What is a smart home exactly? How do I get started?

My home lights turn on and welcome me when I get home, but only when it’s dark. Philipp’s blinds can stay open during warm hours to let the sun in and lower down when night time is approaching. Dan’s kitchen lights stay on as long as someone is in the kitchen and the ambient light is insufficient. Our homes appear to be reading our minds. 

These types of behaviours are what we call a “smart home”. 

We get frequent questions about what a smart home is and how to get started in this overwhelming world of connected devices and service options. To the novice, this world of disparate technologies that must be made to work together can often be daunting. If this is your case, don’t worry; we’ll walk you through what you need to smarten up your environment.

What is the difference between a dumb and a smart device?

So, what’s different in a smart light bulb for example? What does it have in its little electronic guts to be able to tell the time, much less when to turn on?  Smart devices have chips that allow them to connect to WiFi or other short-range wireless networks so they can receive orders from you, other devices or other services. These chips have to be powered at all times for them to function, making these devices “always on” devices. Think of your smartphone for example. Your phone is able to operate many different apps thanks to being connected to the internet and receiving information. Smart devices are similar in this way: they receive information in the form of commands or actions and they implement them.

Smart devices operate similarly to their less-smart counterparts such as the light bulbs, plugs and switches you already own, except instead of having two possible states, they have three. Your regular light bulbs can either be switched on or switched off. There is no other possibility. With a smart bulb, you have three states: switched on, switched off and on stand-by. The stand-by state is important because during this state, the device appears to be off, but it remains powered so it can turn itself on when needed. It’s similar to your TV when it is turned off but it sits patiently waiting for you to send a command with your remote to spring back to life. Your smart light bulb can receive commands not just from the light switch but through the internet. Instead of waiting for you to push a button on a remote, smart devices are waiting for a pre-programmed command to arrive via WiFi or some other network. 

You might be starting to see one of the issues with these types of smart devices: they must always be either on or on stand-by. If they are turned off at the switch and have no power at all, the part that is capable of receiving remote orders does not work, leaving you with a dumb, disconnected, expensive bulb. You can fix this with sheer discipline and not touching any switches at home or by taping off your wall switches… but you might be happy to know that some brands of smart switches have overcome this issue by incorporating an extra connection internally, so that even if your kids turn the lights off at the switch, the bulbs are never truly disconnected.

What can be automated these days?

There’s all sorts of little gadgets with chips talking to each other and the internet these days. Besides smart light bulbs that turn on or off, change colours or pulsate following the rhythm of your music, you’ll find smart speakers that can talk back to you, door locks, bells and cameras that can help you control who’s knocking even when you are not home. There’s also devices to help you control your home climate, such as temperature and humidity sensors, thermostats, meteorological stations, and air sensors. There’s devices that open and close your blinds and curtains, sensors for water leaks, motors that can open and close your windows, TVs, kitchen gadgets, health devices… You can add connectivity to pretty much any aspect of your home life, if you so wish.

Finding a device that suits your needs might not be the hardest part. The difficulty is in configuring these devices: thinking about how you want them to react and when. For better or worse, the technology to make our light bulbs learn about us and predict when we need them to turn on is not quite there yet. To be precise, you need to pre-program all of these situations, commands, rules and actions for your smart devices to work just how you like it. As such, there is an initial extra effort to making your devices helpful at home that not everyone will find worthwhile. Some people, however, are happy to tinker away until they configure everything just perfect for their families.

Is this really a smart home?

Good question. Lots of people feel a bit let down with the possibilities that the smart home landscape offers today. People have been given the impression that their smart devices will understand what they as humans want in a given situation and will automatically learn the right behaviour that we wish to have in our home. There might be some of that in the future, but for the time being one must understand the possibilities of each device and program their desired behaviour more or less manually. The problem is that the rules that govern our day-to-day routines are more complex than we might realize. Once you start customising, very quickly you’ll find that devices are great at doing very specific things, i.e. turn on when I get home, but don’t deal as well with exceptions to the initial rules (turn on the lights when I get home, but only if it’s dark outside).

Suddenly your use cases start to get more convoluted as you pile up rules to manage all these edge use cases that for you, a human, are obvious but for a smart device need to be spelled out if you want them to happen. 

In Apilio, we understand these edge cases well, because we find current mainstream platforms a bit limited in terms of what you can do with your devices. If you want to read more about managing these exceptions to the rules, have a look at this article by Philipp.

Until devices get really smart and start learning from our day-to-day lives, we’ll have to be the smart ones coding all the different behaviour into our smart home platforms. 

Let’s stop calling it “smart” home then

Back in 2019, Rishi Chandra, Vice President of Product and General Manager at Google Nest, spoke with Forbes about how they were replacing “smart” home with “helpful” home, as they found the first term too tech-oriented and, according to Chandra, people were not asking for a smart home in the first place: what they wanted was a helpful one. 

If you are happy with this caveat, getting started with automating things at home today is as easy as upgrading a couple of your home appliances and, after you’ve experienced what their platform has to offer, you can use Apilio to make them even smarter. You can have a look at our community to see what people are automating these days and also find help implementing your ideas of a helpful home: https://community.apilio.com/

How do I get started making my home a more helpful one?

Many got started with a smart speaker, such as a Google nest, or Amazon Echo. Smart speakers allow you to do tasks such as check your calendar, listen to music or the radio, setup timers or alarms, control other connected devices and, in a nutshell, allow a set of interactions with the smart butler inside these gizmos that are an easy way to get started with getting a little bit of help at home. 

Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

Next, you’ll find light bulbs, switches and plugs that are relatively easy to install and add to your home and will help you save energy by only turning on at specific times of the day, or guaranteeing that they are not staying on when nobody is at home for example.

You’ll also find temperature sensors, thermostats, humidity sensors and leak sensors that, depending on what needs to be monitored at your home, can come in handy. 

The truth is, once you get started with your smart devices, you’ll see the possibilities opening up and if you are like us, you’ll get tons of ideas on automations that you can implement into your home. We are living in a very interesting time for smart home technology and we can’t wait to see what it brings to our houses next.

By Anna @ Apilio

September 8, 2021
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