Remote and voice control of lights, security, and access to your home
By Robert Brice
In 1998, I unpacked my first ‘voice-activated home automation’ kit (the HAL 2000). I loaded and programmed the software, connected the Ocelot controller to my massive Gateway desktop via a RS-232 connection, and plugged it into the wall so it could send X-10 commands to the plug-in lamp module which I had correctly addressed. Yes, it was all very technical.
I trudged through and set up my microphone, and said in a loud clear voice “HAL, turn on the light.” Absolutely nothing happened. I may have said a “choice” word. Next I said, “HAL, turn on the family room light.” Like an invisible butler at my beck and call, the lamp, only five feet away, switched on. I stood at the cutting edge of technology; I could practically see the dawn of a new era unfolding before me. George Jetson and Rosie the Robot were right around the corner.
Something similar happened in 2017 when I unpacked my second voice-activated home automation kit, the Amazon Echo. I plugged it in, turned it on, started the app, and in a few minutes said in a loud, clear voice “Alexa, turn on the light.” Nothing happened, except me stating something I cannot place in print. “Alexa, turn on the hallway light.” The hallway light sprang to life. Yes, the switch was only five feet away. But the myriad of possibilities unfolded in front of me.
“It’s just a fad,” you say?
In 2016, the global home automation system market was valued at $39.93 billion*. That number is expected to grow to $79 billion by 2022*. Amazon has sold more than 10 million devices equipped with Alexa, its voice-controlled automation and information software. Google won’t say how many home devices it has sold, but you can be assured it’s a lot. Home automation is now making some big waves and a lot of companies are jumping in. Much has changed since my first experiments with building a ‘smart home,’ but a lot is still the same.
The ‘smart home’ vs ‘home automation’
Many people use the terms “smart home” and “home automation” interchangeably, but really a smart home will use automation; it reacts to your input or to environmental conditions. Home automation will perform tasks automatically on your behalf.
Take my house, for example. We’ll call this my “get home” scene. One mile before I get home I cross a geofence (a virtual perimeter around my house that allows the location of my cell phone to trigger an event). If it is after dark, my front porch light turns on and will stay on until I go to bed, or until midnight, whichever comes first. I, like most Americans, have a perfectly nice two-car garage filled to the brim with absolutely essential objects, so I have no room for my car. That’s okay, because I have low-voltage path lighting to get me to the front door. I enter the code on my door lock (keys are so last year!) and the security panel recognizes that it’s me and disarms the system.
The foyer lights turn on automatically for two minutes as I make my way to the kitchen, which is normally my first stop. The security system also notifies the thermostat I’m home and will adjust the temperature according to the season and time of day. In this scenario, I’ve automated lighting and security for convenience and safety. But that’s just the beginning.
Let’s say I go on vacation. While I’m gone, I run my “vacation” scene. My lights will turn on for a few minutes randomly at night to make the house seem lived-in. My sprinkler system, already automated, can implement additional functionality to watch the weather. If there is an 90 percent or more chance of rain, the sprinkler will not turn on. These are convenient options, but what happens if an emergency arises? Your smart home could very well save the day.
Again, I’m on vacation (I take a lot of vacations) and a water pipe breaks, flooding my basement (this actually happened to me before I installed my new security system). My smart home detects the presence of water and immediately shuts off the water main inside the house, and sends me a text or email regarding the problem. This feature could potentially save me thousands of dollars.
While I was away, my housekeeper, the person who waters the plants, and a house painter all needed access to my home. Each individual entered their own code to enter my home, and I was notified via text. I was also notified the housekeeper left the window open and my air conditioner was on. Smart home to the rescue. My system is programmed to shut off the air if a door or window is left open for more than 10 minutes. All I had to do was send a quick text to my housekeeper reminding her to shut all doors and windows.
When I head to bed, a single touch on my app or at a wall-mounted touch screen can lock doors, turn off lights, and adjust the thermostat. I’m asleep, but my smart home isn’t. If a fire breaks out in my basement, the system detects smoke and will initiate an alarm, notify the fire department, turn off the central air (to avoid spreading smoke throughout the house), and flash the outdoor lights to help first responders determine which house is mine. This feature could very well save my life.
Now think of my ‘get home’ scenario. What if when I got home, someone nefarious was waiting for me? (I hate nefarious people.) I could program a separate duress code into my door lock that would alert the authorities that there is a problem. No sirens, no lights, nothing to cause a panic, just a simple notification that will send the police quietly to my home.
Creating the Smart Home
Starting a smart home is easy, but can cause bewilderment unless you do your homework and plan. Be prepared to conduct research, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Keep in mind all the systems do roughly the same things, and the basic ones control at least lights, locks, thermostats, and include monitor sensors.
Most new smart devices have their own app, and many don’t play well with others, although this is getting better. I advocate a system approach versus a component approach, meaning I purchase items I know will work together instead of buying individual gadget-based components.
Garage doors even come with apps now that will notify you when someone opens and closes them. I use the Chamberlain MyQ garage door controller, which is capable of integrating with other smart home software vendors such as Alarm.com, Amazon Alexa, and Google Home, and can be controlled by voice.
Hubs and devices make a “smart” home, but being able to talk to your system adds a whole new dimension. There are three main players in this field, but watch for more to come.
- Amazon Alexa devices (Echo, Dot, Tap, and the new Echo Show) – Amazon doesn’t manufacture smart home devices, but they make the best selling digital personal assistant on the market. Alexa can be configured to work with hundreds of smart home devices and AV components – too many to list, and more coming online every day.
- Google Home – The Home device is powered by Google Assistant which is another digital personal helper. While it doesn’t yet work with as many devices as Alexa, it has a few tricks of its own that make it a serious contender in the smart home category. Google Assistant has better search capability and ability to distinguish between voices so multiple accounts may work from the same device.
- Apple Home Kit – It doesn’t matter if it is a Mac computer, an iPhone, an iPad, or iPod. Apple users are devoted to their products. The advent of Siri cemented that relationship so it makes sense for Apple and Siri to enter the smart home market with HomeKit. Like Amazon and Google, Apple doesn’t really make smart home devices, but HomeKit allows it to talk to many of the same vendors Google and Amazon can, plus a few “Apple-only” brands.
- Samsung Smart Things Hub – Smart Things is a hub and software combination that wirelessly connects with a wide range of smart devices and makes them work together. Smart Things doesn’t have a voice interface, but can be configured to work with Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Other types of automation available.
A complete list of automation device and software would be extremely long, but here are a few new, cool, and unusual items that might be of interest.
Samsung Family Hub refrigerators – This awesome new fridge brings hi-tech to your kitchen. It features a 21″ connected touchscreen that allows you to create shopping lists, share photos, and stream media from your smartphone or tv. It also has three cameras to see inside your refrigerator, because sometimes there’s just nothing on tv so you can watch your yogurt.
Philips Hue – Hue is a fantastic lighting system. It starts with the Hue controller and a single LED bulb with a choice of 16 million colors. Any mood, any task, and any time, there is a setting for you. The Hue has been out for awhile and there is a lot of competition in this category. Philips has the best bulbs and app, and more automation systems are starting to integrate with them.
Skybell HD WiFi Video doorbell – One of the many new Wifi-connected doorbells which enables you to see who’s at your door from anywhere with an internet connection. The motion-activated option allows you to see people BEFORE they ring your doorbell, or if they’re just dropping off a flyer or package.
Kohler Numi – The most technologically advanced toilet on the market, the Kohler Numi features multiple user settings, a remote control, an app, motion activated cover and seat, advanced bidet functionality, integrated air dryer, heated seat, foot warmers, music via Bluetooth or aux input jack, and a deodorizer.
Toasteroid – Currently in a Kickstarter funding campaign, this app-controlled toaster will allow you to print the weather, a message, or a simple drawing on your slice of morning toast. Why? Just because.
SensoWave Stepla – Because this is Fauquier County, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the the perfect app and device—for your cow. Stepla provides GPS and individual sensors to provide real time monitoring of a livestock herd. The app includes an animal’s location and activity levels, helping farmers to reduce costs and gain peace of mind.
My final advice.
Start small—automate a light, lock, or thermostat. Build your system over time. Don’t forget to always maintain strong Wifi passwords and encryption, and most of all, have fun.
*Home Automation System Market by Protocol and Technology (Network and Wireless), Product (Lighting, Security and Access Control, HVAC and Entertainment Control), Software and Algorithm (Behavioral and Proactive), and Geography – Global Forecast to 2022 – Market and Markets.com