Smart homes could be much smarter – here’s how

by | Mar 29, 2018

The smart home of today is great. I love being able to shout my commands to hear music or check the news, use my phone to turn on my lights, lawn sprinkler or security system and use my laptop at work to inspect the perimeter of my yard.

But living in a smart home can also be frustrating because the gear is still not designed foremost with customer needs  in mind. Remember the Mercedes of the 1980’s? Great engineering, but where is the cup holder? A huge opportunity awaits the company that focuses on customer-centric design and interoperability rather than what a device could do. Here are some of my gripes, along with some free advice on how the Internet of Domestic Things could be improved:

Why can’t I tweak my settings?

None of the home automation gadgets I have used allow a user to easily customize settings. Most have a nicely designed and usable interface that are great for initial set-up and facilitating  basic hands-off operation. If there are advanced capabilities or settings, they are often hard to find or use. They all should have three modes: Easy, Adjustable, and Custom. The easy mode is what I see today, the adjustable mode allows for some customizations – and to be fair some devices have this capability. But custom mode is not available and is a major shortcoming. A custom mode is essential because it would allow the user to  provision for seamless, reliable interoperability between devices.

Seamless interoperability is needed to give the user control over connected devices and make them work in tandem. At a technical level this exists, for example I can play my NEST camera on my Amazon Fire TV, and I can control my Philips Hue lights based on Nest Camera activity or Simplisafe alarm system. But it is too hard, devices are controlled from multiple points that may conflict, causing unpredictable behavior. Independent “smarthubs” like my Amazon Alexa are starting to do this, but this capability across all smart home devices is still in its infancy. Oh, and why can I only “talk” with some of these smarthubs? Why can’t I have a comprehensive web or App interface for speaking to all my machines?

Below is an inventory of my digital home, including a few more pieces than necessary which I have for experimentation, and my short prediction and how each will (or should) evolve:

Sense Electrical monitoring – Probably the most educational item, it really teaches me a lot about the electrical use of the home. It uses big data to identify each electrical device, but it won’t allow me to identify them manually! Easy mode only, this needs adjustable and custom modes. Prediction: Adjustable or even custom modes, and possibly evolving from a monitoring-only device to a control device that can turn electrical devices on/off.

Rachio Sprinkler controller – A nice interface on both web and mobile, it uses local weather station data to adjust based on my custom settings. Prediction: Integrated soil monitoring, expansion into landscape lighting and other smart garden items.

NEST Thermostat –  Great device, but as my life doesn’t follow a regular schedule, the learning mode is pretty much useless. And why does the interface only allow me to select pre-set values? For example, if I want to run the fan, I can only select 15/30/45-minute intervals. Why not, for example, 22 minutes every 4 hours? Prediction: Additional monitoring stations that can help locations other than the thermostat. This can evolve into newly engineered HVAC systems with room-by-room control.

NEST Cameras – Also a great device, but the buffering it often goes into when scrolling back gets frustrating. Upgrade the back end! And the annual subscription for each camera (I have 6 of them) is way too costly for what it is. Prediction: WiFi cameras are becoming a commodity, differentiation will be the user experience and interoperability.

NEST Smoke/CO2 detector. Does what it should, and the type of warning it supplies is very helpful.

Simplisafe security system. It works, is not expensive, and the monthly fees are better than most other options. But it looks like it was designed in 1992. Prediction: A better user interface.

Amazon Alexa. Where do I start with my long list of joys and frustrations? It’s a great device and a joy to use for controlling lights and music, allowing voice access to the internet, keeping shopping lists and more. Frustrations include trouble with voice recognition, misinterpretations, and security.. Alexa is not alone in these respects: My exposure to the Apple and Google devices put them in the same category. Prediction: A better web and App interface that will supplement the voice control, allowing for precise and total interoperability of all smart home devices.

Amazon TV. It’s good, and interfaces with many popular digital TV services, Like Netflix, Hulu and DirecTV through Apps. Function and features are similar to other digital TV devices at a lesser cost. However, browsing through channels and Apps is a painful way to watch. Prediction: A totally new experience that is designed from the user’s perspective that leverages voice regcognition. It should ask “what do you want to do? (watch a movie, catch up on the news, see a sport event, etc.).

Philips Hue Lights, Lutron Light switches,Lowes Iris outlet. These are all designed to control lights and small appliances. The automation is similar, yet there are important differences at the core.Hue controls the bulb while Lutron and Iris control the switch. I prefer the switch control as it allow me to use the wall switch when I prefer to do so. Bulb controls are nice, allowing for color LED settings and better dimming settings, but they do not work when the switch is off. Both have cases for best use. Prediction: The way a house is wired can be hugely simplified and about a third of wiring can be eliminated with Wifi switches and bulbs. It will enhance the experience, as a switch can be placed anywhere, not just where the wiring is located.

Overall, I’m predicting that vendors will see the competitive advantage that can be achieved by offering more user-friendly interfaces and advanced interoperability. As a result, the customer experience for smart homes is bound to get a whole lot better, especially in new homes that can be designed to take advantage of smart home technology. Innovations in smart home technology are already beginning to pay for themselves, as we’ve seen with “smart” electrical wiring implementations. These will  offer users a quick-payback through lower utility bills, a trend that  will continue, especially as solar panels become a more affordable and practical option for mass implementation.

Author Spotlight

Adriaan Bouten


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