacked.

The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to prevent someone messing with your new smart home. Ensure you compare security specs just as closely as you inspect the cooler features when you’re shopping around. Look for component suppliers who continuously work with security testing companies (a.k.a. ethical hackers) to seek out and eliminate security flaws.

One thing is for sure, home automation is a trend that is not going away any time soon. Incorporating some level of automation into your home can potentially add significantly to your lifestyle, and may even reduce your bills and improve the value of your property. While it’s important to ensure your household’s privacy and security is maintained, there’s something to be said for kicking back with your robot butler waiting on you, under auto-dimmed lights with the game on. Another cold beer anyone?

i Li et al, ‘Sustainable Smart Home and Home Automation’ International Journal of Smart Home, Vol. 10, No. 8 (2016) pp. 177-198. Available at http://www.sersc.org/journals/IJSH/vol10_no8_2016/18.pdf

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