Home Automation Is Hung Up On Software - ZVEIL

Home Automation Is Hung Up On Software

by Mike Szczys August 02, 2016

Home automation is a favorite in sci-fi, from Tony Stark’s Jarvis, to Rosie the robotic maid on the Jetsons, and even the sliding doors pulled by a stagehand Star Trek. In fact, most people have a favorite technology that should be just about ready to make an appearance in their own home. So where are these things? We asked you a few weeks ago and the overwhelming answer was that the software just isn’t there yet.

We’re toddling through the smart home years, having been able to buy Internet-connected garage doors and thermostats for some time now. But for the most part all of these systems are islands under one roof. Automation is the topic of the current challenge for the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Developing the glue that can hold all of these pieces together would make a great entry. Why doesn’t that glue yet exist?

I think the problem is really twofold. On the one hand, there isn’t a clear way to make many devices work under one software. Second, there really isn’t an obvious example of great user experience when it comes to home automation. Let’s look at why and talk about what will eventually get us there.

Human Interface

Home Automation boils down to adding an automated layer between the people in the house and the human interfaces that control the house. This is actually a pretty hard sell. Do you lights need to be automated? Isn’t it just lazy that you can’t get up and press a light switch that works instantly without need of anything other than reliable mains power?

That’s a tough question. Is your dishwasher a symbol of your laziness? After all, you still need to scrape any leftovers off, load the rack, run the thing, and empty it again. Now that I think of it, automating a dishwasher further would be a great entry too. But my point is that before widespread adoption a lot of people must have thought that needing an automatic dishwasher was lazy but now they’re highly desired. For smart homes to become widespread we need to make the benefits much greater than the pain of the transition.

A Tale of Two Switches

WeMo WiFi light switch to the left of two "dumb" switches
WeMo WiFi light switch to the left of two “dumb” switches

I happen to have two smarter-than-average light switches in my house. One is an actual Internet of Things Thing — a WeMo Light Switch — the other is a non-connected switch with some fancy features. The WeMo controls my porch light which I want it to turn on at dusk and turn off at 11pm. For six years I used a switch with a programmable display that was a huge pain to set and reset as the length of days and time offset changed. It finally died (which a switch should never do) and I bought this one that has WiFi but the software is horrible and as much of a pain as the old switch. After the stock setup didn’t work I was thankfully able to get reliable service by switching to IFTTT to control it and haven’t touched it since. After that experience I don’t want to.

Earlier this summer I upgraded to LED recessed lighting in my living room. It’s waaaaay too bright and I needed a dimmer. I knew this was going to be an issue so I considered opting for a Wink Hub and the recessed lights and switch that go with it. I ended up with non-radio-controlled (normal) lights and a Lutron Maestro dimmer switch. This thing is awesome! You can easily set its min and max brightness for your lights, but you don’t have to. Use a double-tap for full brightness when you turn it on but it still remembers your dimmer setting. A long-press to shut off gives you about a minute to get out of the room before shutting down.

Lutron Mestro dimmer is not dumb but not quite smart
Lutron Mestro dimmer is not dumb but not quite smart

A think the WeMo switch hardware is excellent. But considering the two switches, I love the Lutron and have a bad opinion of the WeMo for no other reason than a bad software setup experience. This is the core of the problem with Home Automation: the user can’t separate a bad software experience from the hardware, and since they pay good money for the hardware they are likely to be turned off to any further automation adventures.

Hardware Lock-In

The concept that hardware costs money and software doesn’t is part of the bigger problem. Hardware manufacturers have every incentive to build software that only works with their hardware — they make no money if you use their free app/website/etc. to run another manufacturer’s hardware. This is a pretty tough issue to tackle.

But it does go beyond that. Let’s say a hardware manufacturer were to allow third party hardware to run with their system. If that third party stuff works poorly it may sour the consumer’s opinion of the entire system. Again, this issue doesn’t have a clear solution.

I want to hear what you think about it — is the power of the pocket book (what technologies we buy and don’t buy) the only leverage we have in this situation? What can we do to encourage manufacturers not to lock down their hardware systems to a proprietary ecosystem?

We’ve Solved This Before

Look to the PC industry. You can run the same program on a Dell, Acer, Asus, or Toshiba laptop. You can even change the operating system you run on those machines, and for that matter, software companies can make their products work on Macs. It’s because there are standards for defining what hardware is in these computers so that compilers may be built, and standards for how these computers communicate with the outside world (USB, Ethernet, WiFi, etc.). We need this for non-computer computing devices like lights, light switches, refrigerators, security cameras, doorbells, robot maids, and the like.

We Need a Software Champion

We need to separate hardware from software so the hardware companies can do what they’re best at — build affordable devices that work reliably year in and year out. I don’t think this can happen until a clear software champion (or group of champions) appears. This means an intuitive interface that your average human can understand, configure, and intuitively operate at the same level you can operate a light switch.

This is a really hard problem. How do you think it should be approached? What is the incentive for someone to build these software tools? Get the conversation started below. As with the last installment I’ll pick out some of the most interesting comments and send out Hackaday t-shirts. From the last discussion we sent shirts out to [aleksclark], [DaveW], [Dax], [fountside], [Ian Lee], [j0z0r], [jan], [maxzillian], [Neil Cherry], and [sangwiss].

Are you into DIY home automation? Now’s a great time to show off some of your work. Enter your project now for the Automation challenge of the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Twenty entries will win $1000 each and go on to the vie for the grand prize of $150,000.


Filed under: home hacks, slider, The Hackaday Prize

Mike Szczys
Mike Szczys

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