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New Trends in Home Automation
So other than Nest, what else is a big deal?
New DIY systems like the Lowe Iris (app shown here) and the Staples Connect (below) are opening up basic home automation to more people.

January 23, 2014 by Grant Clauser

Before any of you start jumping on me with, “Hey, I did that way back when,” let me assure you that I know that it’s all been done and/or said before. The devil’s in the details, though—and the details about today’s trends are mostly related to price, awareness, and ease of adoption.

Yes, the absorption of Nest into Google, like a fly into pudding, is a big deal, but probably less of a big deal for either Google or Nest than the initial hyperventilating last week suggested. Our friends at CE Pro speculated wisely that the Nesting was more about data and intellectual property than about Google getting into the cool thermostat business.

So other than Nest, what else is a big deal?

DIY Automation
Some of you are saying to yourselves, “No, not this again.” DIY systems have been around since X introduced himself to 10 at a bar and started plugging into sockets. For decades, DIY automation has been a niche within a niche, like a question wrapped in an enigma.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with two DIY systems: the Lowes’ Iris and the Revolv. Both are remarkably easy to set up and operate. Now, they don’t have the functionality and customization of really advanced systems, but so far, they’re very good for what they are—easy ways to control your lights, temperature, (basic) security, etc. with a single app. Staples and Smart Things also offer systems in the not-bad-for-the-price category.

What these systems lack, though, is integration with the home’s entertainment products. You can’t use Iris or Staples Connect to control your media room gear.

Appliances
Because we’re inherently lazy as a culture, not to mention time-stressed, the idea of automated kitchen appliances has had a certain allure since Captain Kirk first ordered the Enterprise food synthesizer to make him a cheese sandwich.

At CES, both LG and Samsung talked about automated features for current and future appliances. At the LG press conference, the presenter demonstrated text messaging to a fridge to see if there was any beer left (this was at 8:00 a.m.). Samsung showed interaction with appliances for things like oven notifications (“Your roast is ready”). Similar ideas have been floated around for years, and they may start to appear in more products soon. This year, Belkin will also launch a wirelessly controlled slow cooker.

Security for the Paranoid
Yes, we live in a perpetual state of fear that something in our homes will malfunction. It’s that fear that is driving a lot of new home automation products. Water sensors, leak detector, smoke alarms… all with instant text messaging and hand-wringing included. If you want to make people buy your product, make them quake at the thought of living without it. As someone who has experienced a fair share of plumbing-related calamities, I can empathize with the need to feel secure.

Security is the main driver behind the systems offered by telecoms like Verizon, Xfinity and AT&T. These systems emphasize IP cameras, leak detectors and contact sensors. The fact that this technology is fairly inexpensive (a few hundred dollars will cover most homes) and easy to set up is also helping the adoption.


Staples Connect

Crowd Funding
Throughout 2013, I received at least one pitch for a Kickstarter, Fundme or Indiegogo product idea every other day. The dominant categories were Bluetooth speakers and automation/smart home gadgets. A lot of the smart home launches, like the Piper, LIFX, and Goldee, were very interesting, though mostly DIY products that did one or two things. A few, like WeBee had much bigger aims. Luckily, it looks like most of them reached their funding goal, which means a real product will (hopefully) eventually land in the hands of those early investors.

What makes this notable is that there has been more innovation stirring up the home automation market in the last 12 months then there has been in the last several years. Sure, many of these products will never actually surface—and many of the ones that do won’t have any great impact on the industry. However, a few of them will, and those few will keep pushing the creativity envelope as well as spread awareness of the possibilities of automation as a whole. Good for everyone.

Smart Locks
Locks? Really? Yes, locks appear to be nearly as big a deal as, well, thermostats (and who saw that coming?). The rise in smart locks, controlled by various wireless means including Z-Wave, Zigbee, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, adds convenience and security without adding a lot of costs. Smart locks are only a couple hundred dollars, and are often the gateway to a family adopting more automation systems in the home. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see major home builders (especially luxury home builders) adopting these in a big way.

Internet of Things
I really hate this term, but we’re stuck with it. The Internet of Things or IOT is just a way of saying that devices in the home are connected via the Internet. Some of these products connect directly to each other (or through your router) or they connect to the cloud (some corporate server somewhere) and back to your home. The benefit of IOT devices in the home is that they allow you to control and connect with your home systems from anywhere in or outside of the house. IOT is what drives the magic of checking your iPhone to see who’s ringing your front doorbell or turning on your heat/AC before you arrive home from a trip.

IOT also welcomes new companies in the market. These are the ones who can write the software to integrate devices that already exist. That’s essentially what Revolv and Staples Connect are doing. They just make the main hub and the software, while other manufacturers churn out cool products.

Two things are making IOT-based automation take off. The first is that broadband Internet and mobile broadband are pretty ubiquitous among American consumers. If you have a smartphone with a data plan, you’re half way there. The other important part is that the radios to connect devices, whether they be Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, 6LoPAN or something else, are all getting cheaper and smaller.

  .  .  .

Basic DIY or entry level home automation systems will open up the market to more people, but they won’t replace custom-designed and installed system because they simply aren’t as powerful or able to integrate well. If you want to see what the most advanced systems are capable of, check out these.

What’s the most interesting thing about home automation to you? If you’re an old hand at home automation or just getting interested, we want to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Also Check Out:
5 Up and Coming Technologies for the Home
Kwikset Locks In New Features for Kevo Smart Lock
7 Smart Locks That Aren’t As Dumb As You Think

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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