Homeowners who have not heard about the coming technological wave known as the Internet of Things (IoT) should know that by the end of 2016, 6.4 billion objects with some kind of Internet connectivity will be in use, according to technology research firm Gartner. Around 5.5 million devices will be activated every day—and not all those devices will be smartphones or tablets.
One of the top electronics sellers during the 2015 holiday season—and one that has likely introduced many to the Internet of Things concept—is the Amazon Echo. Retailing for $180, this Internet home hub functions mainly as a speaker. Voice recognition technology allows Echo owners to play music from Pandora, TuneIn, Prime Music, and more using nothing more than a spoken command. The voice command service, named Alexa, has additional functionality and can provide users with news headlines, local weather and traffic reports, or even turn off lights compatible with Insteon, Samsung SmartThings, or other device communications protocols.
The Insteon Hub is another example of home automation intended to give users greater control over home appliances from the convenience of a smartphone. The Hub ($80) communicates with Insteon’s other home products including LED light bulbs, thermostats, and WiFi cameras. Users can also control appliances regardless of their Insteon compatibility using Insteon’s device plug-in packs, which enable Insteon to control the electricity being sent to lamps and other appliances. Owners can access the Insteon Hub through a smartphone application. Buffalo-area homeowners have local dealer options for the home automation system known as Control4. Control4 can be integrated with heating and cooling systems, video surveillance, lights, and even outdoor appliances like grills or hot tubs, and is compatible with appliances made by Hayward, Carrier, and others. It also has a mobile app that allows users to set modes for daytime, nighttime, and even entertainment or date night modes.
Many new home technologies sporting Internet connectivity have the ability to save homeowners money on heating and energy costs. The Keen Home Smart Vent ($79) regulates the heat distributed from a home’s boiler system. It can be installed in small rooms that receive too much heat to make them more comfortable and divert that heat to other rooms that need it. Room temperature controls are operated through a smartphone app which allows energy usage on a room-by-room basis. To operate, homeowners must also buy at least one Smart Bridge hub ($39 each), but the Smart Vent is compatible with the popular Nest thermostat platform for total home HVAC automation. The Smart Vent is available in the herringbone style or, for $129, a decorative arbor style.
Smart blinds for remote control of a home’s window treatments are in development, although many are still in the Kickstarter or IndieGogo fundraising stage. Motorized blinds are available, however, and are able to take most of the manual labor out of setting blinds in a room; check them out at Lowe’s. Although they won’t connect with your smartphone, Graber’s motorized blinds can be controlled through a Virtual Cord remote which can adjust a shade’s height from up to sixty-five feet away. An upgraded remote option allows control of multiple shades to different heights.
Robotic vacuum cleaners aren’t new, but mobile app controls give users the ability to get the house clean even when they’re not home. Major electronics retailers like Kohl’s or Best Buy now carry the Neato Botvac, a WiFi-enabled robotic vacuum that users can start and stop from the convenience of a mobile app. The unit, retailing for about $500, incorporates a LaserSmart mapping and navigation system to design an efficient route for vacuuming an entire space. Neato also boasts that the vacuum’s D-shape design and brush length allows it to clean within fourteen millimeters of walls and corners.
Before snapping up as much home automation tech as possible, remember that devices connected to the Internet of Things must use compatible communication protocols. That means that the Control4 and Neato Botvac won’t necessarily work together (they do, but only because Control4 supports WiFi connections). IoT communications protocols include wireless Internet (2.4 GHz), Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, near field communication (NFC) and more. Perhaps the most important IoT purchase you can make is procuring the proper automation hub, one compatible with the smart home appliances you want to buy in the future. Ask questions of the experts before you purchase.
There are also digital privacy concerns that should be considered before going all-in on IoT solutions. Internet connectivity may make setting the lights and blinds more convenient but may also open the possibility that home appliances could be hacked by malevolent cyber attackers. In one scenario, a tech-savvy thief could gain access to a home thermostat or a lock’s digital data to get an idea if a family is out of town. Make sure to research a company’s data security practices before buying their Internet-enabled products. Security is another reason why it’s important to know the differences in communication protocols. Most hackers have a relatively easy time accessing wireless Internet whereas other communication protocols have more security. An automated door lock that uses WiFi is not as secure as an automated door lock that utilizes an NFC chip.
Of course, we’re not far away from home security devices designed to meet the data privacy challenges of the Internet-connected home. March marks the first month of shipments for Dojo, a home connectivity security app developed by Dojo Labs of Palo Alto, California. The device, shaped like a smooth black rock with three corners, can move freely throughout the house and begins to glow if it detects unauthorized access of a home device. The product’s mobile app interface sends notifications describing unauthorized access and gives users an option to block that access while in progress. Submit email information on the Dojo Labs website to pre-order the device ($99).
Steve Brachmann writes on technology, business, and legal topics for IPWatchdog.com, a blog focused on intellectual property topics, the Buffalo News, and the Hamburg Sun. He lives in the Elmwood Village.