So you’ve bought a Nest thermostat and read the latest on HomeKit. You’re familiar with the WeMo and Hue products available at the Apple Store. You’re an expert when it comes to home automation, right? Unfortunately today there are as many products, companies, protocols, and general terminology to confuse even an expert. Here at Josh.ai, we are building a voice activated home controller using AI and NLP. Even in our own description, some of these acronyms can sound daunting and confusing. Therefore, we wanted to clear the air a bit, and define some of the important points of home control and smart devices you’re likely to come across.
According to Wikipedia, “a smart device is an electronic device, generally connected to other devices or networks via different wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, NFC, WiFi, 3G, etc., that can operate to some extent interactively and autonomously.”
In other words, a smart device is a wireless connected version of a regular device. For example, a traditional light needs to be manually turned on and off. A smart light on the other hands can be controlled by an app, remotely, networked to other lights, and connected via software to programs that automate how and when it turns on.
One of the most popular smart devices today is the Nest thermostat. Once installed, the thermostat can be programmed to adjust automatically based on your actions, and it also allows you to manually adjust the settings from wherever you are through your smartphone. Expect to see a smart alternative to every home appliance in the coming years.
This is a device that connects to all the smart devices in your home and allows you to control them from one central place. Some of the popular hubs on the market are SmartThings and the now struggling Wink. Although the hub in the home has not caught on yet with the mass market (see Wink’s struggle), many of the big players are already rushing to develop technology to be the one device to control everything.
In addition to SmartThings (owned by Samsung), Apple will likely be making a push to control the home with its AppleTV and HomeKit, Amazon is positioning its Echo to be a centralized device in the home, and although nothing is officially announced, many believe that Google will continue its quest for world domination by trying to position its Nest line of products as the central connecting point for all your devices.
Because smart devices use a variety of protocols to communicate, a hub that can connect to all devices and then be accessed from the cloud makes possible a single control system for everything in the home.
Often, we hear people use “home automation” and “home control” interchangeably, but there is a difference here that needs to be recognized. An automated home is one where many devices are orchestrated together through one central controller to provide better security, energy efficiency, convenience, and comfort. More-so, an automated home does this “automatically” based on the time of day, weather, and patterns learned. “Home control” on the other hand gives you access to control your devices electronically, for example turning lights on and off with the Hue app or changing music with the Sonos app. This is great, but it’s hard to call this “smart” and hence many “smart home” products are often mis-labeled.
The concept of home automation has been around for years, typically for the high-end and wealthy homeowners. In this case, an AV installer is hired to run cables through the walls and hard wire all devices to a central controller. The big names in home automation today are Crestron, Control4, and Savant. You can expect to pay anywhere from $10K to over $500K for an installation, depending on the complexity and scale. You also need to make sure you choose an installer with a good reputation because, ultimately, the quality of the installation all depends on the skill of your installer.
These sorts of custom installations are inflexible and can break easily. You therefore can expect to be calling your AV installer back to your house periodically to fix things (and expect to pay for each house call). With the growing availability and affordability of IoT devices, the automated home will likely become more widespread as the masses start to adopt this new technology.
When a home has at least one “smart device” installed, it can then be referred to as a “smart home”. Once you start installing multiple smart devices, such as Sonos speakers and Philips Hue lights, the devices can be programmed to interact with each other, and you can start to actually automate many aspects of your home. Although the line is getting blurred as technology becomes more prevalent, a smart home can be described as an automated home, but an automated home is not necessarily a smart home.
An Audio Video, or AV, installer is a technician who specializes in installing and programming all of the audio/video devices and electrical controls in a home or office setup. Since these folks are helping you build a custom installation, their services are usually used by the wealthy and affluent, for the higher end of home automation. You will typically work with the AV installer to choose what devices are best for your home, including which control system to install (Crestron, Control4, etc). Since many of these control systems are complicated to setup and maintain, a highly experienced and skilled installer is necessary if you want a fully automated system to work smoothly.
Wi-Fi / Bluetooth / Zigbee / Z-Wave
There are a few different types of communication technologies used in most smart devices today. You’ve surely heard of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, but you may not have heard of the others. Each has its own advantages along with users who strongly believe that each technology is better than the others.
Wi-Fi is a much more powerful network that can handle high amounts of data, but it has also typically been very power intensive. Many battery powered smart devices do not use Wi-Fi for exactly that reason. Devices such as the Nest thermostat and Nestcam draw power from other electrical sources when they are installed. Wi-Fi devices give you the power to access and control them from anywhere, as long as you have a network connection.
Bluetooth is a very secure communications protocol that requires you to be near the device with which you are communicating. It does not have the power to send the same amount of data as Wi-Fi, but it is more powerful than Zigbee and Z-Wave. The newest version of the protocol, Bluetooth LE (which stands for low energy), uses much less power than Wi-Fi to make it a more attractive alternative.
Zigbee and Z-Wave are low power communications protocols that are very popular in today’s smart devices. Philips Hue uses a router that uses Zigbee to communicate with its bulbs. When you control the bulbs, you are actually communicating with the router (which is Wi-Fi enabled), which then sends messages to the bulbs directly. The simplicity of the protocol requires very little power to run on these devices, but as you would expect, the functionality is very limited. Typically, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices are only capable of sending and accepting simple signals, such as turning a light bulb on and off. Zigbee and Z-Wave devices are not capable of more complicated tasks, such as streaming music and video, and some believe are being phased out in newer products.
Although this list is by no means exhaustive of the smart home and IoT, it is a list of terms that we hear people frequently use. If there is anything that we left off this list or if you have any questions, feel free to shoot us a message or leave a comment (email@example.com). One thing we know for sure is that technology changes fast, especially in a young industry such as this. One year from now, no doubt there will be a new list of terms to define and understand. It will be interesting to see, though, which terms are still being used, and which ones have already been rendered obsolete.