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Visions for a Smart Home

October 21, 2015, Dr. Joachim Quantz

We have reached the point where, if you have the means, you can have a high-tech smart home built right now. It would, however, still be a one-off project, with solutions developed for a single person and property. You can’t yet drop into a DIY store and buy all the bits and pieces you would need to turn your place into a smart home. In ten or 15 years, things will be different. Perhaps not in every household, but for new buildings, or those being extensively upgraded, you should be able to install a lot of these technologies at a reasonable cost.

The change is driven by the expectations that young digital natives have of the technology they use — they are far more likely to expect things to be available and easy to use than older generations, and that, more than anything, is pushing innovation. Those who grew up with technology use it much more intuitively. And when users change, technology changes, too.

There is a sea-change underway, too, in the nature of the infrastructure, services and materials we have at our disposal. Smart materials are up-and-coming — from wallpaper that can turn into huge displays to smart fabrics creating entirely new types of wearable technology.

It is exciting to see the development of the services that are being offered. Smart phones, the preferred devices to carry these services, pretty much determine the shape and scope of what we can do right now — they free us from the PC and make us mobile, but we are still pretty touch screen and display driven. Possibilities like walls changing into displays, or controlling devices through gestures demand a broader interaction with smart technology — and these exist right now and will come onto the general market before too long.

In the future there will be different target groups for the smart home, and each will have their own priorities — one group will focus more on security, automated opening of blinds, lights switches on timers and so on, to deter potential burglars, while another will be interested in multi-media entertainment solutions, while a third will be concentrating on energy savings for their home. And with the increasing average life expectancy, assisted living solutions are also becoming more important.

In the Connected Living Association, we have been working on the smart home concept for a number of years, researching different options and solutions. There are a number of key areas we have been looking at, such as health, energy, media and communications, and lateral topics that touch on most of these, such as security.

Smart energy systems

Having a lot of options within a system, all of which offer a direct benefit, is the best way to go. My favourite example is a heating system that I can control remotely through my smart phone. It makes sense instantly because I don’t get home at the same time every day, but once I am on my way home, I have a pretty good idea of when I’m going to arrive. I could turn on the heating an hour or so ahead of time. That is something I would pay for because it makes perfect sense and would save money.

Smart meters can be expensive to develop and install, especially for the level of control needed in the heating example — the energy experts we work with on the Connected Living projects certainly emphasise the importance of a solid cost-benefit analysis. The presence of a smart grid combined with modernized energy production would definitely open up a lot of possibilities. But the biggest energy savings will be made in the heating segment — a field test has shown that you can save 25% or even 30% using smart system controls, which is more than you would save through insulating your house.

Wireless WiFi solution mean much lower installation costs because you are using existing infrastructure and less hardware. Of course, you would have to modify your heating thermostat to become ‘smart’, and all other appliances as well, but overall it would require a much lower upfront investment to go wireless.

Energy storage is a central issue for smart energy distribution. Whether this is at the household level or at the DSO (distribution systems operator) end, it makes instant sense that any energy produced should not be lost. We want to optimize how we use it. And the most decisive factor in this is the smart grid, which depends greatly on governmental directives and support for its development.

Healthcare at home

Anything in healthcare seems to be expensive — but in this sector many very cost-effective solutions are being trialled or are already in use. We see smart wristbands, patients collecting and entering their own data. And the Apple Watch is an example of a device that enables a lot of functionality. Beyond that there is ambient assisted living to enable the independence of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s by making their home part of the care package. And that is costly. But since most people prefer to stay at home there is a strong reason for pursuing this as a key area of smart technology.

In the area of healthcare there are two opposing ideas in play at the moment. On the one hand you have the option to install cables and wire-up the home, with a central gateway into a micro-network to ensure security control over the communication. The alternative is a wireless solution, which means you have none of that upfront installation or much investment, but a more vulnerable system because it basically works with the public internet, with all the problems that entails.

The first question about apps that control smart home functions by phone is: Can other people hack into that? And that is a genuine risk. Network suppliers like Deutsche Telekom, who have routers in most people’s homes already, can offer a pretty high level of security backed up by a lot of experience. To achieve the same would be comparatively tricky for a little start-up company, which may nonetheless have the better idea for a smart home solution.

The battle goes on: privacy vs. personalisation

With all of this smart technology around us, we will not be able to maintain privacy levels — and the more we go into the personalized, smart technologies, the less privacy we will have. Drones will become smaller and smaller, carrying cameras so vanishingly small that at some point, it will be impossible to know whether someone is watching you. However, the new, digitally native generations will deal with such issues in completely new ways.

Smart technology in public spaces will certainly lead to greater individualization and personalization of services. It’s already happing: my smart phone can send and receive information when I get to a service point. Airports could be equipped with personalized systems which display information relevant to the people walking by, based on their electronic boarding cards. There will be personalized content on public displays such as transport information we get about the next bus or train. It is getting better and better, but it could be more tailored to the user looking at it.

Predicting hold-ups in traffic and giving up-to-the-minute information on delays caused by accidents and roadwork could certainly be improved. Nokia users are already connected to a system that can predict, based on their current speed, exactly when they — and others — will reach a certain point on the map and make predictions based on that. The same feature should soon be available across the board for all smart phone users.

One way in which companies interact with customers using on-line services is to collect and generate data rather than revenue — basically customers pay with data. The subsequent tailored advertising that reflects your web searches, for instance, is being hailed as very consumer friendly but let’s be frank, it can be very annoying. But perhaps they will find a better way of doing this — or at least find better ways of controlling which of my activities and data sets can be used for which purpose.

Ultimately, you are the owner of your data and you should be able to decide what exactly can be done with it. This is subject of an on-going discussion already, but there is certainly a lot more that needs to be done. And more global regulations are required to deal with this as it affects anyone who goes online, no matter where.

Big Data gives us the ability to see patterns and connections invisible to us before. It gets around the privacy issue by looking at huge datasets rather than individual profiles, and it is a completely different approach to look at traffic data or other public behaviour to optimize public spaces or services, for instance, compared to applying tailored marketing to individuals. Most people wouldn’t mind if their car was logged as a moving vehicle on a given road to create better traffic predictions for everyone, as long as nobody tracked them personally.

Technological exclusivity is problematic

The exclusivity of smart innovation is tricky. Apple is perhaps the example of being able to keep big, disruptive innovations completely under wraps, but they are a pretty unique example. Maximum creativity comes from connecting with as many creative minds and projects as possible. It is almost impossible to innovate in an ivory tower, turned away from the world — it is for the world that you want to innovate, so you will need to open up to the outside at some point fairly early on in the process.

About me:
I studied Computer Science (Diploma 1988, PhD 1995) and Linguistics/Philosophy (Master 1992) at Technische Universität Berlin and have been working as Head of Research at ART+COM Studios since 2008.

In recent years, ART+COM Studios had been involved in several research projects on innovative technologies and user interfaces for the Smart Home funded by BMWi (Federal Ministry for Economic Affais and Energy) and BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research.