The Smart Home: Brilliant or terrible idea?

Can you get locked out of a smart home?

When you come home later than originally anticipated, ever wished you left a light on? Or thought about how nice it would be if the windows were open or the air conditioning turned on before you got home on those really hot, muggy summer days?

Welcome to the world of the smart home, where interconnected technology makes all that possible.

Do you remember the old “Home of Tomorrow” cartoons from the late 1950s? It was a dazzling dream of “modern” technology that, while comical in its apparent hatred for mothers-in-law, includes things like humidity control, televisions that program shows to the interests of the viewer and devices to make food preparation easier.

The idea of making homes capable of meeting the needs and whims of occupants isn’t new, of course. The concept of home automation stretches back to the late 1800s when homes were first electrified, leading to the creation of electric water heaters in 1889 and electric washing machines a few years later, in 1904.

X10, the first protocol for communication among devices, came about in the 1970s. Developers tested it on a small scale, using radio signals to send commands. The company behind X10, Pico Electronics, was also the largest manufacturer of record changers in the world for a while.

Smart homes sound great on paper, but…

In the past five years, there’s been a noticeable increase in the technology that brings smart homes from sci-fi daydream into reality. The market for Nest “smart” thermostats, for example, grew at a rapid clip in the first few years it was available: by 2014, more than 100,000 thermostats were selling each month.  Nest reported some $340 million in sales in 2015.

The brilliance in Nest’s device is that it allows people to control the temperature in their homes remotely, via an app, in addition to scheduling. This not only creates a more comfortable environment but provides an opportunity for more cost-effective ways to heat and cool a home. In 2015, the technology firm Emerson suggested the cost savings for connected devices could amount to $123-$145 US per year, on an average bill of $1,322.40.

A new kind of “mood lighting”

It’s not just indoor temperatures that are programmable from the average smart phone these days. There’s a booming market for smart devices ranging from light bulbs that can change the colour to mimic your mood to refrigerators that send a text when you’re running out of milk. Dishwashers and washing machines programmed to turn on hours later have become the norm. Coffee makers with integrated timers are old hat.

Back in 1995-96, when Microsoft’s Bill Gates was building his sprawling home in Washington State, he had the kooky idea to try to integrate as much technology, invisibly, as possible. In his book, The Road Ahead, he divulges that the house had fiber optic cables throughout and touchpads installed through the house to control lighting, temperature and music. Gates envisioned an even more futuristic home in which integrated cameras would identify visitors or members of his family and adjust the setting in each room automatically. The cameras would be successors to the electronic pins he designed for his home 20 years ago.

Sci-Fi dreams come true

But what neither Gates nor Tex Avery envisioned to make “modern” homes even more impressive and able to cater to people is the onset of wearable devices able to track our movements, habits and preferences and send that information to the internet.

Devices like the FitBit and Apple Watch, among others, know when the wearer is asleep (and how restful that sleep was) or awake, if the wearer is on a run or lazing around the house. It’s possible—if not probable—these same devices will be able to connect into smart home infrastructures and communicate directly back to the house’s Wi-Fi, alerting the thermostat to adjust the temperature, the oven to begin preheating for dinner, the ice maker to have fresh ice available, water to begin heating for tea and the dryer to give that load of laundry another spin to prevent wrinkles.

Traditional locks are running on borrowed time as house keys get replaced by smart phone technology, unlocking doors with the pass of a phone or the keying in of a code.

When it comes to entertainment, we’ve already seen the introduction of Bluetooth-enabled speakers that can play any song simply by asking aloud. The same devices can also order products from online retailers, provide weather updates and answer questions, just like calling up a customer service line.

Talking to people? That’s archaic! Just imagine!

There are barriers to wider adoption of smart home technology, although it is generally accepted that this is the road we’re on. It’s inevitable that more appliances will be able to “talk” to each other as the years progress. We’re heading toward a $10 billion market for smart home technology by 2020, if not sooner.

Hate dropped calls? This could be worse.

What challenges will we face as we come home to houses that know us better than we know ourselves?

Firstly, there’s the dependability of the internet.

Whether via fiber optics, broadband or 4G connectivity, the internet bandwidth must be reliable and sufficient enough to not just to support the devices but to do so without fail, reliably, in urban, suburban and rural areas a like if smart homes are to become the norm.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early 2016, there was plenty of discussion about the internet infrastructure in North America (namely the United States but the concerns are applicable in other countries).

The answer might be to allow Wi-Fi-enable devices to share or pool access to the internet, combining your phone’s data plan with your in-home connection. Speedify combines Wi-Fi, mobile data, DSL and cable connectivity which can increase quite considerably the available bandwidth, but Speedify isn’t available everywhere and, when it launched in 2015, was only accessible for desktops.

Communication issues

There’s also the question of which protocol will dominate the market: Apple OS or Android? Will there be another, as-yet undeveloped or unannounced, operating system to overtake them? If so, will there be barriers to communication between your programmable thermostat and your front door lock? What hurdles must be cleared to get a smart home communicating through a single interface? Right now there’s only a handful of smart home routers that allow for a true communication network, but will that be enough to support multiple devices for multiple users in the same abode?

How do you prevent a smart home from being hacked?

Further, the question of security is paramount, not only to prevent hacking but to streamline use.

In 2015, hackers took over the operation of a smart car to prove it could be done and illuminate the dangers it presents.  It was harrowing to read the Wired reporter’s account. He drove the vehicle down the road, knowing the car was manipulated remotely by unseen operators. The “hackers” accessed and commandeered the Jeep and the driver was powerless to regain control.

If it’s possible to overtake a car, why not a house? Repeated studies have shown people use astonishingly simple passwords for their computers and bank PINs, putting their private information at risk. What’s to make sure better encryption is developed simultaneously with smart home technologies to prevent hackers from overriding embedded cameras in our walls?

The great unknowns

“Smart things will be attacked, almost certainly in ways that we can’t anticipate today, wrote Simson Garfinkel in Technology Review in 2014. “Even simple data leaks might cause significant problems if they can be systematically harvested and exploited—for example, thieves might be able to determine when you’re not home.”

There’s also the question of a whole family having access to the technology in a home. Whose password controls the smart TV with the great display? Who is responsible for the dishwasher? As children take on more responsibility around the house, will the fridge text them about picking up milk?  Will your neighbour need a separate login if they’re watering plants and picking up mail during your vacation?

And can you imagine how ugly a divorce could get as one partner moves out and resets the passwords on the security system? Suddenly the partner remaining in the house or apartment is physically locked out of his life.

For every convenience, there’s a concern. This is not to say there aren’t benefits to smart homes, but proceeding with eyes wide open should temper unbridled enthusiasm for buying all the latest shiny gadgets.


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