Home automation is with us for many decades. And for all those years, when you know where to look, you could have the future running in your house.
The first question that arises is “what is it?” It starts with terminology, e.g. in Europe the term ‘domotics’ is often used, or ‘domotique’ in French or ‘domotica’ in Dutch. Home automation is more American, and also smart or intelligent house is often used. Although you could use these terms as synonyms, there is more then a particular flavor to each.
However, if you ask an ordinary citizen what is home automation and if they have it at their place; you will probably get a blank expression back. And then if you tell them it is about home toys, they will relax: “Oh, it’s ‘toys for the boys’, go have fun, I go on with my life.”
The most striking definition of domotics came forward two years ago when I edited a domotics trend analysis, which, after two years, is still remarkable accurate: “domotics (or home automation) is something that doesn’t work; as soon as it works we do not call it domotics anymore ?”.
State of the art
Especially in America home automation, as a low cost easy to install system, is probably best known in relation to X10 applications. Based on the power cabling a wide variety of home management and control solutions are available (www.x10.com or www.hometoys.com) . X10 mainly directs the switching of lights and all kind of appliances (by managing the power plug).
Also in Europe you have many systems, but they are more based on installation by professional, and to an increasing extend based on more open standards like EIB and Konnext. But either by wireless remote control or computer controlled management a remarkable versatile and flexible in house service and comfort situation can be achieved. At present a new group of home automation solutions are offered in relation to wireless television and camera system, directed either to flexible in house locations of viewing television (including remote use of your video or DVD recorder), or simple surveillance applications like viewing the baby room, the front door or your garden. Even more recently wireless safety and security systems are coming on the market. An intriguing example is the system of Trust, which you might know as a vendor of computer peripherals. May we expect Microsoft to be offering home automation in the near future?
Based on telephony you also see directions of development. Most visible are probably the telephony based home care systems which a range of services to support elderly and less or disabled people. Primarily this is directed towards calling external help in cases of emergency, but often also functionality in included like simple burglary alarm of fire safety components. In Europe you also see new safety and security applications and services based on mobile GSM telephony, which in Europe is much wider spread then in America.
Specific, non integrated one issue solutions, however, do not add up to mature home automation systems. First there is not much of interoperability between systems. You can buy specific systems directed towards a specific task. But at that time you are in a lock-in situation. Your system won’t communicate or integrate with other systems and probably even worse; you know that technology is developing very rapidly and that it is very likely that your system will already be obsolete when you are unpacking. Maybe not in the sense that it is not functioning any more, but that new systems, even from the same vendor, will perform better or are easier to operate. And you may only hope that replacement parts of your system will still be available in the (near) future.
Secondly it is also hardly possible to exchange a part of a system by a component of an other brand. Of course from a technology point of view it won’t be too hard. If you know enough about Mhz and you understand the specifications of your systems, you might be able to manage a multi-vendor system. But then you must know what you are doing, and that means it is not for the general public or user friendly neither to choose nor to install and operate; and that brings home automation back to the niche of ‘home toys’.
What also is lacking about traditional home automation systems is that they are confined inside your home. For a bit of luxury and comfort that’s OK. But what happens if you are away and you had a power failure, who is switching on your freezer again? Or can you have your television reprogrammed online without having a service person coming to your house? Or can you check that your heating system is functioning (and switch it on or reboot) when there is a sudden cold and you are away for a few days.
With computer appliances this direction is already visible with, for example high end printers which automatically arrange maintenance if a malfunction arises. Of course there are systems that can do that, but again you must know what to look for and know what you are doing. Although many home automation systems support functionality for dial-in communication, this are specific vendor dependent solutions.
More in general for communications with the outside world you have the concept of a residential gateway. However, these systems are still in their infancy. Many questions have not been addressed yet, let alone that they are fully operational in the sense that they are open systems able to interface with all kind of devices and appliances. Probably the main question is … who will be the service provider for your residential gateway. Will it be the power company? Then it might be more of metering system?. Will it be your telephone or television company? Will it be a broadband system? But you have no cable or are more interested in satellite services? And why broadband if you are only interested in checking your heating system, switching on your freezer and such. You only need to be able to get a few bits over the line and not Mbytes. And even worse, how does your residential gateway knows how to communicate with all these devices and appliances?
A general article about exchanges/gateways is Design Challenges for Home Gateway Devices by Satish Gupta.
As a kind of revival, the internet is developing towards new functionality. At present we know internet of course from e-mailing and web browsing. One, two years ago internet was highly valued as a new revolution regarding communications with all wide range of very promising e-commerce applications. With the dip in technology funds and the bankruptcy of many e-companies internet is not easy money anymore. As a first step towards internet connectivity you see solutions based on a kind of in-between box as an exchange between on the one hand internet (either internally within in a building or the world wide internet) and on the other hand the actual proprietary network, devices and applications. On the hometoys website examples of such solutions are the proprietary XC-LAN box between thermostats and the network or the OMNI LT gateway. Also X10 solutions for internet connectivity are available like HCAweb, which makes it possible to manage your in-house X10 devices by a web interface, accessible form anywhere on the world.
The functionality of gateway boxes to the internet differ considerably. Mostly they are proprietary products for connecting specific home automation systems to the net. Sometimes they are more open boxes suitable for connecting a range of devices and appliances. To be able to connect a specific device or appliance to such ‘open’ gateway specific protocols have be made for translating a internet call to the appropriate command to manage the specific devices. Examples are emware, ORCA by Delta Controls or the Commander by North Communications. Interesting is that both these products are based on BACnet as the protocol for communicating with specific devices. This BACnet is a standardization initiative form the ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers). Although BACnet is intended to be widely application towards building automation it is not very widely implemented yet. In contrast to this more or less formal standardization process there are solutions like LON Works that started as a bottom up development (like internet itself) but has developed in a widely used, (nearly) de facto standard, with i.LON as their gateway to internet connectivity.
Internet, however, offers much more potential than only as a communication gateway. The advantage of internet also enables an application independent cabling infrastructure, which in practice is part of the computer and data infrastructure, enabling new applications like voice over IP and IP-based video conferencing. In this sense internet, or better the internet protocols are developing into a versatile, application independent layer between at the bottom the hardware and software infrastructure and at the top the specific applications. For those who had some computer training this is a simplified representation of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model from the late 80’s.
Source: CISCO in a Dutch Senter publication about innovation (2001)
In the past, and to some or even a large extend still today, building automation was based on proprietary systems including a proprietary cabling covering all the corners of a building. With the new internet based approach the monitoring can be done on any computer on the network using a simple browser as interface. And when a world wide internet connection is available the monitoring and maintenance could be done from anywhere in the world. In this sense internet technology can even be used as part of a vendor specific system, with internet being an independent non-proprietary communication infrastructure for covering the distance between the individual components and/or groups of components to the central management and monitoring systems.
The next step is that devices, components and appliances are directly accessible and not by means of an intermediary internet gateway. At present the only ‘real’ internet enabled devices I have come across are the IP-camera’s.
An IP-camera is a camera with an embedded web browser. Such a camera can be connected directly to an TCP/IP infrastructure and from the internet both as an intranet or even on the world wide internet the camera can be viewed, but also monitored, managed and maintained by a standard web browser. This solution should not be mistaken for a webcam that is connected to a PC on the internet. The IP-camera’s are high quality camera’s with high resolutions, all kind of light compensation settings, actions controls, levels of access and, depending on make and type, include features like motion detection, double (infra red) camera, loudspeaker, microphone, serial interface for switching other devices and even analog connectors making such an IP-camera a switch/converter itself. And on the management side all kind of integrated solutions towards storing and handling data. Interesting is, that opposed to many home and building automation solutions, most of the IP-camera’s available are of non-American origin with brands like the Swedish AXIS, the German Mobotix, the UK IndigoVision or the Korean Unimo .
Internet technology applied to home automation as is described above is more or less standard internet, i.e. making devices, components and appliances web aware so that managing and monitoring can be done by web browser. A rather new direction is the development of internet into an intelligent network. Not only are the devices and components IP-enabled, but they are also aware of other components on the net and are capable to interact directly with each other without human interference or a central management computer; when the door opens, the light, heating, and ventilation ‘know’ that they should become active.
Regarding the Babelonic issue of language and protocols needed for addressing components, devices and appliances it is not unlikely that XML, the object oriented version of HTML that is used for web pages, will emerge as a strong candidate. Another interesting development will be the migration of present internet version 4 to version 6, which will make it possible to give each component or appliances an unique internet IP-address.
As I stated at the beginning of this article, knowing where to look it is possible to see and implement tomorrows world already today. In general, however, internet connectivity is still in it’s infancy, and a lot of development may be expected. Most (proprietary) systems will get an internet gateway of some sort. A large question mark is to what extend ‘fully’ IP-enabled devices and appliances will come to the market. As described above at this moment only IP-camera’s are really IP-enabled with an integrated web server. Initially it looks a bit overdone to embed a complete web server in a device like a motion detector which only gives a 1 or 0 depending if motion is detected or not. However technology is become cheaper and cheaper and it is not unlikely that a stripped web server could come down to a few Euro’s.
Hin Oey ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is working at Senter an agency of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. He is in charge of an incentive program promoting innovative technology applications towards crime prevention. The projects included an trend analysis regarding home automation and more recent a study regarding the innovative capacity of the Dutch safety and security industry, with absorbing internet developments as a key reference issue. At present he is working on a study pinpointing more concrete the potential and possible effects of networked based safety and security systems, including strategic considerations like new entrants like IT and telecom companies, based on the five forces model of Porter.