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When will Smart Homes get Smarter?

Also published on LinkedIn:

It’s a scant few weeks since a wide variety of visions of #BigIdeas2015 - big ideas for 2015 - were making the rounds, including my own vision of universal indoor location. One area that I didn’t see in any of the #BigIdeas2015 articles is Smart Homes, despite their getting a lot of attention at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and other venues. With so many companies working on Smart Homes, why isn’t it a big idea for this year?

I suggest that there needs to be more to Smart Homes than connected appliances. The original concept of Smart Homes involved homes that would adjust themselves automatically as people walked around.

The concept of smart homes was discussed almost 20 years ago, before the smartphone era, when Bill Gates made his famous home that customized itself to where people were in the house. Digital picture frames displayed different paintings depending on who was viewing them, and other controllers adjusted room temperature, music and lighting to fit the preferences of people in the room.

Since then, of course, we’ve gone through the mobile revolution. Computing in our pockets, and computing the reacts to our locations, is no longer innovative. Today’s visions of smart homes are tied to mobile. This makes sense - if we take out our smartphones to communicate, search for information, purchase things, read, watch TV, and much more, why shouldn’t we also take out our smartphones to check if our laundry is finished, turn up the heat, start the coffee maker, and other real-world actions? And if our smartphones notify of us messages, news, nearby events, and a whole lot more personalized things that matter to us, why shouldn’t they notify us when our laundry is finished, when the wine is chilled, when there’s a fire in our house, when there’s a leak in the basement, or anything else we need to know?

Most of the major electronics vendors have recently released updated visions of a smart home that connect smart home to our smartphones. Google acquired Nest, and is expanding their product line from connected thermostats into connected fire alarms and more. Samsung has released their vision of a smart home based on smart appliances that communicate with the user and with each other. Apple has patented technology that tracks users as they move around a house and controls lighting, security systems, garage-door openers, music, thermostats and kitchen appliances, all based on the locations and preferences of people in the house. Microsoft is researching a vision that combines appliance connectivity, sensors and automation based on peoples location. These are only three of the many smart home visions released by major technology vendors.

But if we compare the products and platforms that are coming to market to the early visions of Smart Homes, we see a glaring omission: The appliances and systems are no longer acting automatically and intelligently as people walk around the house. The location-based automation has been replaced by mobile interactivity and preferences.

The technology is in place to show a message on my television screen when my laundry is done, but not to show the message on the particular TV that the laundry-doer happens to be watching. The technology is in place to blink the room lights when I get an e-mail, but not to know which room I’m in so that the right room’s lights are blinked for me. The technology is in place to adjust the thermostat based on my mobile, but not to do so automatically based on who is in each room at that moment.

Most of today’s indoor location tracking technologies, including Bluetooth beacons and Wi-Fi based location tracking on smartphones, is accurate to within five to eight meters. With mobile devices computing hard, this can be reduced to three meters, but very few systems have achieved better. In many applications this is sufficient, such as in a shopping mall where the goal is to know whether a customer is nearer to the Starbucks or the McDonalds. But in a smart home, this will not be accurate enough to deliver the experience that people envision.

If you want a digital picture frame to show an image based on the profiles of the people looking at it, then the technology needs to distinguish people standing near the picture from people standing elsewhere in the room. If you want the lighting and temperature of a room to be customized for those in the room, the technology needs to distinguish who’s in the room and who’s three meters away in the room next door.

More importantly, if you want your coffee machine to know who’s standing next to it, you need to be able to distinguish the person standing by the coffee machine from the person standing by the sink a few meters away. If you want your TV or picture frame to display notifications for the person looking at it, you need to be able to distinguish who’s looking at the picture frame from who’s standing a few meters away.

Bottom line, in a smart home, location accuracy matters.

Another concern with today’s location technologies is speed of update. Many people deploying beacon systems in stores and malls are finding that the technology only reacts to a person’s proximity after a delay of up to twenty seconds. Will a house feel smart if it only adjusts itself twenty seconds after people walk from room to room?

Ultra-wideband (UWB) is a new wireless technology that delivers much more accurate location tracking than is possible with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. UWB can track location to within five or ten centimeters, much more accurate than the three to eight meter accuracy of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. And UWB reacts almost instantly.

Ireland-based DecaWave has recently released a single chip implementation of UWB that delivers five to ten centimeter accuracy instantly. As this video and this video both show, DecaWave’s UWB chip can track the location of a person walking around, precisely and quickly. There are other companies developing UWB technology as well, some focusing on mobile devices and some bringing their own industrial products to market, but DecaWave is focusing on getting their chip into Smart Home and Internet of Things products.

There are also a small number of other indoor location systems achieving sub-meter accuracy, taking a variety of technology approaches. But most of these are designed around mobile usage or dedicated location-tracking devices, and are less amenable to chip-based implementation in home appliances and low-power devices.

Whatever your own vision of a smart home includes, knowing where people are in the house needs to be accurate and up to date. With cutting-edge location technology, giving the ability to react automatically to people as they walk around, appliances, lights and thermostats, and other elements of a smart home can truly be smart.

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