Are You Smarter Than Your Home?

Take home automation to the next level with Google Nest, Amazon Echo, Robot Rovio, and many more.

Smart Home Illustration

Some 20 years ago, Bill Gates, then and still the richest man in America, erected his dream house in Medina, Washington. High tech and high cost, the $63-million mega-mansion that the Microsoft co-founder christened Xanadu 2.0 offered an enticing and cutting-edge vision of the house of the future. The space-age features of the world’s first smart home that so enchanted us—rooms that automatically adjusted temperature, lighting, and music as people walked through them, the computer-screen artwork that switched itself out at the touch of a button, the swimming pool that played piped-in music underwater, and the self-watering, 40-foot maple tree by the driveway—seemed as distant as the stars in a galaxy far away.

But today, in the era of domestic connectivity, you don’t have to be a billionaire to live in a smart home. You can find the right smart connections, from thermometers to light bulbs, in the DIY aisles of The Home Depot, Walmart and other big-box chains. And you don’t have to buy them all, or all at once.

In fact, Steve Koenig, senior director of market research for the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group based in Arlington, Virginia, says that retrofitting often is the best option because unlike Gates, most of us aren’t building new custom houses. And even if we were, technology is changing so rapidly that today’s smart devices are destined to become tomorrow’s stupid ones.

The concept is simple. Everything in a smart home communicates via a network of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-enabled devices that are controlled via a smartphone, tablet, or app. Like players in an orchestra taking cues from a central director, appliances and devices seamlessly coordinate lighting, heating, air conditioning, TVs, computers, security, entertainment and video systems, and yes, even the music that you hear when you walk in the front door. The network constantly supports these collegial sci-fi chat sessions, even when you’re not home.

“The smart home takes care of the occupants instead of the reverse,” Koenig says. “It can be as automated or as non-automated as you want depending on your needs.”

Gates was not the first one to envision a house with a mind of its own. The idea had been around for decades. The Jetsons cartoons that Gates watched in the early 1960s, which were set a century later in 2062, gave baby boomers their first animated look at the future. Like Gates, kids of the 1960s couldn’t wait to try out the flying cars and moving sidewalks and have Rosie the robot clean up after them. Even Ray Bradbury, in his 1950 Martian Chronicles short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” imagined a fully automated, computer-controlled house that did everything from making breakfast to turning out the lights. He set his ominous fantasy in the year 2026.

Gates was, indeed, ahead of the game, and when he built his house, the public couldn’t help but embrace his vision of things to come. When products started to debut at the dawn of the digital age, they dared to dream of owning them.

Now, they are literally buying into the concept. A recent Consumer Technology Association survey shows that 16 percent of households own a smart-home device and 14 percent plan to buy one. Some 14 percent have a smart security camera and 13 percent have it on their shopping lists. Eight percent have purchased smart thermostats while seven percent plan to. High-rise residential complexes also are getting higher IQs. In Seoul, for instance, Samsung’s Raemian has produced apartment buildings where wristbands are used to open doors. These smart units advise residents to take an umbrella when it’s raining, use facial recognition to scan visitors in, and even track family members via GPS.

Smart Home Gadgets IllustrationsRetrofit Your Home With These Smart Gadgets

Amazon Echo Dot
The ever-popular Alexa behaves like a personal assistant who plays your favorite music, looks up information, and controls your smart home devices. And Alexa does everything from researching recipes to calling a car service when you need to go to the airport.

Husqvarna Automower
At the remote command of your smartphone, the robot mows the grass and finds its way back to the charging station without your help.

LG’s Smart InstaView Refrigerator
With two taps on the touchscreen, the panels turn transparent so you can see what’s inside without opening the door.

Nest Learning Thermostat
It knows your schedule and your habits by checking the GPS on your smartphone and raises and lowers the temperature accordingly to save energy and money.

Philips Hue Lighting System
All you do is screw the bulb in and you can control light via the app from anywhere in the world.

Ring Wi-Fi Enabled Video Doorbell
You can see, hear, and speak to anyone at your door from your smartphone, tablet, or PC.

iRobot’s Roomba
This robotic vacuum can run up to 120 minutes.

Winbot W930 Robotic Window Cleaner
Attach a cleaning pad, spray the window with cleaner, place the robot on the glass, press start, and watch it go to work while you kick back.

And every day there are new products waiting to help out around the house. No, we don’t really need them. We could continue to do the mundane chores that we abhor, but the machines do them so much more efficiently. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, companies have made fortunes by marketing products aimed at easing the stressors associated with routine domestic life. Think of the days before electricity, dishwashers, washing machines, air-conditioning units, and all the other gadgets we now take for granted. The digital age is now ushering in the latest wave of devices to make life even more hassle free.

Gadgets are categorized in three generations. The first is a wireless network on which devices can communicate with one another via a proxy server, like Zigbee. The second is an artificial intelligence than can control the electric devices, like Amazon Echo or Google Nest. The last generation is a robot buddy that interacts with the home’s human inhabitants, e.g. Robot Rovio or Roomba.

There are so many smart devices coming on the market, in fact, that CNET, the world’s leader in tech-product reviews, has set up a smart home and smart apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, to test them in an everyday environment. Which begs the question: How do you make a smart choice?

Rich Brown, the executive editor at CNET who is in charge of the smart home, suggests that you, “find devices that work best for you and your family. Think of it as solving a problem instead of transforming your lifestyle before spending a lot of money.”

How will your future play out? Imagine standing at the front door of your house, where there’s a smart security light that has a two-way speaker and camera. You also can ring the video-equipped doorbell, which actually comes with a chime feature even though it isn’t needed. If no one answers, you can tap the keypad on your smartphone to unlock the door. Now, turn on the lights with your smartphone. You might like bulbs that change color or play music on command. They are as easy to install as conventional bulbs.

In the kitchen, the Wi-Fi coffee maker has brewed you a cup as you instructed it to do via smartphone before you left your office. You don’t have a bag of groceries with you because your smart refrigerator—which takes photos every time the door is closed and keeps a running tally of essentials you’re running low on—ordered them from an online vendor to be delivered to your door. Alexa, the voice of Amazon Echo, has chosen some recipes for you to try out.

Smart Home IllustrationFeeling a little warm? Reset the thermostat using the refrigerator’s touchscreen then ask Siri to lower the app-controlled shades to keep the sun out. After dinner, you can relax and watch a movie on your Wi-Fi-enabled home theater because the robots have vacuumed the floors, cut the grass, and washed the windows.

Just thinking about all these chores makes your eyes heavy, so you head to bed. While you sleep, the bed’s intelligence sensor measures the quality of your slumber and delivers a daily report. Its cover warms your mattress. Early the next morning, before the alarm rings, the bed has “chatted” with your other smart devices to get them up and running.

Robots, which are still in their infancy, will be a vital component of the smart house of the future. Task-based bots, like vacuum cleaners, have been around for nearly two decades and are getting a lot more sophisticated. They are joined by a family of robust robots that do more complex jobs like changing the kitty litter, patrolling the house for security breaches, and dry cleaning and folding the clothes.

Koenig says that, “service-oriented robots, which will do things like care for kids and seniors, will gain traction in the next decade.”

If the idea of all this automation makes you nervous, you have good reason to be. Hacking and identity theft, as well as privacy concerns, are big unresolved issues. In October 2016, for instance, the directed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack used everyday smart appliances, including cameras and washing machines, to wreak havoc on the Internet. And it’s no secret that hackers can switch the channel on your TV as you’re watching your favorite show, unlock your front door and change the PIN number, melt the ice in your smart refrigerator, turn up your heat on a sultry summer day, or turn it off in winter to freeze your pipes. And if they access your smartphone, they can track your movements, snap photos, and record your conversations.

The new generation of high-IQ gadgets, experts say, will be less vulnerable. Or at least they hope so. But it doesn’t really matter. Smart devices are here to stay, and at some point sooner than later, you won’t be able to live without them. Can you even remember what life was like sans smartphone? There will always be late adopters or consumers wary of facing the challenges of emerging technologies, but experts agree that smart homes will just keep getting smarter.

“Millennials are eager adopters,” Brown says. “The ideal smart home will be life-changing, but it will take five or 10 more years.” Koenig adds that, “some time in the next decade, the smart home will be so commonplace that we won’t even need to call it a smart home.”

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