Home Automation technologies have remained out of reach of the mainstream consumers for a long time. The high cost and custom installer requirements have restricted them to high end homes. The multitude of technologies in this space has also been detrimental to the adoption rate. However, the rise of smartphones and tablets has suddenly brought about a big shift in the landscape.

Wi-Fi networks have become ubiquitous in almost every home now. Smart device manufacturers have realized the advantages of integrating Wi-Fi instead of ZigBee or Z-Wave in their products. Some aspects such as power consumption, range and, to some extent, cost are still not optimal with Wi-Fi. However, with silicon vendors becoming active in this market segment and work progressing well on the 802.11ah front, these will be addressed soon.

In home automation terminology, 'scenes' refer to the linking of devices in intelligent ways based on events. Simple device-based control using a mobile app opens the door. But, one also needs a central device which can perform the orchestration. This makes it necessary for specialized HA protocols to have dedicated controllers. In a pure Wi-Fi based system, I can see this orchestration running as an app on the router. For example, Netgear allows third-party developers to write apps for their routers using Java and post them in the Genie marketplace. If the HA devices have open APIs and developer documentation, creation of scenes in a pure Wi-Fi based system will probably not require a dedicated controller.

What does all this mean for the average consumer? The most important takeaway is that home automation products, particularly Wi-Fi based ones, will see an uptick in adoption. This will, in turn, fuel the development of more innovative HA devices. This will be a boon for consumers who already have a HA system in place. What about users who are starting afresh? It is very important to not get tied down with a closed system. Products such as Nest and Belkin WeMo may boast of excellent industrial design and a great feature set. However, unless they open up the APIs and access for third parties to create a common custom home automation interface, they can't be recommended. Products such as those from Radio Thermostat and Visible Energy may not have great industrial design or the marketing budget that others have. However, we can recommend them without reservations for their feature set (including the well-documented APIs for developers).

A host of Wi-Fi enabled HA products and concepts have already started capturing the attention of the consumers. Coupled with the rapid rise in Wi-Fi based home automation, the talk of an 'Internet of Things' will soon become a mainstream reality.

 

Miscellaneous Wi-Fi-Based Home Automation Devices
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  • southpaw42_i - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Electric IMP looks to become big Home automation over next few years.
    Product developer will be able to add HA WIFI features to their products without the needed support cost of a managing the connection and the service themselves or the FCC validation of each product..
    http://electricimp.com/
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Looks like a very interesting product. I will be sure to investigate. Reply
  • jamyryals - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Thanks for the article Ganesh, very interesting and I agree that this technology is starting to get more accessible. However, I must disagree with the statement that it's not possible to recommend products that do not have a documented API. Nest works great for me standalone. Why would the average customer need to connect it to anything else? My sprinkler system is automated as well. It won't turn on if it has rained. The automated door locks will open when I approach with my cell phones. I think the simplicity and predictability in how these devices operate is key for mass consumer adoption.

    I am a developer so there's nothing technologically in this realm that has stopped me from automating my house in the past. It's practical matters; cost and me becoming on call support in my own house. Anytime the lights don't come on the way they are expected to I'll have to go troubleshoot my devices/scripts.

    If we had our wish we would get both simplicity and ultimate control. That's just not the way the consumer behaves though. Consumers will avoid poorly designed products that tout open APIs as a major selling point. People want things that work and they can understand.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    I don't disagree with you on the point that Nest is a great device. If it were not, it wouldn't have achieved this much success.

    Products such as Radio Thermostat CT-30 and those from Visible Energy barely make a mention of open APIs in their marketing material. So, it is not that they 'tout it as a major selling point'. My intention, as a tech journalist, is to point out where products can improve. In that respect, I am a cynical customer for most of these companies.

    To take the computing analogue, many users are satisfied with the Apple ecosystem, but there are a number of users out there who stand by Android for its open nature. Some journalists recommend and stand by Apple's products, while others are on the Android side of things. Both of them have a place in the market. Similarly, devices such as Nest will be popular in the market for some time to come because 'they just work' and people are enamoured by the appearance and usability. Just as Android continues to grow, devices which open up for ultimate control will give consumers better choices (particularly for the tech audience that makes up a majority of AT's readers).

    Publications like Engadget, Gizmodo, Verge, AllThingsD (WSJ) provide lots of attention to products like the Nest. As a tech journalist for AT, I consider it my job done if consumers are at least made aware of the other more flexible options available.
    Reply
  • bobbozzo - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    "Nest works great for me standalone. Why would the average customer need to connect it to anything else?"

    I'd like to have my house open the windows and turn off the A/C when the temperature drops in the evening, and I'd prefer to do it with one application. I can program, but I'd rather have something available off-the-shelf.
    Reply
  • shalomo1 - Sunday, October 21, 2012 - link

    I am currently working on a project about home automation, I would like to meet and share ideas with you. this is my mail abraham.o@aol.com. Thanks Reply
  • CSMR - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Good to have an article on this.

    Unfortunate that if there's a conclusion, it's that WiFi will become a suitable technology in 2015 with 802.11ah.

    Very little is even known about 802.11ah. It's too early to say what it is, let alone whether it will take over low power networking.

    I agree that: in the future, a low power wireless networking standard suitable for home automation will be standardized by IEEE and be called 802.11something.

    Maybe there will be so many connected low-power devices that the new standard will be integrated into many wireless access points and routers.

    What is unfortunate is that it will take years for this to happen.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Hmm.. low power Wi-Fi is only needed in a subset of HA devices. As I pointed out in the piece, there are already plenty of Wi-Fi based HA products and silicon vendors are providing low power platforms even with current Wi-Fi technology. Reply
  • noblemo - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (BLE) is another protocol worth mentioning. It is a low-bandwidth, low-power technology that enables users to communicate directly to a device using a smartphone or tablet without the need for a separate controller or network connection. A self-contained sensor pod including a BLE module and battery can fit within a package about the size of a stack of six or seven 25-cent coins.

    In a pre-802.11ah world, Wi-Fi is better suited to high bandwidth or web-enabled devices with external power. In practice, I expect to see hybrid solutions using Wi-Fi and a second technology for remote, low power devices.
    Reply
  • Chapbass - Thursday, October 04, 2012 - link

    Hey, just wanted to take a moment to recognize Ganesh for his work. I know a lot of people are on the mobile device bandwagon and all of that, but I consistently find Ganesh's work to be unique, informative, and incredibly refreshing to this site.

    Keep it up, love reading it!
    Reply

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