What makes a home smart?

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The ‘smart home’ may still largely be viewed as the province of the early adopter, however, in conjunction with the steep growth and diversification of the group of connected devices collectively known as the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s likely that smart home technologies will play an increasingly noticeable role in the day-to-day lives of Australians in the near-term.

As it stands, the concept of the smart home is currently evolving with IoT technology itself, with various conceptions of the smart home ranging from a home containing devices and appliances with internet connectivity, to one in which connected devices can be controlled remotely, to a home incorporating automation systems, reducing the need for human interaction.

As a starting point, the Oxford Dictionaries website defines a smart home as: “A home equipped with lighting, heating, and electronic devices that can be controlled remotely by smartphone or computer.”

When considering the ongoing evolution of the smart home, it should also be kept in mind that smart technology is now well and truly embedded in the day-to-day life of the average Australian, which means that the building blocks are already in place for the expected next wave of connectivity, set to be delivered courtesy of increasingly high-speed fixed line and mobile internet.

The connected ecosystem is both evolving and expanding at a rapid pace, and the home is a logical focal point for the upcoming rush of next-gen products and services.

An abundance of connected building blocks

At a global level, technology research firm Gartner recently forecast that 6.4 billion connected things –across both consumer and enterprise applications – will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30 per cent from 2015, reaching 20.8 billion by 2020. That’s a lot of connected building blocks with which to play.

Closer to home, a study released in August by technology analyst firm Telsyte found that the Australian IoT at home market “is set to skyrocket”, following the same path of rapid consumer adoption as both the internet and smartphones before it, with spending on IoT home products and services to grow almost eleven-fold over the next four years, from $289 million this year to $3.2 billion in 2019.

With the average household currently containing nine connected devices, Telsyte has forecast that by 2019 this will rise to 24 devices, with the market poised to “naturally evolve as internet connectivity is baked into many existing products and services”, encompassing a broad range of areas, including whitegoods, gardening, security and energy management.

Tech giant Samsung, which in addition to its catalogue of connected devices produces appliances across a vast range of categories, has, for instance, made a commitment that 90 per cent of all of its products will be IoT-ready by 2017 and 100 per cent by 2020. Again, this represents a lot of connected building blocks.

Meanwhile, the smartphone has become the default smart device for Australians (Deloitte recently estimated Australia’s smartphone penetration as standing at 79 per cent), and currently acts as something of a hub amid the ever-expanding IoT world of devices. If the range of IoT devices currently finding their way into the connected ecosystem are building blocks, then the smartphone is the digital foundation.

It’s a matter of communication

So, how do all these devices function in the smart home as a whole?

At a basic level, all that is needed is a capable internet connection, and consumers can start adding IoT devices to create their smart home. While manufacturers sell packages of connected devices, it may well be more a case of devices finding their way into homes by the sheer weight of the numbers of connected devices on offer, with consumers invariably adding to their smart device ecosystem when upgrading or making a new purchase.

Smart home hubs (commonly sold packaged with smart devices) are designed to bring devices together under one platform, allowing the user to access and control the various devices in a network. This is generally where the smartphone comes into play, with an accompanying app allowing for remote control of devices, providing the user the ability to program devices to function in various ways.

The much talked about problem as far as the smart home is concerned at present, however, is that, given the wide variety of devices available from various manufacturers, no one standard for communication exists, making it difficult to find a hub capable of communicating with all devices on a smart home network.

From security systems to laundry and kitchen appliances to entertainment systems, with different devices employing different connectivity protocols, getting all these connected building blocks to talk together is where the challenge lies at present.

Building a smart home? Where to start?

broadband cablesAs Telsyte notes, vendors at every point in the value chain will be trying to carve out a niche in the emerging smart home market, from manufacturers, to retailers, to internet service providers, to cloud software providers, to utilities, electricians and security consultants.

Certainly, there are a lot of home automation companies currently emerging, and the range of choices can be overwhelming. For consumers considering installing smart home technology, it may be best to start off small, with one or two devices, rather than diving all in.

Consumers should do their research on the technology involved, and should particularly consider the potential lifespan of the technology. Smart technology is evolving at pace, and there is little point in taking on a new technology that may become redundant in a relatively short period of time.

At this stage in the evolution of the smart home market, it would appear that there is a premium on interoperability of devices, with no one dominant player having emerged. As such, consumers would do well to look at open and inclusive IoT systems.

Companies currently involved in the smart home market comprise some of the tech industry’s largest players, including Apple, Google (via smart home company Nest), Samsung and LG, among others. Certainly, by any measure a roll call of tech heavy hitters, and demonstrating the significant clout behind the market.

Among the challenges for companies staking their claim in the emerging market is proving that their system is the best to unify the market. From entertainment to security applications, tied together by home automation services, the task is vast, with it likely that significant consolidation will occur as the market settles over the next couple of years.

Welcome to the smart home age?

We’re not quite there yet, but it appears that it is just around the corner. The sheer number of connected devices currently being released into the market will likely ensure that one way or another homes become increasingly connected, evolving from a home full of connected devices to a connected home, and ultimately to a smart home.

Such is the rush to all-embracing connectivity that it seems inevitable that the connected building blocks will steadily fall into place, in turn creating larger structures. From the garden to the lounge room, smart technology applications are set to become more prevalent.

The ultimate end point for the smart home may be a completely autonomous system, removing the need for regular human interaction, a house that takes care of day-to-day functions, catering and adapting to the movements and activities of its inhabitants.

One way or another, it makes for an interesting technology trend to keep an eye on.

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