The Smart Home. The Connected Home. Home Automation. The Internet of Things. So many terms to grapple with, and even more technology to wrap your head around. That's what's in store for you if you want to bring your home into the 21st Century and take advantage of all that Smart Home tech (as we'll refer to it) has to offer. Truth is that we've been contemplating how to bring our readers up to speed on the Smart Home for nearly a year. We've purchased dozens of products, received nearly as many as review samples from companies eager to get their novel products out in front of consumers, and experimented with various competing (and cooperating) setups. We even attended CES 2016 in Las Vegas in part to gather insights on the latest and greatest in Smart Home tech, only to learn that nearly everyone had a different vision of what the future would bring.
So, to put it bluntly, this has been a labor of love. But we love tech, so we can't complain all that much. And based on our findings, we believe the time is right for tech to move off of our desks, out of our hands, and into our daily lives. And that means taking a quantum leap in what we as consumers believe technology can do to improve the experience of being at home. It's not about surfing the web, it's not even about a smart phone app (or dozens of smartphone apps, as is more commonly the case). It's about how we can do so much more, and less at the same time, and that's why it's so gosh darn hard to explain.
Coming to Terms with the Smart Home
Let's start with a few vocab words. We started this article with four terms that might have seemed synonymous, but in fact each relate to a different aspect of Smart Home technology:
- The Connected Home: from our point of view, this refers to the simple act of enabling communication between devices in the home. On its own, connection doesn't change our lives, but it opens the door to new possibilities.
- Home Automation: this is one component to building a Smart Home, but it's not the finish line. Think lights that turn on by themselves at an appointed hour, or an alarm that shuts off when you walk in the door and turns on when you walk out. It's automatic, but it's not the be all and end all of "Smart".
- The Internet of Things: this is one of the newest, hottest, faddiest terms around, and frankly, we think it's silly. In essence, it refers to the collection and communication of information between things, rather than people, to join these things together in an intelligent system. Ironically, most of the communication in a truly Smart Home won't be using the Internet at all, but rather Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, WiFi, or another form of short-distance communication, and only relies on the Internet for retrieval of instruction sets or external data from the cloud.
- The Smart Home: this is what we believe should be considered the overarching concept, and it doesn't have to refer only to a house or apartment, but our gardens, our clothes, our cars, and perhaps a whole bunch of things we haven't even dreamt of yet.
And why do we start off with something as dry as definitions anyway? Well, it helps us grapple with what we actually want out of our own Smart Homes. And that's important, because technology for technology's sake is never a good thing. We don't just want our devices to be automated based on a schedule, as that isn't all that smart, and we don't just want our devices to be connected, because that just leads to different requirements for user intervention, rather than less intervention. No, we want our devices, and indeed our home, to be Smart. That means connected devices become automated through data they collect and provide to each other, as well as data available via the Internet, such as weather, events, and a user's location, among other things.
The funny thing is that when we've tried explaining our Smart Home projects with various people over the past year or so, a lot of them have responded matter-of-factly: "oh, I've been doing that for 20 years with my lamp timers." And to a certain degree, a simple rotary timer, which has been available since at least the 1960s, can acccomplish some of what all the fanciest tech in the world can do. Want your front door light to turn on at 6pm every day? Well, if so, you've had the ability to do that for at least the last 50 years, so get cracking on it!
As we'll explain on the next few pages, there's quite a bit more to the Smart Home than having your lights turn on and off at a pre-ordained time, and to help our readers understand why, we're going to start with that most obvious of Smar Home applications, lighting.