Smart home lessons learned and the future of the internet of things
My interest in connectivity began as a child. While other children drew houses, trees and figures, I drew lines, components and systems. Even from an early age, system connectivity fascinated me. With the dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT) - wherein everyday devices have embedded computing intelligence - increasingly becoming commonplace, I’ve put my interest in connected systems to practical use, and one such practical application is in my own home. I have equipped it with over 100 sensors, which measure and control what’s happening in and around it.
Having a smart home has not only shown me IoT’s great potential, but has revealed the endless possibilities of the technology as well as the impact these can have in future. At the same time, I have also begun to appreciate the challenges that lay ahead of us in smart city development.
Key features of the smart-ified home sensors that learn
The sensors I’ve installed, “learn” to recognise certain behavioural patterns and control devices on the basis of these patterns, so I have the ability to control blinds, curtains, heating and lighting automatically. When I leave the house, the heating system, the music I have playing, all shut down and the security alarm engages. When I go to bed, curtains close throughout the home, and lights dim. The house is intelligent and manages these routine tasks on my behalf, having “learned” my behavioural patterns.
Continual improvement I'm always curious about new possibilities, so as soon as new technology is available, I try to apply this in my home’s configuration. I have recently integrated iBeacons which transmit their own unique identification number to devices in order to perform actions when in close proximity. The iBeacons don’t just signal the occupation of a room, they also recognise the occupant and establish an active contact with this individual’s phone. I have also implemented the Amazon Echo, a handsfree speaker which allows me to play music, control my home, listen to the news or weather, all by issuing a voice command. Individual tuning Through individual recognition, any environment can be tailored to an individual’s personal requirements. For example, if I lay down to read in bed, the iBeacons know that I am still present, even if I do not move. Other systems “learn” from iBeacons that the light should stay on. In my opinion, the Amazon Echo is the first voice control system that functions well. It is a great addition to my system because the voice commands work flawlessly. If you’re occupied with dinner preparation, you can play music or communicate a reminder with a voiced command.
A universal standard for home automation that allows all brands to work together seamlessly just doesn’t exist yet. This will likely take years of experimentation and development to achieve. However, using Open Source technology and some fine-tuning, my iBeacons and Amazon Echo now work together seamlessly with the devices of other brands that I use. The Echo, for example, controls my curtains although Amazon itself doesn’t offer this application explicitly. Nonetheless, despite significant advancements in smart home technology, manufacturers working in the same sphere rarely take in to consideration how their products can work together. I think we need open source hubs which are vendor independent, and consumers fully control. Vendors can articulate they are compliant with these hubs, so this becomes a selling argument for them to show they are open, and in turn provide open API's. Vendors who ensure that consumers depend on their particular ecosystem would no doubt be forced to react to the negative commercial impact. Inevitably lock-in strategy would transform to a more flexible and open strategy - driven by natural commercial interests.
The smart city
Moving from the individual scale to applications with a wider scope, the Internet of Things offers fantastic opportunities for cars, homes, offices, and cities alike to manifest a significant degree of intelligence. This future offers almost unlimited opportunities in the improvement of the world we live in and significantly improves quality of life, both on an individual and collective scale. Cars with smart technology can communicate with each other and automatically maintain sufficient distance from other cars. Accidents can prevented, and traffic reduced. Smart cities enable us to change traffic flow depending on the varying needs of citizens and public transportation at different times of day. For example, Pittsburgh is integrating smart sensors into their roads, so that buses and other forms of public transportation have priority in traffic. This can potentially encourage more citizens to adopt public transit as their primary form of transportation, resulting in a more accommodating and greener city. Implementation of this technology improves overall safety, not only on the road, but also in our homes, at work, school, etc.
Other applications When we consider how this technology may be used to support an aging population to continue to live in comfort and independence, the societal benefit to its implementation is undeniable. Sensors can detect changes in routine and then send alerts to loved ones or relevant authorities, ensuring that emergency aid arrives in time. A smart home pilot in Hong Kong involved the development of an emergency system linked to sensory devices which better protect their aging population. In commercial office applications, smart technology helps to identify occupied areas and to adjust lighting, air conditioning and alarm systems to suit. This enables businesses to save on utilities, increase security, and promote productivity (by checking room availability). At WORTH, we’ve implemented a smart conference room system which facilitates room bookings without requiring confirmation. In the future, the Internet of Things will become even more accessible and easy to apply in all areas of life.
Lessons learned from a smart home
One conclusion I can draw about the future of the IoT is that it is critical for manufacturers to develop applications and products that work together seamlessly. At present, there are no umbrella hubs or cabinets from manufacturers that facilitate universal communication between devices. Open standards like MQTT, Open API's - open source hubs - are necessary because individuals and individual organisations require authorship and autonomous control of smart systems in their homes, cars, cities, and businesses. Hubs are the centre of this control, so unless consumers wish to relinquish this to manufacturers like Amazon and Apple, they must demand that this is assured through open source technology. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t want to be forced to buy all applications from a single system supplier. I believe in the 'best of breed'. Manufacturers generally excel in one kind of application and it is this, and only this, you should implement in your system. From my perspective, technology exists to assist us in solving our problems. This means that it is essential that consumers are not dependent on a single system or manufacturer. This is what I communicate to WORTH’s clients. Do not purchase a system that can do everything, instead, assemble a system that can accomplish precisely what you require. Only implement applications that serve your needs. Rather than starting from step one, it is sometimes best to integrate a new system or technology with your existing system(s). At WORTH, we often integrate working systems with new features, in order to enable clients to move forward in the improvement of their services on the same platform. Do not feel compelled to commit all your systems to a single manufacturer.
This way of working makes your entire system less error-prone. When you are dependent on one hub or one platform, you run the risk that your entire system will crash along with one application. In the event that your voice control systems fail, you still want your lights to work.
Multiple platform benefits
Another benefit to selecting the best components and parts from multiple platforms is that while one platform flounders, another flourishes. By integrating the best parts of these IoT (e.g.combining iBeacons and Amazon Echo) systems, what might be not be possible on either platform independently, becomes possible through a careful combination of multiple systems. This also ensures that the your smart home or business is not vulnerable when one system stops providing supports or patches. Instead, this component can be replaced with a equivalent or more ideal alternative when it comes time to upgrade. Finally, integration matters. From our work at WORTH, I can confidently recommend an integrated approach to the development of IoT systems. Having tried and tested, we know which systems work well, which systems need to be developed further, and how to integrate them effectively. If I can leave you with one piece of advice when developing smart systems: instead of making a risky investment into a single technology that - allegedly - caters to all your current and future needs, choose to combine via an integrated approach. It is a simple, iterative concept, whereby your system might not initially be perfect, or complete, but you have benefits from day one, all facilitated with a simple integration. And whilst your smart system is providing value for your family, business or city - integrated additions will provide both the agility to respond to changing technologies and possibilities, as well as a more sustainable smart system for long term benefit.
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