Mass Market Home Control, Again

Is the Internet of Things going to change everything?

Is the mass market ready to embrace home automation? We’ve heard this before, and even seen small bursts of enthusiasm around DIY smart home products or home control systems.

NEST thermostats made internet-connected HVAC seem cool. SONOS made multiroom audio easy, and several companies, such as Dropcam and iZon made it easy to see which of your dogs is responsible for the mess on the rug. All of those systems are fairly easy to setup, use and live with. They all use wireless communication and some level of cloud-connectivity to make the magic happen.

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A couple of weeks ago we shared news about a system called Revolv, which includes multiple wireless protocols to integrate a wide range of device brands (including Sonos, Philips Hue, Belkin WeMo, and more).

What most of those simple systems lack is integration. At Electronic House we like to tell people that smart integration—getting all your devices and home systems to play nicely in the same sandbox—is the key role of professionally-installed and programmed control system. The DIY alternative is, usually, a smartphone full of apps that can’t communicate with each other (and no one to call for tech support). Is that going to change soon? Mike Harris thinks so.

Harris is the founder of Zonoff, a company that’s developed a software platform that could make it easier for anyone to integrate a wide variety of devices through a smartphone or tablet (which sounds very similar to what Revolv is promising). Currently Zonoff’s work can be found in Somfy’s TaHoma system that combines powered shades, lighting and temperature control through one app. Later this year another product using Zonoff will be launching at retail (more details to come, I’m promised).

While a lot of these technologies seem new to most consumers, Harris, a veteran of several consumer electronics companies, has been watching this space evolve for a while. “I’ve been a hobbyist in it for 15 years,” he says, but now he believes the mass market is ready to accept it due to a lot of factors, notably the rise of smart devices and the development of low-cost wireless standards, such as Z-Wave, Zigbee and Wi-Fi.

Also, there’s the price. Professionally installed systems can cost thousands. Most of the wirelessly connected devices that Harris wants to connect cost a few hundred dollars or less.

What might this new world of mass market automation look like? “Any always-on internet-connected device can be a platform for the home control engine,” says Harris. The key, he says, is to support a wide range of platforms and devices so it’s easy for consumers to purchase the separate products they want (such as security cameras, motion sensors, light switches) and be confident that they’ll work. “We need to go where the products are.”

Harris noted that individual products such as the NEST, SONOS and Dropcam, have been successful in getting the attention of early adopters “but those devices are silos,” he says. When devices can communicate and act together, rather than as separate systems, then the overall user experience is better.

It’s the internet of things, the cloud space where all your devices meet and shake each others’ hands, that will make this integration possible.

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Not only does mass market automation have technical hurdles to overcome; business and education hurdles are just as big. “No one goes into a store and says they want to buy a smart home,” Harris says, “but they might see a NEST thermostat or a Comcast [Xfinity Home] commercial and say ‘I want that…’ there’s no one right way to bring this to the consumer’s home.” He believes that for a consumer to adopt a connected home product, it has to come from a brand or channel they already know and trust, which is why Harris says Zonoff is partnering with major companies that can communicate with the consumer.

On the technical side, currently Zonoff’s platform supports 12 different wireless protocols with more on the way. Not every product partner will need all 12 protocols, but being standard agnostic can go a long way to making a system easy to use.

The Zonoff Sentry is hardware reference design which separates the control software from the radios.

Is there one killer use scenario or must-have product that will get the world excited about home control? “For everyone there’s a killer app; maybe there are two killer apps. The problem is that for every person that app might be different,” says Harris. Some users might be sold on multiroom audio while others are attracted to the security of IP video cameras. To make this market successful consumers shouldn’t have to decide on one or the other. Everything should be essentially compatible with everything else (within reason).

Oh course; this is where professional control systems and integrators have succeeded, while DIY systems have mostly stayed in the niche market of tech-savvy consumers. Telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast are also getting their toes wet with home automation in a variety of scenarios, from professionally installed to DIY (but monitored). It seems the market has been on the brink of breakthrough for years. Is this going to be that year?

More about home automation:
Home Automation FAQs for Beginners
What Can Your Lights Do?
6 Common Automation Pitfalls to Avoid
Contact Sensors are the Secret Sauce in Many Home Control Systems
The Kitchen is the Center of the Connected Home
Basic Installation Options for Whole House Audio/Video


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