Do we see the future coming?

We as humans share a few common questions – we all want to know what the future is going to bring us, we would like to know what is coming. But actually this is quite a contradiction, because if we actually knew what the future will bring us, probably the first thing we would want to do is to adjust our plans to be ready for the future. Probably not only that – if we do not like that specific view of the future, we would probably do everything to change it! This is what I was thinking when I was asked for the “next big thing” in consumer technology – as most likely the next big thing is not going to be a technology that we are familiar with like iPhone X or Windows Y.

We only realize what the next thing is going to be when it is actually here, in our hands and in our homes. This does not mean that we cannot see “new things” coming, as in many good forward looking technology articles there are usually quite a lot of good ideas and proposals floating around. When there is a breakthrough, one can usually backtrack to where the original ideas came from and how they evolved and mutated over time to something big and real.

This applies for the computer, as there is actually more or less a straight line from the original room- sized computer mainframe in the middle of the last century to the handheld smart phone of today. Increased computing power and reduced size and energy consumption, mixed with humankind’s innate creativity and knack of developing tools, have resulted in our ability to hold more computing power in our hands that could fit into a large room just a few decades ago!

This also applies to the internet: the capability to interconnect all devices that we originally labeled as computers. In the middle of the last century, the internet was essentially a way for two computers to exchange information and share storage but the net now has evolved to today’s continuous capability to connect and be connected, responding to the basic need of humans to socialize, to like and to be liked, to our modern connected world, where everyone can be connected with everyone, independently of physical location.

There are interesting side effects that are worth contemplating. For instance how long will computers continue to grow even more powerful and even more interconnected – and what will be the effect? For instance there is a serious concern and empirical proof that the average intelligence is going down. Modern studies comparing IQ-tests of today versus IQ-tests of 50 years ago, – indicate – that after adjustment for more and better education, the average IQ is going down. Actually, this should not be too surprising: tools in general have helped mankind to stop developing in strength (our cranes are strong enough) or speed (our cars are fast enough).

At the same time it is interesting that Wikipedia is more complete, more up-to-date, contains fewer errors, and is available to a much larger population than the encyclopedia that my father 50 years ago bought for the family with the promise that knowledge is the basis for all wisdom. Therefore computers and connectivity may make us less smart – whatever that may mean – but collectively we are getting into a position to make better decisions, based on better information.

Do we see the future coming? Actually not…

Computers and connectivity are tools, and to a certain extent we can see where they are going in terms of higher performance, smaller form factor and using less power (longer battery life). In reality however, computers and connectivity are just tools, and the future is really determined by HOW we are using these tools. Surprising new applications and innovative applications are constantly popping up that appeal to people and address their needs or their perceived needs. These new applications are truly determining where our future is going.

Some people say that technology is developing too fast, and that we are struggling to keep up. While for others, technology is moving much way too slow! One example is the smart wallet recently introduced with the Apple iPhone-6. This is an old idea that is getting new life. Patents for this concept had been issued more than 30 years ago and some had already expired. However, Apple’s “new” implementation of this “new” form of payment looks like it may now take off and “go mainstream”.

Or another example: personally I have worked on WiFi, spending almost a decade of my life to get the technology (and the standard right). It only finally went mainstream in 1999 with the launch of the Apple iBook laptop with integrated WiFi. 

What about the Smart Home?

We can look into the future and guess technology trends, but what we are really struggling to understand is when certain applications will really reach mass adoption. Even more difficult is to precisely predict which applications will come to fruition and how they will be implemented. One concept that probably is at least 30 years old and still waiting to deliver on its promise is the Smart Home. For decades, people were wondering whether it would ever happen, and if so, what would trigger it.

In reality, it is already happening now in high-end markets and in bits and pieces. The coming years we will see these pieces coming together and fully integrate into useful tools. It would not be surprising that in the near future every connected home (that is a home with an internet connection) will evolve into a Smart Home.

What applications can be expected in the Smart Home?

Actually we see three major categories of applications for the Smart Home, not necessary totally independent, as partial overlaps and cross-overs will exist. In the first place the Smart Home will be able to better take provide for safety and security: a Smart Home is a safe home. Technology for safety (e.g. smoke alarms) and security (e.g. burglar alarms) has existed for years, but until recently, these were mainly “stand-alone” systems in the home, but not integrated into it. The same thing applies for the second category: technology that helps us to better balance our needs for comfort and energy consumption. In particular, lighting and heating fit this category and technology systems as crude as a simple light switch or as sophisticated as a thermostat are part of this. This category also includes the Utility company’s smart meters that slowly but surely are starting to enter our homes.

The application areas touched on above in these first two categories are usually given as examples of the Smart Home, and usually yield the reaction: so what…, and rightfully so. These sense and control systems do not add a lot of value, and barely use the incredible computing and connectivity power that has been developed over the last decades. But this is changing now, establishing yet another category of applications, called Family Lifestyle Systems, that in the future, will prove as essential and widespread as WiFi today.

What are Family Lifestyle Systems?

It is good to start with some examples. Many of us we have experienced the problem of standing at the front door and not knowing whether the back door is locked. I am sure that everyone at least had this experience once in his or her life, if not once a week.

The “problem” can be even worse. After travelling a few hours in the car on vacation and then suddenly you are wondering, is the backdoor really locked? You look around at your car and note that all the car doors can be locked with a single key fob. Wouldn’t it have been nice that when you left the house and locked the front door, all the other doors were automatically locked as well?

Even better though – wouldn’t it be convenient to just pick up your smart phone and check to see if the doors are indeed locked? If not, then you could lock the door with the smart phone. But then again, wouldn’t it be better if the house itself could realize that nobody is home, that the family has left for vacation, and then decides that it may be wise to lock the house? That indeed would be a smart home.

Here is another example. Recently, a warm water pipe in our basement broke, and started to flood the basement with warm water. Because we were not using the basement very often, the leak went unnoticed for days: the boiler continuously filling itself with water, heating it up, and dispensing it with the best of its intentions. The water meter was running; the natural gas meter was running. We never got the message that that for several days the water and gas consumption was extraordinary, costing us a great deal of money. It would have been much better if our house had been smart enough to notify us of this sudden increase in water and gas usage so that we could have remedied the situation. Wouldn’t it been useful to have a leak detector in the basement that would have recognized the water on the floor and then notified us or even better, been smart enough to turn off the water and gas to the water heater? Leak detectors exist. Water and gas meters exist. This is not new technology. However, we need to have these sensing devices intelligently connected to the smart home so that the home itself can react to problem situations.

A third example in this category is specifically addressing the needs of senior citizens who want to live at home longer, but at the same time are concerned about something happening to them.. There are many horror stories of someone having a serious accident, falling and breaking a hip, or simply not being capable of getting out of bed, unable to get help for days. Sure, wearing a fall detector or an alarm button (or just a smart phone) could help solve the problem, but often these accidents happen when a communication or alert device is out of reach. In a serious medical emergency, the person may not be able to trigger the device for help. But it would be easy for a sensor system to notice, that something unusual has happened: nobody left the house, there is no movement in the home, the toilet is not being used, the fridge is not opened, no coffee is being made. Whatever that person normally does is not happening… Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a smart home that recognized a person’s daily activities and could send an alert if suddenly there was a big change?

Welcome to the Family Lifestyle System!

A Smart Home Family Lifestyle System consists of a network of sensors connected to the internet that can be monitored and controlled over the internet from within the house or remotely with a smart phone. However, this is a lot more sophisticated than the typical smart home services already being rolled out.

Most people consider a smart home as a house with sensors that register light, temperature, humidity, intrusion, smoke, and so forth. In turn, also web connected, would be a variety of devices such lamps, washing machines, refrigerator, a heating system or an air conditioner, a door lock, or actually any device in the home that is worth remotely controlling. The sensors relay info to the cloud where it is monitored and relayed to a smart phone or other web connected device. A human then enters the picture, evaluating the data and deciding what action to take and whether or not to send a message to the web connected device. In some cases, there could be some automated intelligence in the loop. For example, when the sun sets and it gets cold, the house is smart enough to energize the heating system before the occupants get home and maybe even start cooking dinner.

However, when you add a Family Lifestyle System to the home, the house suddenly becomes very smart.

A Family Lifestyle System is an application in the cloud that connects ALL the sentrollers (the sensors, the actuators and the controllers, actually all the devices) in the Smart Home. The Family Lifestyle System can regularly collect all the data in the home from all the devices, and then LEARNS what the normal patterns in the home are.

When do people get up in the morning, what energy are they consuming and when; when do people leave and come back, what is the desired temperature; where are the people in the house and do they need light, when do the sunshades go down, the list is endless. This application learns what is “normal”, and therefore also learns what is not normal. Going back to the examples – it is not normal that the house is deserted, but the backdoor is not locked; it is not normal that the water is continuously flowing for days; it is not normal that it is already 8AM and my mother has not opened the fridge.

A Family Lifestyle System is also a Social Media application. It can inform family members or friends about whereabouts, send alerts for specific and concerning situations. It can create a social environment where people feel safer and more secure, because their physical life is seamlessly interconnected with their social media life and communications.

A Family Lifestyle System includes an app on the smart phone that integrates the capability of having the owner of the phone interpreting an alert and translating it into an immediate call – or into taking action: unlock the door (when I am not home and my son rings the bell, because he forgot his key – and after I have checked with the front door camera that it is him). The Smart Home needs a smart phone as a dashboard, so this is a natural progression from where we are today into the future.

Challenges of the Smart Home

It may all sound a little rosy and farfetched, but the Smart Home is just around the corner, starting to happen and a ground swell is building.

Over the last 5 years, major technology steps forward have made the Smart Home technically and economically feasible. Both the sensor technologies and the communication technologies have made significant steps forward in standardization, energy consumption as well as cost.

An ultra-low power communication standard has been developed and established itself. ZigBee, based on the IEEE 802.15.4 networking standard, can be characterized as low-power variant of WiFi, as it covers about the same area as WiFi (a home) and functions in the same way, transmitting through furniture, walls and floors. The big difference compared to WiFi is that ZigBee hardly uses energy and enables coin cell operation that can last for 10 years or more. Coin cell operation also enables product makers to make the sensor and edge devices small and unobtrusive. It is commonly understood in the tech manufacturing sectors that open worldwide standards drive the cost down and will make the Smart Home offering feasible and practical.

In addition, significant work has been done to develop the algorithms to “understand” and interpret the collected data in the cloud, as well as to identify the exception situations. This will require handling massive amounts of Small Data (compared to the Big Data of the internet content). Big Data is “big”, big in volume and “big” as in Big Business. But where Big Data may be big, Small Data, collecting the information of the Smart Home, will be massive. It will be a continuing stream of data from probably 100 devices per internet connected home (600M homes are connected to the Internet today, and growing – and every home has probably 10 WiFi, Big Data, devices). Handling Small Data for 60B+ devices in 2025 for our Smart Homes will be interesting.

Smart Homes and Family Lifestyle Systems will become a complete new segment on their own. Both (Cable and Telco) Operators (for providing Lifestyle services) as well as Retailers (for DIY, Do-It-Yourself) installations are preparing to take advantage of this new opportunity.

The challenge at this moment is identifying the right business model: will it be hardware for free and paying via a monthly subscription fee (like with a phone subscription), or will consumers be asked to pay for the hardware? Different Operators are currently contemplating different offerings, and the future will tell. The data collected is private data, but Operators will try to extract valuable marketing information (like Google) from the data to help finance the system.

Another clear challenge will be security and privacy. Family Lifestyle Systems will not have uniquely challenging security requirements, especially compared to other even more private data that is currently shared over the internet, but in all fairness, it does further compound the challenge. Today security seems to be an escalating arms race between genuine companies, hackers and everyone in between, and that will continue to be the case.

ZigBee as a communication technology has already taken maximum precautions on security from the lower physical layers to the higher system levels, so the system as such will not be less secure than what we are used to today with WiFi and the internet.

Privacy is a related challenge. The good news is that for Family Lifestyle Systems to work these systems do not need the use of wearables or cameras. This is a big step forward compared to the expensive systems available today, which really intrude on privacy. In that sense the Smart Home is a big step forward in privacy.

Because of the self-learning character of these Life Style Systems, installation is as simple as connecting WiFi-devices today, or even simpler, because of the usage of guided installations via smart phones. Once the sensors are in place the system will be straightforward on its own, although also so-called ITTT (“If This Then That”-rule setting) modules can be added as well.

One more specific thing needs to be considered: what happens when the internet is down or the home router/gateway is down? It is clear that when systems evolve, and dependency on those systems increases, reliable and robust back-up systems are required. It reminds me of the wireless switch that I installed in my house, for a lamp in a corner. One evening the battery of the switch was dead, leaving me no choice than to unscrew the bulb to turn the lamp off.

One effective option is a store and forward process. As soon as the web connection is reconnected all the information is resent. In addition, the system delivers an alert to the family members’ smart phones that the internet connection is down or was down.

How do WiFi, Bluetooth and ZigBee compare?

So how do you connect the Smart Home to the various Sentrollers throughout the home? How do all the various sensors and appliances talk to each other? With over a 100 smart home devices predicted per house and with numerous WiFi devices and Bluetooth peripherals as well, there will be a lot of wireless communications needed.

WiFi (802.11x) is the well-known networking communication technology – heavy-duty and capable of carrying a load of multi-megabits per second. It is clearly overkill for the Smart Home which only requires the much smaller 250 Kb/s offered by ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4). The consequence is clearly the penalty on battery life that we are all familiar with WiFi devices. Where battery powered WiFi devices often need to be charged every day or so, battery powered ZigBee devices have a lifetime that is measured in years, or exceeding the life time of the sensor device, depending on the other functionality.

Bluetooth is a low power communication technology, but does not support networking. Technically Bluetooth could support networking, but that would require significant extension on how Bluetooth is known today, and that essentially turns it into what ZigBee does today. Years ago, the Bluetooth camp tried to market themselves as making WiFi redundant. Indeed technically everything that WiFi does can be done by Bluetooth, but it requires so much complexity, that it may be a good idea to skip it, and leave Bluetooth to what it is good at: connecting devices to a smart phone (or a tablet/computer), and use WiFi and ZigBee as networking technologies.

The key is that the different wireless technologies (Bluetooth, ZigBee and WiFi) complement each other can help to build alternative and back-up routes for situations in which the internet or the router connection is disrupted (see the picture below).

The Smart phone and the Smart Home

The practical assumption is that a smart phone has two wireless connections for the back-haul: the cellular connection for while being on the road and the WiFi connection when accessible (at home, at a hotspot, or even being in a train or on a plane), and the third wireless connection, Bluetooth to support the wearables. The Internet Router or Gateway at home will also support two wireless networking modes: WiFi for content sharing and distribution, ZigBee for sensors and controllers.

Critical devices in the home, like door locks will be equipped with both ZigBee, to connect them via the Router to the internet, and make the door lock controllable from any place in the world, and with Bluetooth, to enable a direct connection with a smart phone: at that moment the door lock has essentially become a temporary wearable to the smart phone, when the phone was brought closely to the lock. As soon as the internet connection with the lock is restored, the lock can reconnect to the internet to also take its place in the home network again – as part of the Family Lifestyle System.

Closing it off

It is almost impossible to assess the importance of wireless technologies in the upcoming future of the Smart Home and the Internet of Things. Today there are 600 million home “connected”, on average with on average 10 WiFi devices per household (computers, smart phones, tablets, TV’s, game stations, etc.).. 15 years from now, it is predicted that there will be 700 million homes with 100 ZigBee devices networked in every home (motion sensors, lights, thermostats, white goods, etc.) leading to the stunning number of 60 billion devices worldwide, requiring 70 billion radio devices.

It is also clear that the world of sentrollers will accelerate in the coming years: motion sensors, temperature sensors, open/close sensors, as well the web connected equipment being controlled by sensors. But what will be most important is that we will be able to understand, measure, influence and control the quality of our lives better than we have ever been able to. Compared to our cars, our homes are primitive right now. We should be able to easily increase our security and level of comfort, while reducing our energy bills, and enabling ourselves to live healthy lives at home.

A new decade is starting, where Smart Home is becoming a reality and the smart phone will become the dashboard of our Smart Home, together functioning as the drivers of the next technology curve – as the first chapter of the real Internet of Things, the Internet of Everything.