Stories about Software


Home Automation

Mea Culpa

As is alluded to once or twice on my sight, my main area of interest is in home automation. I’ve been somewhat mum about this interest in the blog, as my time over the last year has been spent refining this site, working on some open source tools, completing my MS degree, and, oh yeah, working 50+ hours per week programming to pay the mortgage. However, now that the site is somewhat established, business is good, and my MS degree complete, I’m planning to give this the focus that I’ve intended. So, I’ll be doing some posts about home automation in the hopes of drumming up some interest in the public at large in what I believe is a (too slowly) emerging trend.

What is Home Automation


Many people, and probably most techies, have heard of and are at least vaguely aware of the concept of home automation. The idea that most would throw out there is that one can control lights and perhaps some other goodies in the home without actually, manually getting up to toggle a rocker switch. A very simple example of this is The Clapper, a device that allows someone seated on a couch or bed to clap and turn lights on and off. A subtler example with which most are probably familiar is lighting in offices (or homes, as it were) that turns itself off after some amount of time or when nobody is detected in the room.

Generally speaking, the aim of home automation is to provide enhanced convenience, comfort, and perhaps security, with a sometimes ancillary goal of efficiency. It is nominally time saving to have lights turn on instead of walking around to turn them on, and it certainly appeals to anyone having a lazy day. From a security perspective, the ability to control lights remotely or have them turn on automatically is handy for creating the illusion that someone is at home when the house is unoccupied. And, having lights turn off in rooms not in use is certainly energy efficient, both in terms of cost and green concerns.

In reality, however, home automation promises to be and can be a whole lot more than this. I believe, personally, that the capabilities of home automation are limited only by our imaginations. But, I’ll get to see some of these later.

A Dream Deferred

In our society, we made some relative peace with the automation of all manner of processes. Computers, software and robots have obsoleted countless jobs while creating countless others. Having a land-line is starting to be considered passe, and sending “snail mail” is positively ancient. People don’t calculate square roots and cosines by hands, and the calculators that children use in school are really small computers that plot graphs and resolve equations. Why then, do we still turn lights on and off roughly the same way we did 100 years ago? And why then, does the notion of home automation evoke Rube-Goldbergian imagery in most people’s minds? Why is it that, like the flying car, the “home of the future” dried up in our collective consciousness like a raisin in the sun?

Home automation has long been one of those sci-fi things that never really materialized. I’ve read many accounts suggesting that it is over-engineering at its finest. Why spend a bunch of money on something that saves you the five seconds it takes to get up off the couch and toggle a switch? I’ve even brought up the subject and had it suggested to me that I was encouraging laziness – that the valuable exercise of toggling that rocker was the last line of defense between a tenuous grasp on health and a society where morbidly obese is the new thin.

Why It Has Yet to Really Catch On

I think there are a number of reasons that home automation has been slow in developing and capturing the world’s imagination. First off, unlike a killer app or the Sham-Wow, it requires multi-faceted expertise. Someone has to know enough EE to build the components, enough about home electricity to wire them up, enough about home improvement to complete any necessary carpentry tasks, and enough about programming to design and deploy the logic. Oh, and they probably have to be good with people as well, since these things aren’t going to install themselves. So, find me a person with all of these skills and an interest in putting them into what has historically been a non-starter, and you’ve got a major head start on the industry.

Another preventative factor is the current state of product offerings. Some years back, X10 emerged as a concept, allowing signals to be sent over home electricity, effectively allowing one appliance to send a message to another. Full of promise, this new technology took off to some degree, and stores eventually picked up (and, in most cases, later dropped) this line of products. As they proved too expensive and cumbersome for prime time, the outfits from which home automation hardware could be purchased took to the world of catalogs and infomercials (e.g. the aforementioned Clapper). This vibe still persists. A classy home automation site looks like a QVC catalog or Skymall, and a less classy one looks like some kind of MySpace nightmare potentially not safe for work (it is, don’t worry). This image is not lost on consumers that happen onto it – the whole industry feels like the “wave of the future” in the same way that the Chia Pet revolutionized gardening.

But, putting aside those respectively logistical and marketing concerns, there are some very bland business concerns such as price points and public interest/demand. In terms of the former, getting “classy”, non-DIY home automation has historically required hiring a contractor to wire everything up for very “classy”, non middle class prices. Basketball players and rock stars can have lights that dim when they say “computer, dim lights”, but you can’t. And, in terms of public interest, most people wonder if it really matters if they can turn off their lights from the couch, and they think of office bathroom auto-lights that turn out if you don’t wave your arms around every 30 seconds.

Getting Off On the Wrong Foot

Let’s forget all that. I don’t mean for the purposes of this article, but in general. The home automation movement is, I believe (and if I have anything to say about it) going to take off in earnest. Belkin and other non-catalog vendors are starting to take an interest. Green concerns are taking notice. The general public is slowly coming around. Pretty soon, things are going to perk up.

And, here’s why. It isn’t about turning your lights on from the couch. It’s about your home being intelligent and anticipating your needs the way your phone and computer do. It’s about pulling up into your driveway and having your home notice that you’ve arrived, unlocking the door, and turning on some lights for you. It’s about windows and doors that are smart enough to sound an alarm when they’re opened or broken. It’s about scheduling non-essential appliances to run at times of day when things are cheaper. It’s about heating and cooling your home not on a manual schedule, but on one that minimizes your monthly bill. It’s about a refridgerator that notices when you’re running low on eggs. It’s about getting an email or an alert on your phone when you’re due to change your furnace filter. It’s about walking from room to room listening to a Led Zeppelin song and having the music follow you wherever you go. It’s about keeping your pets off the counter even when you’re not home. It’s about putting an exciting new face on the thing that provides the most comfort and the most hours spent in life.

This deffered dream is going to exploded. But… in a good way. So, buckle up and get ready for a fun ride.