This is a post in the ReadWriteHome series, which explores the implications of living in connected homes.
If home is where the heart is, then a connected home is where the hub is. The hub, in this case, being the centralized control system that’s going to coordinate and issue marching orders to your smart garage-door opener, your smart sound system, your smart dishwasher and every other smart gadget quietly managing your home of the future.
But what sort of device is going to serve as the hub? That’s a more complicated question than you might think at first glance. But there’s big money in the answer.
See also: Home Sweet Connected Home
Here’s the problem: While the Internet of Things should one day connect a web of devices all working together—i.e., to make homeowners’ lives easier—it’s currently beset by a lack of device and software standardization. So at least for for the immediate future, a connected home is much more likely to work via a hub-and-spoke architecture, with some central device managing a steady flow of incoming data from, and outgoing commands to, gadgets scattered around the home.
Which raises the stakes for Devices That Would Be Hub. The one that manages to establish itself as king of the connected castle could make its developer a lot of green, since it will set standards that other home-device vendors will have to follow. In a free market, especially in technology, first-to-market success usually determines de facto standards.
So let the battle begin. Here’s a guide to the contenders, some of which may not be at all what you’d expect.
Do It Yourself
The earliest efforts to pull together a connected home started with do-it-yourselfers. Given the creative and developer-oriented nature of the free and open source software communities, it should also be little surprise that the Linux community has been making great strides in this area.
LinuxMCE is a long-standing open source project that does nothing but handle home automation. LinuxMCE has the advantage of supporting many hardware types, which makes it a great system for running a home from a PC or laptop. Minerva is another home automation suite that enables control from PCs or the Raspberry Pi microcomputer.
Not to be outdone, Microsoft has also become keenly interested in home automation of late. Microsoft Research is running the HomeOS project, which is just what you’d expect: an operating system for the home. Ratul Mahajan from Microsoft Research gives a compelling demo in this video.
“The right tool for the job” is a common mantra among maintenance workers and engineers. It’s something that you would expect would apply in a connected home: if you need a device to be the hub, then create an appliance for just that purpose.
Control hubs like these have the advantage of smooth interfaces and tightly integrated systems. But they’ll also constrain consumer choice to devices that work specifically with these hubs, much the same way smartphone users have to pick and choose apps based on whether they’re using Android or iOS.
A related approach involves supercharging existing network devices to accommodate connected-home devices. Cisco, a dedicated networking vendor, has been exploring ways to integrate apps directly on router hardware for years. It would be a straightforward jump to have such apps assist with home automation devices.
It may seem counterintuitive, but some people believe the humble thermostat should rule your home automation system.
There is no other device in the home that people consult more frequently, except perhaps their kitchen appliances. Thermostat control systems are robust and are born to command, since they run your heater and air conditioner already.
Nest, maker of the popular Internet-connected Nest thermostat, is not shy about its desire to take hub position. Its recent Nest Developer Program is geared to encourage developers to build apps for the device that will control other devices throughout the home.
Alarm systems are another contender. They already monitor doors, windows and smoke detectors, so it wouldn’t be too hard to add more devices to their control sphere. That, of course, assumes that you already have a security system, and that you trust it enough not just to protect your home, but to run it.
The connected security camera is a related dark-horse challenger. Dropcam, for instance, believes that its cameras can run a connected home. It’s a slightly weird idea, but the logic seems to be that once homeowners install a Dropbox security camera, they’re more likely to install other devices that the camera can control wirelessly.
Cameras, after all, allow homeowners to see what’s going on when they control their home from far away. They could also eventually be used to let homeowners issue commands via gesture, although that’s some time away.
Like we said, the logic is a bit strained, but in nascent markets like this one, it’s smart not to discount even crazy-sounding ideas too early.
The hub for the connected home may not actually reside in the home full time at all. If you want to control your home’s systems, after all, you may opt to use a tool that’s already close at hand: your mobile device.
Using a smartphone to manage climate, lighting and entertainment options is a natural option. In fact, many of the control systems mentioned have or will have some sort of mobile app with which to interface. In those cases, why not just make the phone the hub itself, and skip the middle layer of a stationary hub?
With Bluetooth LE, smartphones could easily fill this role. Once the device is in range within the home, it could act as the connected home hub. But to control home systems when the phone is away, there would have to be a secondary hub that remains in the home and uses Bluetooth LE to communicate with home devices.
It may not be a smartphone that acts as hub; wearable devices such as smartwatches or Google Glass could be excellent conduits to manage a connected home. Look at a device and tell it what you need, or just speak into your watch. Wherever you are in the house, control could be right at your fingertips.
It will be some time before the hub argument gets settled, but there are a lot of contenders who want to get their own entries in as soon as possible.
Lead image courtesy of Flickr/Yury Primakov via CC