Amazon Dot

Alexa enabled: making the smart home a reality

Image credit: Amazon

Is the long-promised ‘smart home’ finally a reality? And will it ever be the default design of choice?

“Alexa, are you pretty? Are you clever? What’s six times eight? Will it rain today?”

She doesn’t chuckle when she replies to my eight-year-old’s incessant queries. Her answers are professional and to the point. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I try my best. Six multiplied by eight is 48. It probably won’t rain in London today.” Then she gives us the weather. And the traffic update. And the morning news. And she plays some jazz.

Echo is a sleek black cylinder from Amazon, and, with its diminutive cousin Echo Dot and their voice command platform ‘Alexa’, represents a renewed push towards the reality of the ‘smart’ home – converting all the buzz about the Internet of Things into a useful form.

The prospect of a talking fridge whining about a lack of milk has become a running gag over the past decade or so; there has been endless media noise around smart washing machines and smart ovens but they have tended only to appear at technology conferences (although Samsung and a few other frontrunners have lately started to sell a few).

It all started to look more promising when the devices became less onerous: smart thermostats, dimmable lights controlled from your phone, clever garage door openers, smart sprinklers. Still, these early appliances were a bit dull. Then came Google Home, and then the Echo and the Echo Dot.

Both the Echo and the Dot work in the cloud. You can use them to set the timer and alarms, play music, check your calendar, and search the web for basic facts such as “Who was Henry VIII?” as my son asked for his homework. Because of the cloud, it is expected that Amazon will continue updating Echo and the Dot over time. It is already possible to install a selection of ‘skills’ that add more functionality – such as checking the status of the London Underground. All of this is making your home that little bit smarter.

“We are starting to see the crest of the true smart home available to average consumers,” says Chad Lundberg, social interaction designer at Frog, a global design and strategy firm. “Smoke, fire, remote security are already networks within homes – plumbing leaks, pollution (sound, light and air), water quality, neighbourhood social dynamics, and so on, are all variables that need to be considered in what we think are ‘smart’ homes.”

In the future, a lot of your everyday routine may become automated. As your alarm goes off, your coffee starts to brew. Your bedroom will inform you of the weather and the latest headlines, while the fridge will (finally) tell you what’s missing on your shopping list. With your phone, you open the garage door, the car self-drives on to the street and tunes to your favourite radio station. Once you’re out, the door self-locks and the smart thermostat adjusts the energy saving settings.

Not only will the home of the future be smarter, but the major addition of Alexa is that voice commands will make it easier and more intuitive to manage, says Werner Goertz, a Gartner analyst. 

Although the Echo is not integrated into your home, it does have some integration capabilities – it can control the Philips Hue lightbulbs and Belkin WeMo Switch, as well as some other smart home devices. Firms such as SmartThings and Samsung are currently working to create an open platform to allow smart devices from other companies to work together.

Nest Labs, the smart device firm owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, also does more than just helping you to save energy with its thermostats. The firm’s ‘Works with Nest’ programme is collaborating with thousands of companies to create a smarter home, by allowing everything from lighting to fitness bands and even cars to securely connect with Nest products. “We believe products should be thoughtful... and a home [should] take care of the people inside it,” says Lionel Guicherd-Callin, head of Product Marketing for Nest Labs.

Still, at the moment, gimmicks like Echo, Google Home, Nest, and various smart appliances, don’t come with the house; they are added later. “The current types of product are fun but the integration and intentionality of their use needs to evolve,” says Lundberg. And it will, inevitably, he thinks – so that when you buy your dream home, you may very well expect some inherent smartness, simply because this will be standard in most new higher-end appliances.

One thing that is likely to change, he adds, is that there will be sensors embedded around the house, or with the infrastructure necessary for their support. That will happen not only because of technological advances, but also because of the plummeting prices of sensors, the prevalence of services available to act as a hub, and their ever-shrinking size, which simplifies the installation and upgrading. The sensors will be “the AI to process inputs and outputs, and a platform that supports new sensor additions will be more important than the sensors themselves”, says Lundberg’s colleague at Frog, technology director Jud Holliday.

Echo and other devices such as Microsoft Kinect, smart security cameras, motion detectors and so on, already have a variety of sensors. The next step, says Holliday, is for these sensors to work together in a coherent way. “Audio cues from microphones might tell us much more about patterns of usage, beyond just waiting to receive voice commands,” he says.

“A truly ‘smart’ home might be able to apply machine learning algorithms to this data to provide useful information around energy efficiency or reaching the point of automating behaviour without having to be told or programmed by the user.”

These existing sensors can be combined with such sensor types as pedometers, stress monitors, hydration monitors, health apps, and other similar consumer services – and the current smart home controllers will be able to adjust, adapt and react more intelligently.

One of the main drivers that might suggest pre-installation of sensors in a new home is for a ‘cleaner’ appearance, by putting sensor devices into walls and ceilings as they are built. Also, vendors and service providers will subsidise, or give these hardware sensors away for next-to-zero cost. “Once these are installed, the homeowner will be incentivised to subscribe to the services that these sensors provide,” says Goertz. “Home insurance and utility companies will subsidise sensors in new homes for the same reason.”

With ‘smartness’ battling into every aspect of our lives, one question will be about the balance between “the perceived creepiness of some ‘other’ listening in, and how much privacy will we be willing to give up to achieve these ends”, says Lundberg.

Apart from privacy concerns, there are also security risks associated with the IoT. Goertz believes that while the risk profile of hacking into the connected home is lower than in other areas of IoT, smart home systems need proper internet security such as data encryption, and network access security. “The problem is that many devices, especially the sensors, are electronically so simple that they don’t have the processors that normally manage encryption and decryption,” says Goertz. “This is why prevention of hacking must happen at the network level inside the home.”

To minimise the risk of hacking, the old rules apply: use complex passwords, install a firewall and disable port forwarding on your network router. Or perhaps even set up a virtual private network. But ideally, “security should be built into the foundation of every product”, says Guicherd-Callin of Nest. For instance, the company’s Nest Cam, a camera that senses movement in a user’s home and alerts them via a smartphone app, uses 128-bit AES with TLS/SSL encryption, Perfect Forward Secrecy and a unique 2048-bit RSA key to keep your content secure from the second it’s captured.

Until you shell out for your fully-equipped smart home of the future, the Internet of Things will ensure connections between pieces of hardware in your home multiply exponentially, with you controlling them and them controlling each other. Already today, smart devices that help you control ‘things’ around your home via your phone or voice commands makes it seem as if the future has arrived.

In a real AI move, you can even make your devices talk to each other – via, for example, a service called If This Then That (IFTTT), with pre-made logic ‘recipes’ that can link your devices to each other. With IFTTT, you can programme your devices to react to various triggers, run routines, or pass commands to other devices around your house.

Apart from that, there are home-automated systems you can install, such as Control4, Loxone, Crestron and NuBryte, which allow integration of home entertainment and security, temperature and lighting control, and so on, making your appliances work together in one cohesive system.

So what’s next for the smart home? Lundberg says that the integrated nature of products like Nest and Google Home already have the potential to be a game changer. “The integration with the larger Google platform has many exciting possibilities,” he says, adding that one further interesting development is towards the small – such as the Arduino nano, a logical chip with connectivity that can help users create their own IoT device.

“Looking at the miniaturisation personally makes me excited,” says Lundberg. “I feel that the things to really look at are the emerging platforms that enable the everyday person to work with machine learning and other back-end services.” 

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