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IoT technologies pave the road to the context-aware smart home

In today’s smart home, smart speakers are a Trojan horse, where their proliferation contributes to overall smart home awareness. In many homes, a smart speaker is the inaugural device which inspires homeowners to add additional devices, such as lightbulbs or thermostats, to control using voice commands. According to research from NPD Group, 48% and 57% of Amazon Echo and Google Home owners, respectively, reported buying their first home automation product after owning a voice-enabled speaker.

Smart home devices are primarily focused on control and management, where users and homeowners can use an app to turn on lights, adjust the temperature, close the shades and so forth. Voice assistants are another very convenient interface for activating and adjusting devices, but they are still in their infancy and aren’t yet truly intelligent. Consumer demand is high for the assistants, with NPD Group reporting that 65% of smart home device owners express interest in using voice commands to control other devices in their home. But, while voice assistants can act on commands, they have no insight to the home’s conditions or ability to respond to them; for example, if the room is too hot, Alexa will do nothing until asked to turn down the thermostat.

In order for the smart home to become context-aware and more intelligent, the systems need data. Information about the home originates from water, humidity, occupancy, smoke and other sensing devices. This data can be fed into the smart assistant or an artificial intelligence platform, which could analyze it to issue activation commands to smart home devices or adjust the conditions of the home on its own based on other outside factors, like the weather.

This kind of data usage would create a smart home environment that will not only allow users to control the room or area around them with fewer voice commands, but for the home to adjust devices automatically. Unfortunately, barriers in IoT protocol technology have limited the functionality of smart home devices, specifically sensors, in power consumption, range, security and ease-of-use, as well as cost and time to market for manufacturers.

IoT wireless communication standards — Bluetooth, Thread, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Z-Wave — each provide various use cases, advantages and drawbacks, and development logistics and roadmaps for manufacturers. The device manufacturer’s choice of a protocol can affect how it will operate and how it can work intelligently in a smart home environment.

Some of the limits in IoT communication protocols and technologies preventing the context-aware smart home include high battery usage of wireless devices, limited range and low processing power, which prevents end nodes from being able to make any computations at the edge. These challenges can result in the exclusion of data from farther parts of the home and yard because the radio technologies don’t have the necessary range. Additionally, placing sensors in hard-to-reach places where critical data can be gathered. But this can be impractical if batteries require frequent replacement because of a high power demand by the wireless device. Advancements in wireless protocols are enabling improved device functionality, which will contribute to the information and commands that intelligent smart assistants will be able to issue in the future.

For example, a sensor with a 10-year lifespan on a single coin-cell battery could be embedded in drywall, under appliances and other hard-to-reach places. Such sensors throughout the home could provide data to a machine learning engine with the ability to understand the context of the data to initiate commands to control devices. These advancements can enhance the homeowner’s convenience and comfort, where the home’s temperature would be automatically adjusted based on the weather that day, for example, or a door would unlock when the homeowner enters the garage. Other applications could include insurance discounts for smart homes that have water pipe freeze alarms or water shut-off valves that close when a leak is detected. Sensors that monitor occupancy and weather can adjust thermostats and window shades maximizing energy use and lowering energy bills.

These “learning” smart home applications are on the horizon, thanks to new wireless IoT protocol developments. For one, the new Z-Wave 700 Series chipset features farther range to allow a system to span multiple stories or to the end of the yard, lower power consumption for a decade of life on a single coin-cell battery, and improved processing power for more intelligence with fast energy-efficient computation. With the 700 Series, sensors will be able to reach beyond current limits, and lower power consumption is an important factor to allow them to be embedded long term.

Interoperability is a necessary foundation for smart home devices, especially for the context-aware smart home. All of the sensors and devices must send data through the same engine. For example, if a temperature sensor’s data isn’t being processed through the same platform that can adjust the thermostat, this disconnect would prevent an automatic change from the intelligent system. Sensors and control devices must be able to talk to each other in order for context-aware applications to work. Interoperability is a necessary foundation for smart devices both in enabling increased intelligent operations, as well as for ease of operation by the end user. As the number of devices in a household increases, so too does the importance of interoperability to consumers.

Systems with classes of sensors featuring these advancements will start to enable the context-aware smart home. Information from these higher-tech sensors could be fed into virtual assistants to give it the power to understand the context of the home — and act on it without command from a user. The benefits of this are twofold: one, the ability to predict safety or security hazards becomes greater with a lesser chance of error through better sensor data collection, and two, new use cases. Abnormalities in home conditions could be tracked to prevent house hazards; for example, a sensor in the basement could track changes in humidity over time that might indicate a hazard for future flooding or mold.

Home smarts and sensing intelligence can soon converge, thanks to new wireless IoT technologies. With longer battery life, sensors can be embedded throughout the home to help IoT systems react to comfort or home-threatening conditions such as temperature, humidity, smoke and more. The number of smart home devices in the average U.S. home is now between six and 10, and advancements in the Z-Wave communications protocol will help to grow that number — the average smart home installation could soon feature 30 to 50 devices and sensors — to enable ubiquitous home sensing. This growth and advancement will make it possible — and practical — for deployment of dozens of devices in the home, while still being interoperable from one app and delivering on the promise of a truly intelligent home.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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