Google’s recent acquisition of intelligent thermostat-maker Nest could be a major disruption to the status quo in home automation. For decades, the dream of a “smart home” has been just that: a dream. The concept of an interconnected, intelligent home has been relegated to science fiction or parody.
In order for the smart home to become a reality, there needs to be a significant change in the thinking behind the technology. The scope of a smart home needs to be redefined, and how this technology is delivered to the consumer must be the place of innovation.
Making the home smart
What is a smart home really?
It’s not the Tex Avery vision of wacky gadgets performing niche tasks for residents. Nor is it the more utopian/dystopian narrative of an intelligent home catering after the every whim of its masters. No, quite simply a smart home is a connected home. One where the varied gadgets and services built in talk to each other in a way that residents can observe the communications and control them. It is a convenience suite that makes every facet of one’s home accessible and controllable.
A smart home unifies intelligent appliances and devices together through a network. Appliances and devices are not silos that separate out functions, but are ones that can be communicated across platforms.
Here is a practical vision of the smart home: Imagine an oven that accepts digital recipes and communicates back to the chef. No clunky interface, just controlled from a tablet. An internal thermometer tracks temperature in the meal. The oven can be dynamically adjusted to maintain that temperature and it knows when the meal is finished cooking. The oven then turns off, reducing energy use while maintaining internal temperature of the dish. During times of peak demand, the oven can communicate back to the home's smart meter, giving demand back to the grid. The chef, out running an errand, gets an alert that their meal is ready, but doesn’t have to worry about the oven burning their food nor it going cold.
Smart home, smart grid and electric utilities
Any talk of the smart home typically focuses on the customer, but the grid can benefit, too.
The reward of such a system is two-fold. The consumer has the added convenience of properly cooked food and the convenience of an alert on their phone. In other words, the ability to better control the devices in their home. But for utilities, there is a non-trivial savings in energy consumption. An electric oven uses an estimated 2 KWh per hour, and if you connect all the electric ovens in the U.S. to home energy management systems, you're suddenly talking about a significant amount of power.
But this is only one application of practical interconnectivity between appliances, utilities and devices in the smart home. Nest understood this concept by putting the power of the thermostat in users’ pockets with a smartphone app. They took the concept further by giving the Nest a bit of intelligence, learning user patterns like desired temperature and schedule. A truly connected home could give consumers more control over their household technology.
The smart home could ultimately become a decentralized control node, a customer-facing touch point that can provide the grid with more flexibility in meeting electric demand.
The smart home is both a disruption and an opportunity. Utilities have the prized customer relationship, but they have largely remained "behind the meter" for the last 100 years. On the one hand, the interface of the smart home could disintermediate an electric utility from its residential customers. On the other, the infrastructure and analytics necessary to support the smart home is an opportunity for utilities to help bring this technology to the customer, whether through partnerships or otherwise.
The rise of the smart home exposes the ongoing shift in how consumers interact with the power grid.
Why is the home dumb?
If the smart home is so simple, why hasn’t it been done? The two largest barriers have been a lack of standard protocols and lack of consumer knowledge.
Right now, there are many competing protocols for communication between devices. Smart home equipment manufacturers want low power mesh networks that allow simple connection between devices. ZigBee, Z-Wave, IEEE 802.15, X10, RF, etc. But these standards require new equipment for consumers to buy and right now each major manufacturer locks consumers in to their ecosystem. It’s a heavy investment for limited functionality.
Nest was successful because it used the most ubiquitous standard of them all: Wi-Fi. Virtually all homes with Internet have wireless networking, and even more ubiquitous are wireless networks from cellular carriers. The future of the smart home is not built on new, proprietary standards but on existing technologies that can easily be added on. Appliances with built-in Wi-Fi already exist in some markets. Cloud-based control is even more forward thinking, with web-based applications that can give consumers an overview of their entire home.
Software and technology by itself is not the answer though. Google tried this with [email protected], an initiative to bring their mobile OS to consumer devices like appliances, televisions and single-use devices. The lack of hardware support has left the initiative barren.
The second problem is consumer knowledge and attraction. There are several companies that are in the home automation game, but the average consumer is completely unaware of Z-Wave, AMX, Control4 or any others. These companies, which make largely incompatible products, have little consumer value.
Again, Nest made the smart choice. They sell direct to consumers, exclusively in one of the most successful retail chains in the world: the Apple Store.
A lack of proprietary protocols to adopt and consumer-friendly attraction gave the Nest thermostat the best chance at starting the home automation race. This is about more than smart lights and locks, or the fantasy refrigerator that tells you when you need to buy milk. These ideas are either too limited or not must-have features for the consumer.
The smart home will flourish when consumers see the benefits: lower energy costs, better cross talk between device and appliance, convenient control, an add-your-device model where consumers have choices.
Google’s acquisition of Nest puts them at the forefront of this market. Google has the consumer appeal to be successful. Nest has already cut its teeth selling at retail through the Apple Store. Google’s services are all cloud-based and eschew proprietary standards.
The race for the smart home might finally be on.