Building home automation

Is smart home tech only for wealthy consumers and hobbyist programmers?

JAX Editorial Team
Smart home image via Shutterstock

“Home automation is a luxury,” says Daniel Young, CEO of tech consultancy DXY. What’s missing is for the Internet of Things to prove it can really improve people’s lives.

“How IoT systems are alive in houses” is what you’re discussing at your IoTCon session. So what makes the difference between a lifeless technology and a vibrant IoT system that people not only can use every day, but also want to use?

One of the underlying factors within a connected home is intuition. Passive technologies, while the might be connected, require user intervention and control for them to operate. Therefore they don’t anticipate the needs and behaviours of a user, or the family that lives in a home.

To bring this technology to life, we need to add intuition—the ability to predict what a user may want or need to make their experience more personable, comfortable, and empathetic. Thus, while the technology exists to connect almost everything within a home, what’s been missing is the ability for to learn from those technologies, so that it can provide an experience that turns a house into a home.

What is a customer-oriented UX?

The simplest way to describe “customer-oriented UX” is to create a user experience that the customer appreciates, not one that’s designed for executives and engineers. We like take an evidence-based approach to learning what a customer wants or needs from a technology, to create the baseline for their user experience. From here, we’re then free to interpret what they want, to design a well honed customer experience.

Home automation is often seen either as a playground for tinkerers and hobbyists or as an absolute luxury for wealthy consumers. Is there something missing to strike the balance?

Home automation is a luxury. When given the choice between a light switch that costs €2 or one that’s €20, there needs to be a very valuable proposition for the majority of people before they spend 10X as much on a technology that currently works well.

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The missing value is knowing where to invest in a home automation experience, and how it will impact the quality of one’s life as well as achieve secondary benefits such as energy savings, lower maintenance costs, etc. To accomplish this, home automation needs to be delivered in terms of packages or services so that the difference in unit cost between a switch is embedded into the overall cost of a household system, allowing the user to make purchasing decisions on the overall experience, not just the components.

The Smart Home area is suffering from a certain fragmentation. Manufacturers are using their own protocols, which makes it difficult to connect various devices. Is there a solution to this problem in sight?

For the Haven project, we opted to use a mesh network built on Zigbee. There are, of course, other standards out there, but ultimately the one that engineers are going to adopt will be optimised around which platform has the greatest reliability, probably be open-source, cost the least to develop and deploy, and one where the community keeps pushing the standards.

The wireless technology is one part; the interoperability is another. So long as manufacturers want to keep consumers tied to their ecosystem, they’ll keep tight controls on third-party systems from interfacing with their systems. The reasons can be reliability as much as financial—no one wants to ship a system where third-party tools reduce the system’s overall reliability.

Thus fragmentation will continue to exist for the next few years, however, I do predict that manufacturers will see a common ground where their devices can “play” with others in a safe, reliable, and economically advantageous way.

What do you think makes the Internet of Things such an exciting field for developers and startups?

The confluence of software, hardware, and real-world user experience: this to me makes for an amazing time to be working in the IoT field. The possibilities of each, let alone in combination have great potential to change how we live, work, and enjoy life as much as communication technology or transportation technology did 100+ years ago.

With Haven you developed an app to control the temperature in different areas of a home with a smartphone or tablet. So how does it work?

The technology is for the North American market, where forced air systems are used to heat and cool a building. Haven is a product family that divides a residential space into zones—areas such as a floor, room, or section of a building. The system is controlled by an “electronic control box” installed with a furnace or air conditioning unit. This unit is connected to a server, where a mobile user’s app connects to their house. Within the building, there are control valves that open and close air ducts to maintain a constant temperature within each zone of the house.

Within the server, and a lesser extent the app, we’ve designed the system to make it easy for a user to maintain a comfortable environment within their home. Part of it is predictive; other parts are user-derrived. Together the system creates a space that is a “haven” from the world around them, saving energy and adding to the enjoyment of one’s home.

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