At the Core: Holidays and the connected home

Greetings and happy December 29, iMore! The major winter holidays have mostly passed us by, and hopefully you've survived — and dare I hope, enjoyed — the family get-togethers, the excess food, and terrible party games.

Some of you are undoubtedly back at work today, while others are still enjoying the last fragments of a winter vacation. Me, I'm somewhere in-between. Clearly, I'm at work today (well, that, or robo-Serenity has gotten much better at writing columns in the last two weeks) but I'm doing so from my parents' new house, sitting on the couch in front of our Christmas tree.

It's a nice view — much comfier than my office back in Massachusetts. But staring at that tree today got me thinking. We're venturing ever closer to 2015, and 2014's technology has brought us ever closer to the ideal "home of the future". But I'm not sure if we're there yet.

Moving day

My folks recently moved, and have been using that as an excuse to update a lot of the technology in their lives. There's a new television in the living room, new wiring in the new house's walls, and, yes, new connected home accessories.

Some of these things — like the Smart TV and their new Nest — were items my folks had already picked out for their house. Others I introduced during pre-Christmas unpacking and furnishing. We couldn't find our old light timer while setting up the Christmas tree this year, so I had my dad pick up a WeMo switch instead.

My mother, at first very wary of the WeMo, has grown to love it, and takes ridiculous enjoyment from being able to snap the Christmas lights off and on from across the house. (Okay, I do too. Remote controlled anything is fun!)

But at what point does this connected home stuff become gadgetry at the expense of actual practicality? I like the Nest; being able to make the house warmer before I get out of bed is kind of spectacular, and it's nice not to have to crawl behind our 9 foot Christmas tree to turn those lights on or off.

I mentioned my folks' new connected-home obsession during a visit with my former boss (and new Six Colors head honcho) Jason Snell yesterday. Jason's a smart guy, and also one who's been living with a variety of iOS-controlled gadgets for awhile now. He had a couple of very legitimate frustrations about the space as it currently exists, which got me to thinking.

For one, all these different manufacturers can't really talk to each other — at least, not currently. Apple's HomeKit in theory promises to solve a lot of these problems and connect the Internet of Physical Things together, but it hasn't happened yet. Until it does, we're controlling our smart home with one, five, ten, fifteen different apps. They may not be as hard to find as remotes for your television, but I'm still awfully looking forward to some sort of universal connector. (Perhaps the next-generation Apple TV could serve as such a hub; there's certainly plenty of groundwork there, given that it's a device that can be plugged in 24/7 with little power draw.)

There's also the convenience factor. Yes, I love being able to turn off the Christmas tree from afar or adjust the sound on the Sonos Playbar from the next room because it's too loud, but does Internet-connectivity really make sense for every appliance? General room lighting, for example: Is it really more convenient to find your iPhone, turn it on, find the app in question, find the button for lights, and tap it versus walking over to the light switch on the wall and turning it off?

The future connected home

Maybe this is where Siri and HomeKit come in. I could see a teensy combination voice-receiver/sensor in every room — a less expensive, less weird version of Amazon's Echo (opens in new tab), perhaps — that let you adjust lights, cookware, your thermostat, the works by speaking a few catchphrases. Or maybe we'll soon already have it, and it will be worn on our wrists rather than in our room corners.

That said... given examples from The Jetsons, 30 Rock, and our own recent experience with "Hey Siri", I'm not sure it's really the best idea to let voice activation run wild. Perhaps if it's done very well — if Apple's engineers can figure out how to key differences between a catchphrase spoken in regular speech and one spoken directly to Siri. (And if the microphone can understand the difference between "microwave" and "make an egg".)

Until we see some sort of unification, the connected home ends up being more like a piecemeal gadgetry collection than a magic abode — there are bits that work well individually; there are bits that seem utterly half-baked; and then there are bits that don't make sense at all. (Smart trash cans? I get why they're helpful for cities, but in the home, it just seems like an excuse for a silly nag notification.)

Even though we're not there yet, however, we're closer than ever before. I think a lot about the last room in Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, a strange 1994-era time capsule of what life in the 2000s could look like. We've got a lot of that pseudo-futuristic technology in our lives already. VR headsets are on their way. Wirelessly sending video from one screen to another has been a thing for years. Smart lights are now in the spotlight. And yes, we even have our share of voice-activated goofups.

No, the reality may not quite be where we want it to be. But the dream of the connected home is bright, and I'm sure I'll see untold more teases and prototypes at CES next week — which just so happens to be held in the year 2015. 2015! It seems crazy we've come this far.

And hey, if nothing else, I was promised hoverboards.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • "For one, all these different manufacturers can't really talk to each other — at least, not currently" - that's because they choose not to as home automation communication standards have been around for a while. Apple certainly isn't going to change that unless Apple pulls a Google and starts buying the companies. The current leader in this field is Bang & Olufsen as the future you are waiting for is pretty much here.
  • Fair, though those systems require buying into the whole Bang & Olufsen experience — you can't necessarily mix and match, say, a Nest thermostat with a B&O speaker system. Also, $$$. But yeah, a version of that future is definitely available if you want to pay a price, great point.
  • I think this is the solution we were talking about. Sent from the iMore App
  • SmartThings?
  • I own a WeMo Switch and a Philips Hue with a few bulbs. WeMo is garbage. Hue is genius, and the difference between the two represents everything that's right and wrong ideas of a connected home. WeMo is garbage. Good grief, even the physical design of the product is poor. It's ugly and hulking. It blocks access to the unused plug in a typical 2 plug wall outlet. and really, the thing is ugly enough that I wouldn't want it seen dangling from my wall. What's worse is the fact that it's a closed system. It works with iOS, but support for making Mac apps is nonexistent. Think about it logically. At first, it's great having access to it on your phone, but if you use it often, reaching for your phone, waking your phone and opening the app... well... it grows old fast. Yeah, it works using ifTTT, but there's always a delay and that's not an optimal solution. On the other hand, look at Philips Hue. Again, it uses an iOS app, but reaching for the app grows old fast. Ah, but Philips also created an open and well documented API for it, so you can control Hue using any platform you want. Using the API, I wrote applescripts to do some really neat things with my Hue, ranging from different settings for work, ambiance, etc, plus a 15 minute ramp-down setup that slowly dims my lights before turning them completely off. I use this each night when going to bed. It's great! I have a bunch of hotkeys on my Mac to control my Hue, and with BetterTouchTool, I programmed those hotkeys into my universal remote, which means my lights with various settings are at my fingertips. It's an awesome system. I also love that there's a Geofence option for Hue. My lights turn on when I get within a block of my home if it's after sunset. Nice! WeMo is garbage. Typical Belkin shoddy design. I got mine for $25 and I still think I paid too much. Philips Hue costs $200 for 3 bulbs and the bridge, which seemed pricey, but after owning it for a while, that felt like a bargain. Hue is something I can't say enough good things about. If you're into home automation, you'll probably love Philips Hue.
  • So is it safe to invest in automation products like the WeMo switch, and now the WeMo space heater, humidifier, etc? Will HomeKit work WeMo products or is it too early to know?
  • Ultimately this stuff has to be easier than what we have now, ie— a switch on the wall, and just as reliable. We are getting there... I have a Nest, some wemo stuff and Sonos. Sonos, while not "home automation" best represents what the technology can bring. Previously, if you wanted to play music in different rooms of your home, it was a complex, inflexible affair, not even counting the installation. Now, plug in some Sonos speakers, and use the app to pick music and to which rooms to play to. By my account it's 100x easier and far more reliable. The other issue I have with a lot of this stuff is not only are they using different technologies, but they all have an obnoxious lag to them, especially when you're dealing with wifi. IMHO, mesh network stuff like zwave and zigbee as well as bluetooth are far better suited to the task. Sonos uses a proprietary wireless tech that works really well. They all still need to have normal wifi or ethernet connectivity to your router (and internet), but I think one of the hurdles these companies need to get past is the app-to-execution speed. I've been wanting to try a hub that incorporates all of the different wireless technologies (such as Smartthings), but I'm kinda waiting to see how homekit evolves and if Apple maybe decides to turn the Apple TV into a hub of sorts before taking that plunge.
  • I still see a big future for this (after about 20 years of it "coming soon") especially when something like Siri is factored in to avoid having to use lots of different apps, but there are two issues at the moment- The first is that the reliability on some of these is poor- the LightwaveRF system I bought is very unreliable and slow, whether being controlled from the hub, or from a light switch. The second is that we don't know what will work with HomeKit yet, so it isn't safe to invest a lot in any system that may turn out to be closed.
  • Hi Serenity nice article - ia am a fan of connected house with hue lights (much better now with a widget), webcam to watch kids, netatmo weather station but the coolest is automated lawn sprinklers - if you like to switch the tree lights try to run sprinklers off your iphone as a party trick;). I'm now looking into locks and intercom but need wifi lock not bluetooth as it is for the garden door 20m from the house anyone has good experience with something? And skybell 2 for intercom?
  • I have been able to tie my different systems together into one app, controlled by one master hub, the VeraLite. This Zwave hub sees all WiFi objects in my house and, along with APIs for each technology, allows me control from one app, VeraMate. The wifi lights, WeMo switches, security cameras, garage door opener, and my Nest are all visible and controllable here. Until a standard is set, this works fairly well for us in our home.