Soon, we'll be able to use our phones to switch on our washing machines, our fridges will let us know when we're running out of milk, and our cookers will have video calling, says Michael Moran
The internet-connected fridge that automatically orders more milk when you run out has been a staple of future-gazing for so long that it’s become a cliche. But while we’ve been waiting for the computer-chipped milk cartons required to make such a fridge viable, a number of other devices have appeared on the market offering to solve more complex and – possibly – more significant domestic problems.
Most of these products are part of what is known as the “connected home”. They offer smart ways to control your heating, lighting and security.
Much media attention has focused on the smart thermostat and smoke alarm produced by Nest, perhaps less because of the devices themselves and more because Google paid $3.2bn for the company back in January.The facts that the company was started by the former Apple exec behind the iPhone, and that its products share Apple’s emphasis on design, have also helped Nest’s profile.
In addition, the US has also recently seen the launch of smart thermostats from Ecobee, Honeywell and Homewerks.
Smart thermostats won’t present a challenge to anyone who has used an app to program their TV remotely using their mobile phone. Smart thermostats allow you to program your boiler so that your heating and hot water come on when you want them to that day, rather than being stuck with the same program every day.
They can also learn how your use of your heating changes and alter the schedule accordingly. They can learn how long your house takes to heat up or cool down, so that it reaches the temperature you want at the time you set. And some even can work out when you’ve left the house and turn the heating off for you.
The Nest smart thermostat costs $249 including installation from the Nest website. The Ecobee3 smart thermostat with remote sensor also costs $249, while the company’s less stylish Smart Si smart thermostat costs $179. Honeywell’s Lyric costs slightly more, at $279.00
More sophisticated – and more expensive – systems such as Honeywell’s Evohome apply the same principle as smart thermostats, but allow you to set different temperatures for different parts of your house, in the same way as those thermostatic radiator valves you installed allowed you to have rooms at different temperatures, rather than relying on the one thermostat you had before.
Indeed, these systems work by linking smart radiator valves with a control hub, a hot water controller and sensors for the zones you want to create.
Nest also makes a smart smoke and carbon monoxide detector. It can sense where the problem is and how serious it is, and warn you accordingly. It can also alert you via your phone if there’s a problem while you’re away from home. If you’ve got the Nest smart thermostat as well, the detector will automatically turn off your boiler if it detected carbon monoxide.
Security is another big area for connected home applications. Alarms, motion sensors and cameras can be monitored remotely, allowing you to see what’s going on in and around your house via your smartphone, and to program your lights to give the impression there’s someone at home when you’re out.
Philips is one of the big players in this space, and it also produces systems that allow you to alter the ambiance in your home by controlling your lights.
For householders, the advantage of all these devices is increased convenience, peace of mind and, in the case of the heating controllers, reduced energy costs. But the real driving forces of the connected home boom are at the back-end of the installations.
The principles of smart heating and lighting can be applied to bigger systems, such as the electricity grid, making them more efficient. More importantly, all these devices collect and store data, data which can then be made available for other purposes.
As with much of the data that is being collected, and which is slowly being made available to software developers, it’s hard to know to what use data from smart homes will be put.
Such data mash-ups rely on the creativity of the developers to spot opportunities to combine several sources of data to create useful information. But it’s easy to imagine, for example, an app that links heating data with types of houses to show prospective buyers how much on average their new home should cost to heat.
Questions of data use of this sort can lead to privacy concerns, and certainly companies like Nest, which has developed an interface to allow other organizations to make use of anonymized versions of its data, have set out strict rules about how the data from their devices can be used, and by whom.
In the near future there’s likely to be a rush of products introducing smart functionality into household devices. Big names such as Apple have announced their intention to get into the connected home market, while at the other end of the scale start-ups are looking at the same opportunities.
The real value of the connected home will be seen as more and more devices can be connected to the same network, and as more and more objects start to have computing power built in.
Some of the things that will become possible, such as the connected fridge, or the washing machine which senses from the clothes it’s washing which program to use, will arrive as a result of innovation in other areas; in these two cases because having computer chips in clothes or food packaging will help retailers with stock control.
Other innovations will be less important on a domestic scale. As Misha Gopaul, founder of emerging business technology consultancy Workplace Fabric, points out, using location technology to help you find your car keys in the morning is trivial, particularly as car keys themselves are on the way out – but using it to find the nearest defibrillator in a hospital could save lives.
But what definitely will happen is that the world around us will continue to get smarter. Sensors at road junctions in Tokyo are already programmed to recognize the sound of a car crash and can re-route traffic when one occurs, for example.
It’s not quite 20 years since the internet stepped out of the academia and started to become part of everyday life, and life has changed in dramatic and unpredictable ways since then.
The era of smart objects, of the internet of things, has barely begun. Who knows what changes it will bring?