On Dependence

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Part 2: Smarter Homes

Why ‘The Internet of Things’ Begins at Home

“Humans are inherently inefficient creatures. We leave lights on needlessly, keep the home thermostat cranked up with the windows open, and forget to turn off our televisions when we leave the house. And despite the advances in computing power over the past few decades, our buildings aren’t doing anything to make up for our inefficiencies. ‘Most buildings are dumb,’ says EnOcean Chairman Graham Martin, ‘meaning they completely lack automation systems to manage energy use.'”

Mike Isaac: “Self-Powering, Wireless Energy Sensors Join the Internet”

In Part 1, I explored the fragile issues of global energy consumption, population growth and technology, especially as they center around discussions of the home. As we grow in number, our natural resources are dwindling as technology and the means to sustain modern lifestyles explode. Half of the energy we consume in our homes gets taken up by controlling just one element: temperature.

Heating and cooling account for a tremendous volume of our domestic energy consumption, and by extension, across the globe. Not only is it a problem of getting the energy to our homes, as we explored last time, but it’s also what happens to it when it’s in our homes themselves. This is where ideas of smarter home automation, and transforming the “dumb” devices that surround us in order to solve the problem, come into play.

Technology can help us optimize and streamline our collective energy consumption, but the technology that ultimately feels like it’s solving the problem is also contributing to it through its own production. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and natural resources to make technology that automates the functions of a home. However, there are a growing number of solutions coming to market that place the smartphone at the center of the solution, positioning it as a remote for our home, and allowing us to place operating systems inside of our appliances in order to control them, or have them controlled for us. It marks a shift from apps in the sense of applications, to apps in the sense of appliances.

“Google Unveils Android@Home,” Google I/O Developers Conference

Couched in the familiar environments of smartphones, apps and voice commands, Google’s Android@Home platform is one recent attempt to move towards an operating system not just for your computing, but for your home. Android 5.0 (rumored to be called Jellybean) is likely to launch with some initial Android@Home features. While home automation isn’t a new idea, and there’s already a wealth of apps on the market for locking doors, opening windows and controlling lights with your phone (in many ways, it’s the same technology you have for locking your car’s doors with your key fob), Google’s proposal is the first widespread solution that significantly goes beyond just turning things on and off.

Importantly, Google has recently filed a patent to control Google TV (among other smart devices) with voice commands, again using smartphones and tablets as the preferred method of entry. In solving a problem of efficiency, the user experience for being able to control things in your home with your phone will be a familiar one to many, and one that will hopefully fuel adoption.

Essentially, the smartphone will act as a remote to control cloud-based operating systems controlling devices in your home. And while many of these solutions have been disproportionately focused upon moving entertainment and media around the home (“now you can pause in one room and watch in another” or “stream music to different rooms in your house”), Android@Home proposes going beyond media consumption and moving towards something that will allow us to live smarter, and make the devices around us work harder for us.

As a tentative first step, this level of optimization begins to wean us off of our negligent energy habits by making the decisions for us. At scale (especially in cities with large apartment buildings, or places where most of the inhabitants aren’t paying the bills, such as hospitals or hotels), the savings are potentially tremendous. And not just economic savings, savings of energy. Savings on slowing the rapid decline connected with our dependence upon oil.

“It’s downright criminal in ecological and financial terms that we still can’t easily monitor and control the power usage in our homes.”

Thomas Ricker: “Android@Home Is the Best Worst Thing to Happen to Home Automation” (Engadget)

“Toshiba, Creating a New Lifestyle: Smart Homes”

This level of thinking beyond the sharing of media and more towards the purpose of the devices and appliances we surround ourselves with at home is an important one. Most of the appliances in our homes have completely different technology in them, appliance to appliance. It’s a much bigger problem than just Mac vs. PC. It means washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves and thermostats, even bathroom mirrors, among many others. Anything with a plug is fair game, and perhaps even some that don’t.

“Learning thermostats” are beginning to appear, most notably Nest’s  beautiful re-imagination of the humble thermostat. You don’t have to program it, and it includes three thermostats, a humidity sensor, light sensor, and even a proximity sensor. The key aspect of installing such a device in your home is that it takes the decision-making of home temperature efficiencies away from you. By automatically controlling the temperature based on what else is going on in the house (including who else is in the home), it can significantly reduce heating and cooling costs, with the grander aspirations of reducing dependence upon existing energy solutions.

Android@Home proposes that this kind of technology starts to become combined with calendar events, so that you’d be able to remotely control the climate of your house. Need to turn the heating on as you’re driving home? Now you can.

“Nest Learning Thermostat”

Similarly, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung released the first Android refrigerator, which not only controls climate regions inside the devices via apps in the cloud, but also displays anything else you’d want on a refrigerator’s screen. Twitter, Epicurious, Google calendar, news or weather, to name a few. Perhaps the current trend for digital pinning will translate to refrigerator magnets one day after all. The Samsung refrigerator also contains a set of built-in speakers, proposed to work in tandem with streaming apps like Pandora or Spotify. The days of the radio on the kitchen counter are over.

And with more than 700,000 Android devices being activated every day, Google is making an aggressive push into owning your home’s operating system. If you already have the remote in the form of your smartphone or tablet device, which is primarily going to be Android-based, then controlling other things around you will feel like an easy transition. Dimming the lights by swiping your smartphone may seem like magic to many of us. Starting the dishwasher from your car certainly will.

“What you really want to be able to do is, as you walk into your house with your Android device, all the things that have computers in it sort of adjust as necessary.”

Eric Schmidt, Consumer Electronics Show, 2012 panel

What Schmidt is proposing is a comprehensive, integrated user experience for all devices in your home. It’s a simple idea with wide-reaching consequences, but the ability to visualize your own energy consumption, perhaps in the form of a Google spreadsheet with recommendations, allows you to optimize, something that’s almost impossible when you receive the bill at the end of the month. But it also means that whereas entertainment devices have often been portrayed as the battlegrounds of technology between manufacturers and software developers, this discussion is going to move into the kitchen and the living room in the near future as well.

Widespread partnerships with multiple manufacturers will be incredibly important, and Google’s Android model is one they’ll be able to transition to effectively. Apple’s product approach, while often argued as more beautiful and enjoyable, doesn’t scale to other devices in your home in quite as smooth a way. Interestingly, because Android is open source, it facilitates an easier level of implementation for developers, such as DomoticHome, who are taking advantage of a similar open-source hardware platform Ardvino in conjunction with Android, to add sensors and microchip “shields” to devices around the home, even including windows.

For example, adding a temperature sensor to your greenhouse would allow you to automatically open the window when it gets too hot. It takes the decision-making away from the most menial of household tasks, but does so in a way that benefits our long-term dependence upon energy resources.

Griffin and Dijit are also allowing Android devices to control home theater equipment via a suite of free apps.

Home security is another area ramping up its use of smartphone and automation technology, whereby ADT customers can use their ADT Pulse App (for iPhone and Android) to control and monitor their existing security systems. Think you forgot to lock the door on your way out? Worried that the window was left open? This solves the problem. It can also control lights (perhaps for when you’re away), security cameras and thermostats. Lockitron is yet another example in a fast-expanding market. Boeing is also deploying Android systems into its latest line of 787 Dreamliners, running what it terms “airline-specific apps.” Perhaps we’ll finally see the end of the tattered Sky Mall magazine  stuffed into our seat pockets.

Writing in Engadget, Thomas Ricker describes Android@Home as “the best worst thing to happen to home automation.” A long-term advocate of using technology to inform, and even take over decision-making in the home, Ricker traces the platform’s origins back to 2009 and Google.org’s PowerMeter service, which allowed users to monitor their total energy consumption each day, remotely. And while the service didn’t progress past the initial stages (mainly due to the device-level components being missing or unavailable), it allowed Google to refine the technology required in order to ultimately build it back into Android over time, an iterative approach we see consistent with how Google likes to build out its product suite over time (such as with Google Plus).

“The potential is staggering, giving users the ability to drill all the way down from the whole-home energy view to the device and switch level without ever leaving their browser or smartphone app. That’ the future I’ve been dreaming of.”

Thomas Ricker: “Android@Home Is the Best Worst Thing to Happen to Home Automation” (Engadget)

Similarly, the Linux-based Vera system, which launched in 2008, created the “Mi Casa Verde”  (“My Green Home”) platform for automating power delivery via simple on/off commands sent via a smartphone app. What’s happening now is that developers are realizing that it has to go far beyond simply turning the lights on and off. The solutions have to be baked into a more comprehensive and integrated solution in the home, one that truly begins to answer the problem of energy efficiency.

Android@Home is beginning to make tentative moves into this space, but still frames it from an entertainment perspective. For example, one of the integrations it proposed to its development community was to integrate its new suite of smart light bulbs into more immersive video game play. This sounds amazing, but it’s not truly where the power of this technology lies. The problems for users will be wanting to adopt the technology at scale, and while gaming might be an under-the-radar conduit to adding it more widely into your home, the focus upon monitoring energy consumption is still lacking, if visible at all.

Dr. Sokwoo Rhee proposes yet another solution in “Where Is Google Going With the Android@HomeInitiative?”  whereby he suggests that the real strength of automation is when the devices begin to independently send information to each other, and work together to optimize aspects such as heating and cooling.

For example, you could know that the temperature in your living room is too hot while you’re just about to leave work for the evening — or where the refrigerator not only seasonally adjusts but also understands what kind of food it has inside it, and sends recommendations to your phone for dinner tonight based on an Epicurious profile of what it knows you like. Even simply knowing how many people are in the house at the same time offers a large number of energy-optimized solutions, and this is where this kind of technology begins to get interesting, when you factor in proximity (just as we do outside with services such as Foursquare), and when your home’s devices begin to recognize you and what you’re doing. This, Rhee suggests, is where the real optimization for a building’s energy consumption starts to happen, especially inside of large buildings with multiple units.

“People should not have to find information. Information should find people. Information should actively get to people before they realize they actually need it.”

Dr. Sokwoo Rhee: “What Will Happen When Devices Are Connected?”

What Rhee refers to as the “circle of information” approach, whereby contextually appropriate information moves with the user and informs the behavior of the devices around him, holds the promise of ubiquitous computing that many are beginning to see. The “Internet of things” begins at home. This technology already exists for soldiers and fighter pilots in the military, but is embryonic at best with smartphones (we’re talking about much more than pulling in nearby listings here). Imagine a couple of typical-use cases, again, centered around the idea of using your smartphone as the conduit into your home’s devices and their behavior.

For example, when you get up in the morning, for many of us, the glance towards the smartphone has become standardized behavior. Now, imagine if you had your smartphone with you in the bathroom as you got ready for the day — again, a regular habit for many of us. The shower would automatically turn on as you stepped into the room, optimized seasonally for just how you like it.

Simultaneously, your mirror would overlay information about headlines, weather and any other feeds you were following (this technology is already in play at The New York Times’ Research & Development lab: http://bit.ly/z1CXXi). It might even recommend certain medication for you, provide suggestions for what to wear that day, or even allow you to do some shopping, all while simultaneously getting ready for the day.

While this is going on, your kitchen knows that you’ve gotten up, and has begun to make the coffee. The seats in your car are beginning to warm up for when you leave the house shortly. And the refrigerator has already compiled the list of things you’re running low on, and has automatically ordered them to be delivered by the time you get home. Think this sounds like science fiction? It’s not:

“New York Times’ Research & Development Lab: ‘Magic Mirror'”

What these examples reflect is simply a more integrated digital experience into our current lifestyles. While we do most of our computing on smartphones, laptops and other “computing” devices, having the same level of smarter, more comprehensive and optimized experiences in the rest of our home’s electrical appliances allows us on the one hand the opportunity to untether from the phone, but more importantly, might make the experience of information consumption a little more relaxing. But with such a solution, we begin to abdicate responsibility to the devices and platforms around us. Of course, all of this is opt-in, but given our inability to control our own energy consumption, has it proven to be a choice we’re capable of?

Home automation not only allows for a more relaxed lifestyle, but more importantly, it holds the promise of solving some very serious energy consumption problems. Headed upstairs for something? Your house will dim the lights in those rooms where nobody’s sitting anymore. This culture of intelligent, connected objects is a highly viable home-centric solution, and one that has broader, more far-reaching consequences than searching deeper and deeper for alternative energy. At the very least, it lengthens the time frame in which to come up with those alternate sources.

Wired’s Mike Isaac  even goes as far as to share the concept of self-powering sensors for controlling switches, the environmental impact of which (outside of its production) is almost zero. These sensors use the Eco100 linear motion harvester, which generates enough power to control a primitive switch via an app, and emit a small, near-field Wi-Fi signal. This has particular efficiencies at scale in large buildings, where the lights are often on all the time, even if those rooms and corridors are dormant for hours at a time. But at the core of the solution is context: Who’s in the room and what are they doing? These energy needs wrap around us, instead of us wrapping around the energy needs. That’s a fundamental difference in approach, fueled by technology.

However, the dependence upon technology, even with the premise of saving us from our own chronic energy inefficiencies, comes with a price, and the growing dependence upon technology is having catastrophic effects upon how we interact, our brains and our bodies. In many ways, the technology, which will slow our dependence upon nonrenewable energy sources, is going to have to change us, and perhaps not for the best. The third and final part of this series will examine these consequences and explore how we can balance these growing problems of digital dependency.

Further reading:

Adrian Covert: “Android@Home Will Turn Your House Into a Giant, Automated Smartbox”

Adrian Covert: “Google Music: Upload and Stream All Your Tunes From the Cloud”

Matt Hickman: “Google’s Bright New Idea: Android-Controlled Light Bulbs” 

Mike Isaac: “Google’s Platform Extends Its Reach With Android@Home” 

Mike Isaac: “Self-Powering, Wireless Energy Sensors Join the Internet”

Martin LaMonica: “Android Meets LED Bulbs in Google Smart-Home Push”

Ljusarkitecktur: “Hamburg Living Place”

Andrew Nusca: “Google, Lighting Science Partner On Android-Powered LED Bulb”

Dr. Sokwoo Rhee:“What Will Happen When Devices Are Connected?”

Dr. Sokwoo Rhee: “Where Is Google Going With the Android@Home Initiative?”

Thomas Ricker: “Android@Home Is the Best Worst Thing That Could Happen to Home Automation”

Thomas Ricker: “Mi Casa Verde Vera Review: Home Automation Simplified”

Shant Shahrigian: “For High-Tech Living, There’s No Place Like the Hamburg Smart Home” 

Eric Smalley: “Warm Watts for Wireless”

Stockholm Lighting: “The Living Place, Hamburg”

Alexia Tsotsis: “Lockitron Lets You Unlock Your Door With Your Phone”

Josh Volpe: “Boeing Hitches Android to Its 787 Dreamliner Ride, Powers In-Flight Options With Google Juice”