Steve Rogerson reports from the Smart Home for Connected & Assisted Living show at Birmingham’s NEC.
If the hype is to be believed, everybody should be living like the Jetsons in futuristic houses. The reality is that most homes are much as they have ever been with a few gadgets and the odd so-called smart product.
The goal of an organised and connected home where the lights, heating, entertainment and so on are all under some form of intelligent control seems as far off as ever.
This may seem strange, because hardly a day goes by without a smart home device being announced. Shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas are overflowing with connected products to make home life easier.
To explain why the vision is so different from the reality, one only had to take a trip to last month’s Smart Home for Connected & Assisted Living event at Birmingham’s NEC. This was a small show, fewer than 40 exhibitors, but was far more grounded as to why the smart home market is moving slower than expected. And it comes down to two problems – standards and education.
The industry is besieged with conflicting and competing standards and protocols and most homeowners and builders really do not know what is available and what can be done.
“What is stopping the market taking off is a lack of knowledge,” said Thomas Joy from the Smart Home & Building Association. “It is a very feature-driven market. It needs to integrate with people’s lifestyles rather than being standalone products.”
He accused companies of focussing on solving problems that did not exist. A good example, he said, was the $7,000 Alexa-enabled toilet that made a splash at this year’s CES.
“They were marketing it quite seriously,” he said. “It costs thousands of pounds and nobody needs it.”
Another example, he said, were smart light bulbs that can be turned on and off with a smartphone. The marketing departments were focussing on the gadget rather than what problems it solves.
“For example, you could turn the light on for your dog if you are going to be late home from work,” he said.
The other problem is standardisation. “If you look at the IT industry, you have global industry-wide standards,” said Joy. “But for smart homes where you are putting a lot of tech into people’s houses, there is no industry standard.”
This is not just a matter of interoperability but of safety. “You need guarantees that it meets standards and is safe,” said Joy.
Jenny Parkinson, Retail Sales Manager at UK home automation company Lightwave RF, agreed. “The big issue is different protocols,” she said. “There is no industry standard.”
The problem is that the different types of smart home products have different requirements but she believes there can be room for most of them with the correct education.
This is where the manufacturers and resellers need to step up, she added. For example, most smart switches need a neutral wire but only one percent of UK homes have them.
“If you do not know your home has not got a neutral wire, you can buy the product, get it home and find it can’t be connected,” she said. “So the industry needs to be more open to help people.”
The battle between standards was there at the show. Leading the charge was Martin Woolley, Developer Relations Manager for the Bluetooth SIG. He said he had a problem with the way people misused the word ‘smart’.
“I have a rant at the telly when people describe a product as smart and I know the product is not that smart,” he said.
The key features for something to be smart, he said, were automation, predictive, self-optimising and, the most controversial, self-aware.
“Self-aware sounds like something out of science fiction,” he said, “but when you look at control of whole buildings, that is the way we are going.”
For all of these, data and communications are at the base. Data comes mainly from sensors, either in the home or from a body wearable. Smartphones are full of sensors. But data is not useful unless it can be moved, which is where communications come in.
“Communications have to be low power,” he said. “This is a critical, fundamental choice. Get it wrong and you won’t have a smart building. Smart buildings will have sensors all over the place and they will all need power. You need the communications to use as little power as possible and still be able to function.”
The other key elements, he said, were reliability, scalability and security. “And I want it to be interoperable, where something from one manufacturer will work with something from another, out of the box,” he said. “I don’t want to have to tweak them. This will only come from standardisation.”
A smart home, he said, needed two networks. One will be for IT stuff linked by WiFi.
“But I need something different for monitoring and controlling the building systems,” he said. “WiFi will not meet those needs. WiFi is very power hungry. It also depends on a hub with spokes. The hub is a single point of failure, and reliability is important as a fault could be critical. What is needed is a mesh network.”
Not surprisingly, he was plugging Bluetooth Mesh as the answer. The standard, designed for smart buildings, was released 18 months ago and can have more than 30,000 connected devices.
“That is enough for just about everyone,” he said. “It is also low power because it is built on Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). In a mesh network, anything can talk to anything even if it is out of range because a message can hop across the network from device to device. This means you can cover large buildings and even neighbourhoods.”
Another smart building standard being pushed at the show was KNX, an open standard for commercial and domestic building automation.
Ben Lewis, Director of KNX Consultants, was quick to point out the limitations of Bluetooth Mesh.
“Bluetooth Mesh is entirely wireless,” he said. “With KNX, you can use different communications media. KNX is wired and wireless, and most buildings have a mix of media.”
KNX is available worldwide with installations in more than 80 countries and more than 500 manufacturers are making KNX compatible products.
Also with a worldwide presence is standards body OneM2M. It works through eight regional standards bodies including Etsi and the TIA, and has more than 220 member companies.
“It does not define a new wireless technology but takes existing standards and puts them together to show how they integrate,” said Andreas Kraft from Deutsche Telekom. “It defines the service layer rather than the application or network layers.”
He said the body was trying to tackle the problem of so many devices with varying functionality. “Each has different protocols, documentation and semantics,” he said. “It is hard to understand and align with requirements.”
To solve this, OneM2M has produced a template to help gain a common understanding about functionality and operation.
“We want to keep it simple, flexible and modular,” he said. “We want something on a modular level so we can build a library of different functions, even simple things such as switching something on and off.”
The problems of privacy with smart home devices has received a lot of bad press and Joy is a little annoyed about that saying it is what people are talking about rather than focussing on the benefits. He said it was making people worried unnecessarily.
“People are nervous about having a smart home device,” he said. “Yet, people already have smartphones and they keep them on their bedside table.”
Parkinson added: “There is a lot of fearmongering on security. One incident with an Alexa giving a wrong answer gets a lot of press, but the benefits are not pushed.”
However, Joy believes that companies that put privacy and data security first will win the race.
“People’s data is one of the last things they have control over in their lives,” he said. “For companies such as Google and Amazon, the use of data is their business model. People don’t want that in their homes.”
The world is still a long way from truly connected homes. At present, it is a piecemeal approach with people buying standalone gadgets for their houses, which often will not connect with their other gadgets. The industry acknowledges that more standardisation and education are needed, and that is the first step to solving the problem. Time will tell how long it takes to make the next step.