Welcome to ‘Kagoo Explains’ - a series of short articles de-mystifying some of the confusing terminology used to describe tech. Today we’re starting a multi-part article on Smart Homes: what they are, how they can help you in everyday life, and where they might go in the future.
The concept behind a ‘Smart Home’ is a collection of appliances and devices that are all connected - both to the internet and each other. The idea is that devices can work together, sharing data and functionality, and be controlled centrally for maximum efficiency and convenience.
Let us start with a brief introduction to smart technology and how they communicate together. The technological advances of the last decade have seen a massive boom in so-called ‘smart’ devices - these are gadgets or appliances that have some kind of sensor, software or computer built into them, allowing them to connect to the Internet, collect data and communicate with other devices. The capabilities of these devices vary wildly, but they all use the Internet as the basis for their functionality.
The first smart devices were gadgets like phones - previously just able to make calls or send text messages, they are now pocket computers, able to access the net, stream video and do pretty much everything! However as the world became more connected, manufacturers saw the possibility in adding smart capabilities to a vast array of appliances and devices. It’s highly likely that you’ve bought some form of smart-enabled product recently, such as:
Televisions with the ability to stream internet video (e.g - Netflix or Youtube)
Washing machines with wi-fi connections for updating settings
Speaker systems that can wirelessly connect to your computer or phone to stream music
Light bulbs that can be controlled via smartphone app
Many of these smart features don’t totally reinvent the devices, but instead aim to augment it’s capabilities, and make it more convenient to use. For instance, ‘smart’ heating systems such as Nest work as normal heating systems, but also allow you to modify the heating from your phone - helpful if you want to turn the heating on when you leave the office, so you return home to a lovely warm house!
Not all smart devices are life-changing, and many are just downright strange! Clearly no home could do without:
Smart features generally fall into 3 categories - allowing new content, enabling new functions & new methods of communicating with the device.
Smart devices are most helpful in their ability to let users download or stream their choice of content. So while old ‘dumb’ devices would have required a physical copy of an album or movie, an internet-enabled TV or sound system can access it immediately. Additionally, video- and music-sharing sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud allow for an endless stream of free content, ready to be beamed wirelessly to your TV or speakers!
Having a connection to the internet opens up a world of possibilities for appliance manufacturers. Previously the device was ‘finished’ when it left the factory - the core functions (i.e - the different programs on a washing machine) were set, and couldn’t easily be changed. Likewise any software or media (such as apps on a phone, or music with a sound system) had to be pre-installed or packaged along with the device. This meant that any updates or tweaks - however small they might be - had to wait until a new iteration of the device. If you wanted the improvements, you had to buy the new product.
Smart functionality means that these devices can now be accessed and updated as necessary - allowing for new functions to be added as they become available! For instance, Hoover allows new washing machine programs to be downloaded via their ‘Wizard App’ as you need them. It’s not just white goods that benefit from this: Smart TVs can download the Disney+ app, even if they were manufactured long before the channel existed - allowing you to binge-watch ‘Ducktales’ without needing to buy a totally new TV!
New Communication Methods
A network connection also allows for new ways to access and communicate with devices. The most prevalent of these is a ‘companion app’ - a smartphone app that is linked to your appliance, allowing you to remotely perform actions such as:
Monitoring the status of the appliance (i.e - how long left in the tumbler cycle)
Changing settings, or remotely starting/stopping functions (i.e - turning the coffee machine on)
Viewing a video stream from the appliance (i.e - doorbell cameras that show who is outside your door)
Being warned of any errors or malfunctions (i.e - the oven has stopped working properly)
Smart functionality also allows the different appliances to communicate between one another, creating an interconnecting web of devices that can share information and functions. This is colloquially known as the ‘Internet of Things’, and is a key concept in the Smart Home design.
Internet of Things & Smart Homes
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes a network of smart-enabled devices that collect and transfer data with each other over the Internet. We’ve mentioned a lot of smart devices and appliances already, but the key concept with IoT is that these individual devices:
Work together to collect & transfer data between systems
Are centrally controlled or automated.
Automation means designing a system that runs automatically, with minimal human interaction. A simple example would be a light on a timer: normally you have to manually turn the light on when it gets dark, but the timer means it will activate automatically.
IoT takes this idea, and expands it greatly. Since devices can talk to each other, this means that they can trigger each other, or use the data from one device to make a decision on a second device. This allows for far more complex automation, where a single trigger can have several different effects, which means far greater efficiency and less work for you!
A smartwatch can monitor your sleep, and detect when you are starting to naturally wake from sleep. The watch then triggers your bedside lamp to turn on and slowly increase the brightness, helping you to wake up more comfortably. That same trigger can also activate your coffee machine, setting it brewing so that a fresh pot of coffee is waiting for you when you wake up!
These triggers and automation chains can work in isolation, but are far more potent when centrally controlled with some kind of ‘hub’ - a system that acts as the command centre for all the devices and appliances on the network. This hub is responsible for receiving data from devices (i.e - a command from your smartphone to turn on the heating) and sending out the necessary triggers (i.e - telling the heating to activate). There are numerous smart hubs on the market right now - the most prevalent are Apple’s Echo and Google’s Nest. These hubs manage any smart devices connected to them, and can also be controlled via voice or a smartphone app - providing another level of high-tech convenience!
All of these technologies come together to form the concept of a ‘Smart Home’ - where every part of your house is interconnected and can be controlled with a simple voice command. The routine functions are all automated, and the smart hub monitors the appliances and devices to make sure they are running smoothly. The idea is to use technology to make your home as convenient and helpful as possible - a worthy dream indeed!
In the following articles we’re going to look in-depth at some of the current Smart Home devices available for the kitchen and living room, as well as consider the problems of smart tech, and what it may achieve in the future!