The Technology Powering Smart Homes

Smart home technology may be the next innovation with a cultural impact as big as the washing machine, a time and energy-saving appliance that changed the world. Considered to be the gold standard of today’s modern homes, this technology features a connected system of appliances that can be controlled automatically and remotely, usually through a mobile phone or tablet.

In the early 20th century, the arrival of washing machines as mass consumer products allowed women to go out of their homes and get involved in productive activities, most importantly paid work. In terms of improving safety, security and reducing energy consumption for the home, smart home technology could potentially have the same amount of significance.

The U.S. market has seen a 31% compound annual growth rate in the number of connected homes from 2015 to 2017, from 17 million to 29 million homes. From a survey of approximately 3,000 households, McKinsey & Company concluded, “But the market still has a ways to go before it reaches its full potential. Many consumers still do not understand connected device value propositions and early adopters face significant pain points that have yet to be addressed.”

As manufacturers are gaining experience and data and getting better at educating consumers about the benefits of smart home technology — giving assurance of home security and evidence of energy savings, among others — smart home device purchases are expected to rise. According to HIS Markit, 80 million smart home devices were delivered worldwide in 2016, a 64% increase from 2015.

Nest Labs, a Palo Alto-based company co-founded by former Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010, offers an integrated home automation solution that can be controlled through most smartphones. Nest’s first product was the Learning Thermostat, which uses sensors and algorithms to learn about its residents. After the self-learning thermostat’s success, it launched the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector and the Nest Cam, which lets its users know when something has happened in the house when they’re away without having to be programmed. It can also detect and scare intruders if it senses someone lurking around.

Now, with Works with Nest, other home appliances and products can also work the same way – for example, a light bulb can flicker to get the homeowners’ attention when the Protect system senses smoke. In 2014, Insteon, creators of the world’s home automation and control technology, announced that it joined the Works with Nest program to integrate the highly acclaimed Nest Learning Thermostat and the Insteon home-control networking universe of more than 200 products. In 2016, Nest released its keyless lock, a Works with Nest product developed with trusted lock maker Yale, that can lock by itself and unlock via phone. Homeowners also get extra assurance as they can check if the door is closed.

Among its many partnerships with home appliance and electronic brands, Nest has also collaborated with WeatherBug Home to analyze and estimate air conditioning and energy use costs by putting WeatherBug’s data to work and thermodynamically modeling energy used against current and forecasted weather. There is also a baby monitor by Mimo that can be integrated into the system.

When Google acquired Nest for US$3.2 billion in early 2014, it signified that home automation had become a reality. At the time, the home automation market was predicted to be worth US$48 billion by 2018. It’s not just Google — tech giants like Apple, Amazon and Xiaomi have entered the smart home market too.

Apple has its own Home app and HomeKit for sensors, switches, remotes and security systems. To control smart home devices, Amazon has Alexa and its Smart Home Skill API, which has now become an integral part of daily living for many. Xiaomi took the Internet of Things to an entirely new level by launching a concept flagship Mi Home store in Shenzhen, China this year. The Mi Home store has a rich lineup of Mi Ecosystem products, like the Mi Robot Vacuum, Smart Bike, and hundreds of others.

Home automation has come a long way, beginning with TV lifts and security cameras which used linear actuator technology. The application of linear actuators has now been extended to other home equipments, especially in mounts for security cameras, as it allows the conversion of electrical energy into mechanical energy, allowing movement without manual work.

So far, barring a few exceptions, most of the communication with the connected home appliances is unidirectional — the devices merely respond to instructions. However, innovators are now delving into enhancing the technology for smart homes to react to human presence — without voice instruction or activation — and making it more affordable for consumers. In a field that’s teeming with innovative zeitgeist, the possibilities are endless. Who knows, if virtual home assistants such as Alexa could eventually evolve into autonomous robot assistants powered by linear actuators that could even help clean the home.

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