Everybody’s got a smartphone. But not many people have a smart home, where common household goods are augmented with small computers, and connected to the Internet.
It’s still very much a niche interest; the concern of power users and geeks, rather than ordinary folks. But that could soon change. And it could all be because of the humble smartphone you have in your pocket. Here’s why.
Smartphones Are Just Sensors
Earlier this year, I travelled to London in order to attend the TechCrunch Disrupt conference at the Old Billingsgate Market. Over the course of two days, hundreds of startups and entrepreneurs crammed into a sweaty and claustrophobic function room, each with their own unique ideas and products to demontrate.
One company that caught my attention was the Cairo-based IntegrEight, who produce the 1Sheeld.
The 1Sheeld (which we reviewed earlier this year) is remarkable. It’s an Arduino shield that connects to a compatible Android or iOS-based smartphone over a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy connection. This allows the Arduino to take readings from each of the phone’s sensors as if it were attached as a physical hardware shield, and use them in programs.
James Bruce was pretty blown away with it, as you can tell in his video review.
For example, you could build a home security system that activates when your phone’s microphone detects noise over a certain decibel. Or, you could build a system that changes the orientation of an object, based upon the orientation of a phone. You could even build a system that uses the camera of a phone, and activates a Philips Hue lightbulb if the brightness level of the room is too low, or dims them if it’s too bright.
This is possible because phones are essentially sensors.
Even the cheapest cell phone comes with a raft of precise sensors that would cost hundreds of dollars if bought individually as Arduino shields.
Last year, I bought a ZTE Open from Ebay. It cost about $100, and only a few thousand were built. They were to show the potential of the then-formative Firefox OS platform outside of simulated environments, and on austere hardware.
One hundred bucks won’t get you much of a phone. But even the most bargain-basement devices, like the ZTE Open, come with an accelerometer and gyrometer, a camera, and a microphone. That’s often all you need to create an immersive, responsive smart-home device that can automatically respond to external events.
It makes sense that the smart home devices of the future will use these. Either through a third-party layer (like the one built by IntegrEight) or natively.
Remote Controlled Homes
More and more smart-home devices are connected to the global Internet. That’s a mixed blessing.
On one hand, it presents an immense security and privacy risk. A single flaw in the code has the potential to allow an attacker to compromise household security systems, mess with the heating, and even turn on the lights at any hour of the night. A hacker can mess with your mind, not unlike Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.
But there’s a positive side. In combination with a smartphone, we can now control the minutia of our habitats at any hour of the day, from anywhere in the world. We can make our homes bright and warm, before we even set foot in the door, and we can keep watch for intruders from thousands of miles away.
Who isn’t excited by that?
Beautiful Experiences for Everyone
The Achilles Heel of many smart-home devices is found in the user experience. Many use complicated dashboards or web-based control panels that, for the most part, leave a bitterly disappointing experience that’s frustrates and confuses.
The main reason for that is the inherent difficulty in designing delightful user interfaces. Especially on the desktop and on the browser. Making tech easy, intuitive and beautiful is fundamentally challenging. Interface design on mobile devices is a wildly different beast, though.
Designers have a lot of help. They can use existing (and proven) templates to create intuitive and flowing interfaces. Their hands are steadied by the immense amount of support offered by Google and Apple through their style guides, and they can use front-end frameworks and toolkits like Android Bootstrap.
But more importantly, mobile designers know they’ve got a limited amount of screen-estate to use. They know how to make each pixel count. The end result is that mobile Smart Home apps will inevitably be good, out of necessity.
Smart Homes as Extensions of Smart Phones
One of the biggest, and most criminally underappreciated feature additions to iOS 8 was HomeKit.
HomeKit is a framework that allows developers to build iPhone and iPad applications that communicate with Smart Home devices. So, using this Application Programming Interface (API), developers can natively integrate existing Internet of Things devices, with the second largest smartphone platform in the world. Users can even control their Smart Home gear with Siri.
Manufacturers have been slow to embrace HomeKit, but that’s quickly changing. Recently, Philips Hue Lightbulbs were updated to support HomeKit.
As more and more compatible kit is released, and the profile of things like HomeKit increases, you can expect more people to embrace it. Eventually, it’ll become a feature that influences purchasing decisions, and sways people between iPhone and Android.
You can bet Google are paying attention, too. They already own Nest – one of the biggest manufacturers of smart home tech, best known for their smoke alarms and thermostats – and they’re acutely aware of the constantly changing affections of smartphone users. As more and more people choose to automate their homes, you can bet they’ll respond.
I’m also pretty optimistic about Microsoft eventually having a smart home platform for the hotly-anticipated Windows 10 Phone platform. They’ve already released an IoT-focused spin of Windows 10 for the Raspberry Pi, and they’re dropping immense amounts of cash into smart home startups.
Microsoft also recently announced a multi-million dollar partnership with Insteon, who produce a hub that allows disparate Smart Home devices to communicate with each other.
Smart Phones, Smarter Homes
It feels inevitable. People are increasingly going to automate their homes. To control that, they’ll depend on their smartphones and mobile apps. That’s partly due to the ubiquity of smartphones – literally everyone is toting an Android or iOS based device these days. But it’s also because smartphones offer a beautiful and intuitive window into controlling smart home technology.
But what do you think? Will smartphones revolutionize the smart home industry? Tell me about it in the comments below.