Wednesday, September 26, 2018

My Dreams of a Smarter Home

I've been thinking about the concept of smart homes recently. My goal is to have the smartest home on the block and I'm doing pretty well with an Amazon Eco (and dots in each room), Lutron wireless light switches, an August door lock, the Ecobee thermostat, Chamberlain garage door opener, Philips Hue lights in the living room, B-Hyve garden watering system, SOMA smart shades, and a Nest camera and, Nest smoke alarms.

But what's interesting is that is not really a "smart" home, it's more like a "remote controlled" home. It's still cool. Here are some things that I regularly do:

  • When riding my bike home and I tell Siri from my watch to open the garage door.
  • When I arrive home at night the front door unlocks and the entry way light turns on.
  • I'll tell Siri "it's movie time" and all the lights in the living room turn off, except for the front row, which turns on 10% red. All other lights turn off too.
  • When I say "Clap clap", it locks the door, makes sure the garage door is shut, turns off all lights except for a dim path leading to the bedroom. My shades are supposed to also shut, but I can't get them to connect to HomeKit. :/
But you see the trend, it's all remote controlled actions. And none of them are really solving big problems. They also don't fundamentally change the way I live my life.

To me, "smart" involves, at a minimum, some sort of learning. The Nest Thermostat perhaps comes the closest by learning when I'm gone and adjusting the temperature accordingly. In our home, we use Ecobee for the HomeKit integration and because I could put a sensor in each room (which also doubles as a motion sensor of home/away status).

I'd like my home to notice that every Sunday afternoon we come home from church around noon, turn on the oven to 425, and turn on music. Then it could ask me if I'd like that to happen automatically so the oven is ready to go when we arrive.

Or, notice that my refrigerator's energy consumption is 10% higher than a year ago, or vs my neighbors. Our city recently switched over to digital meters. Perhaps this is possible now?

Actually, a lack of sensors is probably the biggest barrier to a smart home. I would put a sensor on my water pipes for pressure and temperature. I would put motion/temperature/moisture sensors in my attic and under my house.

Weather sensors on top of each house would also be amazing. Imaging if they all shared data to a central service to provide precision real-time weather information. Why are roofers not requiring this on every house? It'll make their planning so much easier over time.

If we built in all these sensors and started collecting the data, it would follow a similar path of current data trends: at first it would be stored, then it would be analyzed to understand what's happening, and then it would be predicted based on complex multi-variable trends.

Again, remote controlled actions are still cool. RC via voice feels especially cool... when it works, but it's just not smart. They're not breaking any paradigms yet. I know vertical farming doesn't work at scale yet, but could it work in my house? Could I enter what I'd like to grow and let robots take care of it so I have fresh food waiting for me?

Heating and AC feels especially broken. Heating and cooling the air around you via convection is the most inefficient method (that's a typical forced air system). Radiation (like from a radiator) is better with good insulation, but it's still heating the air. Conduction is the most efficient (think, floor heat), but condensation when cooling (depending on what you read) seems to be an elusive problem. How do we make rocket mass heaters safer and more mainstream? How can we make radiant cooling work better?

Or food. Why does preparing food feel so difficult? How we do make home food prep feel as easy as eating out (which I get is simply outsourced the food prep)? Can robots help? Don't even get me started on doing dishes or laundry!

What about open-living spaces? Imagine not owning a home, but instead reserving one. Or just opening up an app to see what's available that night. When you arrive, the house turns your personal temperature on, and ensures drones deliver the food you like. You're only charged for when you're there and the items you use. That's the direction we're headed in with cars. What about homes? Oh my: You have a van that stores your stuff. It backs into the garage and puts your stuff in the living space. When you leave, via another vehicle (?), it packs up your stuff and starts heading somewhere else.

At the very least, let's take RC to a logical extreme. I know there are some concept automated windows. Those should connect to my inside and outside thermostat and humidifier to determine when to be open. And each of those should be tracking my location and motion in the house. My windows would have shades built into the glass, like on newer 787s. Not only should the smoke alarms connect to the thermostat, but to the oven, all outlets, and the lights. You get the idea.

Perhaps what's needed is a modern open-source protocol for collecting/storing/retrieving data from sensors and controllers. My guess is that one already exists, but the big players (Google, Apple, Amazon) are too interested in owning the eco-system, which prevents something the equivalent of email or wifi from taking off.

For now, let's pretend that the privacy and security issues are solved. Wouldn't that be cool?! Perhaps companies are working on these in the background, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels like they're OK with focusing on voice for previously touch-screen and keyboard activities. They don't seem focused on actually integrating services and turning the home into something truly smart.

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