Smart Automation Systems for Dumb Spaces

The realm of home automation (a misnomer, as everywhere is a candidate to become “smart”) is growing in both acceptance and usefulness. Until very recently, professional (and usually expensive) installations from companies like Crestron, Control4 and Savant were the only option for the creation of an automation system.  11895_Iris-Security_dAs technology, especially wireless technology, has improved, the opportunities for after-market and do-it-yourself (DIY) automation have increased. Product manufacturers have become aware of this trend and availability of smart locks, thermostats, lights is now commonplace. Using any of a number of wireless protocols designed for the job, such as ZigBee or Z-Wave (which will not interfere with bluetooth or wifi signals), individual items can now be networked together without the need for intrusive wiring.

There are different paths a consumer might take within the DIY automation world: a complete system with a more “walled garden” approach or a “hacker-friendly” device with opportunities for invention.
For the most complete system, without the need of a specialized installer, there is the Iris system, produced by the Lowe’s home improvement chain (lowes.com). The center of the Iris system is the hub that attaches directly to your router and is available as part of several “starter kits”, each with it’s own specialty. The great appeal of the Iris system is the range of compatible products, all readily available from Lowe’s. Not only does Iris automate your locks, thermostats and lights, but also connects to cameras for streaming video and security.

Iris-KitAnother important difference is the Iris system’s inherent connection to a security service, allowing the system to function as a true monitoring system.

The basic service has no additional costs after purchase, but most of the benefits of an automation system require the Premium plan (currently $9.99 a month). In particular, the ability to create if/then programmed tasks (Lowe’s calls it “magic”) across the system is only available as part of the premium package.

Alternatively, SmartThings (smartthings.com) takes a much more open approach. smartthings-1The parts of the system are very similar to the Iris system, but the current availability of tested and approved items is quite limited. Their “builder” network, however, is completely open and encourages makers, developers, designers and enthusiasts to create for the SmartThings system. The SmartApps that create programmed events are simple and their creation is also open to the community.

The administration of the system is all done through the smartphone application; there is no desktop client involved. Of course, this tactic makes security a concern, so the SmartThings system separates the security aspect from the automation structure.
(Full Disclosure: I contributed to the KickStarter campaign for SmartThings).

TheDIY Home Automation field is only getting larger as new improvements to the hardware and software come to market. At the TechCrunch: Disrupt NYC conference in late April, we were introduced to Revolv (revolv.com), another competitor who claims “crazy easy setup” and seven wireless radios that speak 10 different languages.

The “home automation / smarthome / internet of things” space will only continue to expand and there will likely be no singular winner. It is safe to assume that our lives will only become more connected, not just inter-personal and through the devices we carry, but in the places we live.

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