September 01, 2010
| by Stuart Lipoff
Over the last 30 years, I have seen many smart people invest much money and effort chasing an unrealized promise: explosive growth in home automation.
The promise of a new category to be installed in the 100 million U.S. households is highly seductive, but it’s time to consider lessons learned from past failures. Analysis of the opportunities for home automation is a two-step process consisting of understanding the success criteria and determining if enough has changed in the last 30 years to reach the tipping point.
The success criteria for a new CE category are not unlike that of any new product:
- Screaming benefits with favorable cost/benefit ratios
- Painless pathways to implementation
- Social acceptance of the applications
Even with screaming benefits, if implementation of a comprehensive home automation system has significant warts, the benefits will not overcome the inertia. The historical situation in home automation is one of unstable and confusing lack of compatibility standards and the lack of complementary ecosystem of product OEMs, designers, installers and service.
Automation Still Isn’t Mainstream
The first advance in home automation beyond mechanical timers to turn on lights and set-back thermostats was the X10 power line carrier system developed in 1975. This successful technology lives on today.
However, the total size of the market for X10 has been very limited compared to mainstream CE products. X10’s success can be attributed to a stable, mature, technical standard supported by multiple respected OEMs with inexpensive devices that can be easily installed by consumers. Because the benefits of remote control of lights are modest, the adoption has been modest.
We are on the verge of success in deploying home automation systems, but not for their own sake
In 1984, the Electronics Industries Association (EIA) had a more ambitious plan to ignite a new home automation industry. The EIA released a comprehensive set of standards called “CEBus,” covering the use of coaxial cable, infrared remote control, radio frequency and fiber optical media, to control and support a wide variety of applications ranging including lighting, environmental control, security and control of entertainment and communications systems.
CEBus technology had support of all the big players including semiconductor suppliers, electrical supplies OEMs, appliance OEMs and many others. Intellon continues to support CEBus technology in its building block component offerings. However, there was no killer application that provided enough incentive to overcome the pain of buying, installing and servicing a comprehensive home automation system.
Getting Over the Hump
We are on the verge of success in deploying home automation systems, but not for their own sake. They will ride on the coattails of other home networks which are primarily adopted to support home computing, telecommunications and multiroom distribution of home entertainment. Once this “computainment” network infrastructure is in place the incremental cost to connect sensors, actuators and controls throughout the home will be small; home automation traffic is so low that bandwidth it can easily piggyback on the network backbone.
Mature, low-cost RF technologies such as ZigBee, Bluetooth, and even WiFi can provide painless and cheap connections.
However, we still lack that the screaming benefit and social acceptance criteria. Here, we get some help from President Obama. A major initiative of his administration is green energy and Smart Grid technology. In a few years no children will be able to show their face in school and few housewives will be able to face the neighbors without a home automation system connected to the utility managed Smart Grid.
A combination of tax incentives and energy utilities pushing government subsidized installs and implementations will tie the home energy meters to appliance load management and distribution automation applications. The benefits to the consumer will fall a bit short of “screaming” but with government push, social forces and low incremental costs, this time home automation is actually likely to take off.