Home Automation: Are we there yet?

24-hour-programmable-mechanical-mains-plug-in-timer-time-switch-3-pin-socket-us-plug_640x640controlling-philips-hueBy are we ‘there’, I mean is home automation at a point where it is not just fun, but actually practical,  as opposed to fun, but ultimately annoying.  Read the conclusion for more details, but although home automation right now can be useful, current limitations prevent if from being much beyond a toy that just gets in your way if not set up right, and at best simply adds some rare benefits, but mostly does what you can do without it anyway.

 

This page:

    • my experience so far:
      • Broadlink e-control (failing) to replacing a mains plug in timer
      • hue lighting: pleasing but still with flaws
        • benefits and limitations
      • harmony remote: control lights and Audio Video together
      • plug in timer/remote phase 2?
    • smart assistants
      • the field
        • siri, cortana, google  etc
      • the problem
    • Overall evaluation:
      • limitations
      • benefits? Any real ones?
    • The future?
    • Conclusion

Experiences

Broadlink e-control (failing) to replace a mains plug in timer

We were looking at a solution to turn on the heater in our child’s bedroom prior to her wake up time, so she could wake to a preheated room without needing the heater to be on all night.

The traditional solution would be a mains plug timer as pictured above.  Plug the timer into the wall socket, and the heater into the timer. Set the hours for the heater to be on.  Very simple, but very old technology and surely there is something better?

broadlink-rm-proI found that there was a very inexpensive ‘home automation kit’ on sale from Aldi supermarket. It had four power sockets, a dedicated remote, and a bridge that allowed control from a smart phone app to configure scheduling.

We found remote controlled power sockets very useful, but for the original purpose, scheduling, the system was too unreliable. We have one particular lamp, and being able to switch on/off that lamp is quite a bonus, and we have used that almost daily now for years. However, we have found very few other uses.  They do arise, but they are rare or contrived. There are actually very few things that it is very helpful to switch on and off from the wall socket.

The problem with the scheduling is that the computer responsible for the timer is the smartphone app.  With other smart systems, scheduled events can be programmed into the hub.  The hub is permanently powered, and permanently on the network.  Smart phones can run flat, leave the house or simply be off the network, and too many background apps that need to run all the time is not desirable anyway.

So one use for the system, but not really a particularly smart one.

Hue lighting: pleasing, but still with flaws.

The benefits of the hue smart lighting over non-smart lights:

  • every bulb is dimmable
  • colour temperature change is very useful
  • colour change is fun and luxurious
  • remote & programmable operation

strengths of Hue over other smart lights

  • good light switch options
  • multiple bulb types
  • leading brand position ensures connectivity

limitations are:

  • there are no bright hue bulbs (current bulbs = 800lumen,  60 watt equivalent)
  • no official child/ limited access application
  • dimmer functionality is slower and can be less intuitive than traditional dimmers
  • lack of compatible mains sockets
  • limited functionality to utilise colour temperature flexibility

Benefits: The ability to change colour, either colour temperature or actual colour is clearly not something offered by traditional bulbs. Phones and computers have recently embraced changing hue to match time of day. Changing colour seems a fun idea, and I mostly choose the colour bulbs over white ambiance bulbs for several locations, but …. i don’t really use anything beyond changing white ambiance.

Strengths: Some other smart lights assume that controlling lights with a smart phone is so preferable to controlling with a wall switch, they offer little or nothing in the way of wall switch options.  Other Hue strengths are a wide range of lights, and that Hue is so well known that all systems connect to it.

Limitations: The brightest Hue bulb is the equivalent to the old 60W incandescent bulb in brightness, while other LED bulbs can be equivalent to 100W bulbs and actually twice as bright.  You cannot give a child, or anyone else, control over just their own lights, anyone who has control over any light has control over the whole house. Hue dimmers have modern appearance, but dimmer and brighter via buttons is not as ergonomic as the traditional dial that can be instantly rotated to any position. Some systems allow one ‘bridge’ to control both lights and power sockets, but with Hue, if you need power sockets as well then you will need a second bridge for the power sockets.

Another limitation is the software.   There should be a colour setting which is ‘the appropriate colour for this time of day’, similar to the way apps like f.lux set the colour temperature of computer screens.  If fact, f.lux can control your Hue lights, but there are limitations due to the feature not being integrated into the Hue system, as well as the need to keep an additional computer running to control the lights.

Harmony Remote

The harmony remote from Logitech also plays with Hue lights and a variety of other brands including Nest and Insteon.  So far, this allows controlling the on/off and brightness of lighting in the area where home entertainment equipment is being watched.  Yes, you can switch on an off other things, but the lights around the TV etc are the things so far that makes sense.

Plug In Timer – Remote 2: Insteon

My plan is to try the replace the broadlink e-control with an Insteon bridge, remote and mains sockets.  Far more expensive than the broadlink, but the bridge does seem to execute timer commands and the system is quite open.  Cortana and the Harmony remote will also be able to work with Insteon. I will update as it progresses.

Smart Assistants.

The Field

The are four main contenders: Alexa, Siri, Google and Cortana. As reviewed here in Dumb and Dumber, the relative skills at answering questions may surprise many, especially the fame of  Siri.  Currently I am using Cortana as a smart assistant as there was nothing to buy…I just use my laptop.  Integration with Philips Hue is no problem provided you tell Cortana you are in the USA, even if you are not.  For reasons understandable perhaps only by Microsoft, they prevent those who do not say they are in the USA from using home integration – even though location appears to have no relevance on how well it works.  This is part of a pattern with Cortana… works quite well but they seem determined to either limit availability to ensure too small a user base for survival, or cripple the product.  Still, works perfectly for now, with one exception: despite being on a PC with a full keyboard, if I type the exact same works that will work if I speak them, Cortana will search for that text on the net instead of doing what I ask.  The mysteries of Cortana not delivering what it is capable of continues!

Just the other day, I found it most helpful to call out to Cortana to turn on a specific light that helped me complete what I was doing without having to break from what I was in the middle of fixing, and put things down to go to a wall switch or continue with too little light.  It was brilliant, but in truth the first time i have even found it genuinely useful as opposed to just something I can play with when no one is around to make me feel childish if they overhear.

The Problem.

Digital assistants are currently funded by monetising the data the collect on the people who use them.  While this is worth a complete post of its own, I think it follows the each action you take at home being monetised could be worrying.  Further, that each action you take at home requires a round trip to remote internet servers to be completed create yet another vulnerability to you home operating when you need it too.  Generally, controlling via digital assistants seems like something for occasional use, rather than the regular way you switch your lights on and off.

The Future

Wiring

Traditional household electrical wiring is far more complex than what is  required for a smart home.  Wiring circuits including switches requires far more wire, and increasing complexity as the distance from switch to powered fixture increases, as it does with lights.  With smart lights, there are no traditional wall switches and all light fixtures are permanently powered.  While most of our homes are already wired this way, to wire a home for smart lights only should reduce the  cost of wiring the lights to half or less than traditional wiring.

The savings can fund all the smart lights etc…and leave some savings.  So if building a new home, you can save by using smart lights.

Convenience

Beyond cost savings, where is the convenience?  Now i can dim the lights to watch a movie using the same remote that I use to adjust the volume.  Problem is, I don’t do that very often, and it is not relevant for most of the lights at home.  For example, I have a ‘walk through’ robe must be walked through to get to the bathroom. Being a robe, it has no natural light so even in the day, the light has to be switched on to either go through or choose clothing and dress in the robe itself.  Then, the light gets left on.  An automatic timer could turn it off, and a motion sensor could turn it on.  But at night it should be brought on at a night light level, and to get dressed it needs to be bright daylight simulation lighting.  The controls need ‘if’ type setup – and ideally without a round trip to a server funded by building a profile on the person who uses it.

 

Conclusion.

The systems are ‘not there yet’, and technology for the bridges themselves needs to step up to provide the convenience potential of these systems.

I will update this entry as I experiment further.

 

 

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