Tomorrow’s homes will be smarter than today’s. It won’t be because they have electric curtains.

By Joel Hagan

There’s a lot of talk about automating homes these days. Programmable broadband and home networks that heat, cool, and light rooms without any switch-flipping; refrigerators that can detect when their contents are running low and re-order online. This kind of automated gadgetry, intended to make our lives easier and nudge us to live greener and eat better, can make home builders, environmentalists, and high-tech whizzes starry-eyed about the possibility of “smart homes” popping up in neighborhoods soon.

Not so fast. While the IQ of individual systems and gadgets in the home is only going to go up; the idea of a fully integrated “smart home” is, well, still just an idea. Not to mention it isn’t conceivable that we’ll all suddenly and actively decide to automate our homes together, particularly if that involves spending lots of money. What is more likely is that the rise of the truly “smart home” will come in fits and starts, it will take years, maybe decades to achieve, and we probably won’t notice most of it.

Sure, there will always be a devoted cadre of trend-setting gadgeteers who like to open curtains from their bed, call their oven from a cell phone to turn it on before they get home, and let their fridge do their shopping. But none of these devices – exciting as they sound – is a compelling driver for automation, or in business lingo, a killer application. The killer application that makes smart homes a reality will not be about convenience or fun. It is most likely to be about the need to manage energy use better, saving money and the planet. That is why the development of energy monitoring displays meters over the last few years is so exciting. At their most sophisticated these displays allow people to see how much energy they are consuming, and at what cost, and nudge them into altering their heating, lighting and air conditioning settings. And these displays will only get better, especially when they work with smart meters to provide an additional range of valuable services to the home in such fields as security and health.

For the first time in the long history of home building, the potential for a smart home seems real. Smart energy systems, not electric curtains, will provide the foundation for creating a truly smart home. Someday.

Why someday? If displays and smart meters exist, why aren’t smart homes close behind? Another way to think about this question is to ask, how is the evolution from smart home systems into smart homes like to occur?

The technological progress of automobiles shows the one likely way. Cars today, even standard mid-size models like Camrys and Accords, are smart. Top-line luxury cars? They are practically Bobby Fischer at a chess board. There are up to 200 sensors in the average modern car. Some are no doubt obvious, like parking sensors. Some may be less obvious. There are acceleration sensors that trigger airbags in a collision, for example. A 1992 Chevy Cavalier has a crankshaft sensor, although few people know it does, let alone where it is. It has taken 125 years to work up to the BMW 7 Series Driver Assistance Package, but this is now a comprehensive system. Radar sensors give audible alerts when objects approach in blind spots, and a triangular warning light also appears in the rearview mirror. A lane departure warning will vibrate the steering wheel if you cross a road marking without signaling. And with the new High Beam Assist, the 7 Series switches automatically between low and high beams. In the period of more than a century over which cars have evolved, several drivers for their development emerged, but the killer application behind sensors to monitor fuel consumption was certainly the oil price “shocks” of the 1970s.

All of this may sound exciting, but we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. First, homes aren’t like cars because the replacement cycle for them, and hence the widespread introduction of sensors embedded in them, is much longer. Sensors that provide information, on such things as energy, will come first and they will proliferate in everyday objects doing particular tasks, such as central heating or air conditioning systems. Over time more and more of these sensors will report to a central hub and eventually the vision of automation may start to become a reality. Right now, few of the smart systems in homes are able to speak coherently and reliably with each other. Linking them together is the next step. These are exciting times in the home technology business. We can see the future. Now we, and our customers, just need to be a little patient.

Addendum: Check on Nick Fell’s great Q&A with Joel Hagan at Don’t Tell My Mum.

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