It’s 2020 — Is Your Home Smart?
At Outer Labs, a lot of our work focuses on using digital services to improve the built environment. Most of the time we’re looking at commercial spaces. But, since we’re a distributed company, I spend quite a bit of my time working from home. It was only a matter of time before I started hacking around with smart home technology.
Apparently, I’m not the only one — as of 2019, 1 in 4 Americans already have a smart speaker in their home. In a relatively recent NPR story on smart home technology, Dave Garland of NAR’s Second Century Ventures summarized it as a growing expectation of consumers to create “A personalized environment that responds to your every need.” I thought it would be fun to elaborate on that sentiment based on my own experience personalizing my home.
After all, it’s 2020! Have we achieved our vision of the future?
First things first — connectivity is like oxygen to a smart home. I’d recommend investing in a Wi-Fi solution that’s robust enough to keep everything running smoothly. Network latency and timeouts are going to be extremely noticeable, so a reliable connection will help avoid a lot of frustrating moments as you interact with your devices.
My home’s floor plan makes it difficult to get a strong and consistent signal from a single router, so I looked into wireless mesh systems. Mesh systems are great because access points work together in the background to provide seamless connectivity using the same network name and password. Google recently introduced Nest Wi-Fi, which is a no-brainer if you’re installing any other Nest products like the thermostat or doorbell. The Wi-Fi, speakers, and software are all integrated by Google, so it basically “just works” (until it doesn’t).
Setup is simple using the Google Home app, which essentially becomes your command center for all things smart home. The Home app also makes it easy to set up a guest network (more secure), check connectivity, prioritize devices and share the password with visitors.
You can, of course, also go the non-Google route for a wireless mesh. There are a ton of mesh vendors, but Google is currently the only one that also integrates a speaker and software platform for interacting with smart home devices.
Voice Activation & Assistants
Speakers and voice activation are often the centerpiece of smart home technology. Google, Alexa (Amazon), and Siri (Apple) are duking it out — currently, Amazon leads in market share, Google is gaining fast, and Apple is pretty far behind (source: voicebot.ai). Fortunately, most smart home device vendors appear to support Google, Apple, and Alexa somewhat interchangeably. In fact, all three have formed an industry working group to promote cross-platform compatibility for devices.
I mentioned earlier that Nest Wi-Fi also integrates speakers and microphones into their access points. This means the basic infrastructure for, “Hey Google…” throughout our house was added alongside connectivity. That makes a ton of sense for Google strategically, and I think it was also appreciated as a consumer wanting to reduce the clutter of multiple devices.
For many, the “home assistant” idea may seem gimmicky (or creepy) at first. Smart vendors generally provide apps that turn your mobile device into a remote control, so the assistant is for times when voice really is more convenient. The assistant can also be trained to recognize individual voices, which has become an important feature to check off the list. Voice recognition enables personalization that is essential in a family setting, where things like musical tastes and automated routines are unique to the user.
Another unexpected and heavily used feature in our home is the “broadcast” feature, turning all speakers into a bi-directional intercom system. Instead of shouting, you can just ask your assistant to send your message to all rooms with a speaker. Pestering my daughter to get ready in the morning has never been so easy, although it may already be backfiring — she recently learned how to broadcast tantrums from her room.
Music and Speakers
The music and speaker integrations are absolutely why I’ve bought into the smart home concept. In our house, there’s no phrase more frequently used than, “Hey Google, play music.” Thankfully, Spotify plugs right in as our default music provider. And, since we have voice recognition, each person can access their own library of music using Spotify Premium Family from any room simultaneously.
It’s also easy to create “speaker groups” that stay in sync. This was a lifesaver for us because we have some older built-in ceiling speakers. I was able to connect these speakers to a digital signal using Chromecast Audio (discontinued, but still supported) and an amplifier, so we can control them using the same voice-activation as everything else. I’ve done the same thing with a subwoofer to round out the living room speaker group. In total, our living room has 6 overhead speakers, the subwoofer, and an additional Google speaker to handle voice-command.
Worth mentioning that I could have done something similar using Sonos Connect. However, it’s way more expensive than the DIY approach, and from what I can tell it doesn’t work with the Google Assistant. Also, Google has discontinued Chromecast Audio with no clear alternative for this use case.
Overall, the experience is totally sweet. I joke with my colleagues that I’ve re-created the WeWork ambiance at home, so my family can justify the cost of being my family member.
Temperature control was another reason I got into smart home technology. Our original thermostat was impossible to operate, requiring seemingly random sequences of buttons and exotic dances to configure. Nest in comparison is a simple rotating dial, accessible via an intuitive app. There’s the additional value proposition of “learning” our preferences, along with a lower energy bill. The other day it even reminded me to change the air filter. Like other Google products, you connect to the Nest Thermostat using the Google Home app and it “just works” (most of the time).
Similar to wireless coverage, our floorplan makes it difficult to get a consistent read on temperature. To address this, we’ve added three temperature sensors throughout our home. I was glad I did — as it turns out, the temperature in our house varies by 4–6 degrees depending on the room. Using the Nest app, you can tell your HVAC which sensor to prioritize at any given moment. So, if you’re typically sitting in the Family Room watching TV at 6 pm, it will work juuuuust hard enough to make that room your desired temp. Overall, it’s saving us a lot of energy. Before we added sensors, our heater was working throughout the night to keep the living room warm, since that is where the main thermostat is located. Now, with the sensors, the heater shuts off as soon as our bedrooms hit the optimal comfort level. After just one day of watching average temperatures, I found a setting that kept our furnace off for most of the night.
Smart lights are definitely more interesting than they sound. We have an abundance of stairs, so, “Hey Google, turn off the lights” adds up pretty quickly when you’re already warm in bed or rushing out the door. We haven’t gone too crazy, but there are a few different options on the market:
- Light bulbs with Wi-Fi connectivity, which are ideal for controlling lights with their switches (like floor lamps and table lamps)
- Wall switches with Wi-Fi connectivity, controlling fixtures like overhead and external lighting.
- Wall sockets with Wi-Fi connectivity, controlling anything plugged into them.
So far, we’re using the first option — a variety of LIFX LED bulbs, which claim to last an impressive 20 years on average (based on roughly 2–3 hours of daily use). All of our LIFX bulbs have a brightness setting, and their app can set a schedule for each light. Scheduling and remote control is a big deal for security reasons, but also because our child likes to doze off with her light on.
Now I can automatically ramp down the brightness of her night light and transition it to red light, which improves sleep.
More impressive however is the intelligence of voice activation on the Google side of things. When you think about it, the phrase, “Turn off the light” can mean different things depending on the context. If the light in the room is on, it does what I expect and turns the light off. If a light is on in a different room, Google figures out which one I’m probably referring to, and turns it off. These are small, but humanizing factors that make it kind of exciting.
Doorbell & Security
Sticking with our largely Google-dominated infrastructure, we recently installed a Nest Hello doorbell. We had a couple of specific reasons for making the purchase:
- We didn’t have a doorbell, and constantly worried we were going to miss a guest or delivery.
- For security reasons, we’d like to have video recordings of what goes on outside of our house.
After just a short time with the doorbell, it was clear that the tech was not just cool or interesting, but actually quite valuable. The doorbell has a video camera running 24/7, and it does a great job of detecting changes in sound, motion and actual people. Lately, it seems like more crimes in our area have been thwarted or resolved using these recordings. It can recognize faces (or not) and announce arrivals over the speaker system and smartphone apps.
Both the Google Home and Nest apps can pull up the live feed and talk with visitors no matter where you are. However, the Nest app has more features, like the ability to rewind, filter and scrub through daily events.
If you’re not into Google, checkout Ring by Amazon. Equally good, I imagine.
The Other Kind of Security
A colleague also reminded me of a recent story about some folks who were harassed by a hacker using their smart home devices. It’s hard to use this technology without considering that risk.
There really isn’t a silver bullet other than to disconnect entirely. However, some basic security measures will go a long way:
- Use a password manager like LastPass or 1Password to create and remember unique username/password combinations for each site you visit — strength through differentiation.
- Use two-factor authentication to authorize new devices logging in with your username and password.
- Create a guest network for your home so visiting devices are quarantined, and cannot spread their illnesses.
There are also some really compelling arguments for the government to get involved with regulation to ensure security standards are being met. I’ll leave that insanely thorny topic for others to debate, and just say that it’s entirely your choice. Personally, I’d like to welcome our new technology overlords.
Sadly, “smart” appliances like ovens, washers, dryers, etc. really aren’t. Our GE oven range and LG washer/dryer appliances require us to “remotely enable” them every time they’re to be used by an app. Without this, most of the commands are disabled. For example, I need to walk over to my oven to enable remote access before I can ask Google to set its temperature to 400 degrees.
Remote baking — important? No, but I’d be into status updates from these appliances. Direct questions like, “Are my clothes dry?” would be helpful. Or, a notification that my oven reached 400 degrees might be a more consistent experience. The LG app does push its notifications to your smartphone. Google Home is however largely oblivious to these events, so don’t expect a heads up over the intercom.
Our Roomba is also a bit of a dumbass, but we still love the little guy.
TV is also not what I had hoped for. The problem may be our Sony Bravia, which has Chromecast built-in. Even as higher-end 4K it seems to be stuck in the land of under-powered and forgotten Android devices.
I can ask my Nest Wi-Fi speaker to play music or video, and have it turn on the TV. The TV readily opens its Spotify app and plays music out of our Bose soundbar (which sounds great). But the TV doesn’t know how to do normal Home stuff, like join a speaker group or move music to a different location.
It also doesn’t play nice with Apple TV (shocker), which is a bummer because Apple TV is great. An alternative, or perhaps only option for other TVs, is Chromecast using the HDMI port. But, to be honest, I’m still not sure it would be better than Apple TV.
Once you have the basic stuff up and running, you can ask the Google Assistant to perform “routines”. Routines are like complex jobs, or a series of tasks rolled into a single command. For example, saying, “I’m awake” will stop my alarm, tell me the weather, play “Eye of The Tiger”, turn on lights in three rooms, wake my daughter up, queue up some cartoons on Netflix, crank up the heat to a subtropical 80 degrees then order me a pizza while I put on shorts BECAUSE IT’S SATURDAY.
I also have routines for leaving the house, going to bed, party-mode, etc. The range of customization is still a bit limited, but I suspect Google will improve this as their assistant becomes smarter. IFTTT (If This, Then That) also integrates with Google Assistant, extending the range of access to other services like email, text messages, Facebook, etc. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I could probably have my “party mode” routine let Facebook friends know there’s a party at Karl’s house, or play a heavy metal alert when Bitcoin surges.
You probably don’t need any of this stuff — nobody really needs any of it. But it is cool, it will change the way you think about your most personalized environment, and it will eventually become the new normal. In the grand scheme, it has the potential to save everyone time and energy, which is generally the idea behind technology.
We may not have Able Mabel, but maybe that creepy backflipping robot will take up baking. It’s also more and more likely you’ll walk into an electronics store (which still exist) and see nothing but smart home gadgets. In fact, at some point, this goes mainstream and I’d assume we stop calling it smart.
I expect to see luxury housing developers lead the charge by selling an experience to homebuyers. In fact, The X Company and Lennar are good examples of ones that already are. Why mess around with your own Wi-Fi, thermostat, doorbell and speaker installations when the developer can provide turnkey experiences? It makes even more sense for rentals, which may need new ways to attract and keep tenants in a competitive market. For tenants, who aren’t as willing or able to make significant improvements to a unit they do not own, it’s harder to leave an experience that “just works.
There’s a reason why you might continue to use the same app, fly the same airline or shop at the same store over and over. We can say the same for the places we spend a lot of our time — personalization improves the experience over time, and a better experience improves retention.
Content originally published by outer labs
January 6, 2020
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