Technology

Smart homes become a reality as 1 000 products link up

Arthur Goldstuck

Mark Walters of Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of companies making devices that use protocol for home automation, speaks to Gadget about smart homes.

Many consumers seem to be getting a little closer to the smart home than when it was first punted as a commercial reality a couple of decades ago. (AFP)

This month sees a landmark for the smart home, as the 1 000th product is welcomed to the Z-Wave home automation standard. Gadget's Arthur Goldstuck caught up with Mark Walters, chairperson of the Z-Wave Alliance.

At the beginning of January, a humble garage door controller marked a major milestone in the evolution of home automation. The name of the device is about as humble as it gets: the GD00Z. But for its manufacturer, Linear Corporation, it was cause for crowing. It allows almost any remote-controlled garage to be operated either via the internet, or with a device that doesn't have line-of-sight to the door. It is compatible with almost any "legacy" remote garage opener, turning traditional remote-control into smart control.

It is also a milestone for the Z-Wave Alliance, a global consortium of companies making or deploying devices that use the Z-Wave wireless communications protocol for home automation. Largely geared towards homes and small businesses, the protocol uses low-power radio signals to connect lighting, access control and entertainment systems to a central control system, which can also be controlled via the internet.

Many consumers seem to be getting a little closer to the smart home than when it was first punted as a commercial reality a couple of decades ago.

Mark Walters, chairperson of the Z-Wave Alliance, does not disagree.

'Voice control is still in its infancy'
"We don't have flying cars and food-replicating machines," he acknowledges during a break at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where the Z-Wave Alliance hosted two-dozen members at its exhibition stand earlier this month. "Voice control is still in its infancy for home control, although it has taken off in the automotive and smart phone markets.

"All of the technology is present; I have seen homes with voice control, automated doors and window shades, presence and occupant detection, and smart objects linked to contextual controls; it just hasn't reached mainstream adoption yet."

But major shifts are already occurring, particularly with some of the largest American mobile and entertainment service providers, like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, joining the party. Retailers are also coming on board, placing the technology directly on the consumer shelves.

"We have seen large national brands such as Kwikset and retailers such as Lowe's and Staples enter the market," says Walters. "Virtually every home security company is offering some sort of home control application. A major motivating factor has been the internet-connected smartphone which everyone sees as the central control point of their lives."

But is the entrance to the home a control too far? The industry is about to find out, as it floods the market with new products.

"Smart door locks for residential use is a fairly new concept. These, combined with an internet-connected gateway and smart phone apps, have taken the industry by storm. Integration of home control with traditional home security offerings and smart door locks and garage doors is a major driving factor for the industry."

The future looks even brighter
Every home control system using the Z-Wave standard has a fail-safe operation mode for complete manual control during power outages, so mechanical control is not about to become obsolete. But, the industry hopes, the notorious complexity of home automation should soon be a footnote in gadget history. The reason, says Walters, lies in our hands.

"Complexity has come way down with the advent of rich user interfaces provided by apps, browsers and inexpensive gateways. Standards such as Z-Wave have made product selection much easier. Assisted delivery through service providers, security providers and trusted retailers are all acting to make smart home accessible to the ordinary consumer."

The future looks even brighter: "All switches will be smart and connected. The same goes for heating controls, door locks and appliances. Smart connected things will be the norm, not the exception. Hardware – and hence product technology costs – will continue to decrease as performance increases.

"Numerous industries will be affected, in particular the building industry, which will need to rethink the construction process.

"Windows and doors will come with sensors already installed. The smart home of five to 10 years from now will be just like the car of today.  Today you can't imagine a car without climate control, power windows and locks, power seats, navigation, air bags and active suspensions, yet 10 years ago these were exceptions or exclusively luxury items.

"Today they are standard equipment and no one thinks a thing about them. The houses of the future will be just the same." – Gadget.co.za

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