Belkin WeMo Switch +
Motion, the Nest Learning Thermostat, the GE Link Bulb and the Wink Connect
Home Hub (left to right).
Smart home technology feels futuristic. Some of it solves simple problems, like locking your front door with a smartphone. Some is science fiction come to life, making your house a living, breathing organism, with its internal systems working in concert. But these automated functions may be closer to everyday consumer reality than they appear.
“The connected home is going mainstream faster than anybody realizes,” reads a May headline in Quartz. The article cites a report that finds one in five adult Americans “already has a device at home that connects the physical environment to the Internet.”
Home automation’s move toward the consumer world is part of the rise of the “Internet of Things,” a complex concept that refers to physical objects with Internet connectivity that can link with other similarly enabled objects. Applying this to smart home technology, a variety of the devices, appliances or utilities in and around your home can “talk” to each other. Although much of this can happen on its own, what puts the consumer in control of this conversation is – what else? – a smartphone.
By connecting a smartphone to a smart home system like the Wink Connected Home Hub, you can do things like change the thermostat settings, monitor your home security system, turn lights on and off, make a pot of coffee, lock your front door, close your garage or even keep an eye on the family dog while you’re away.
CNET named the Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion the best home automation entry point, at $50. For this one, you don’t even need to break out the toolbox – the system plugs right into any wall outlet. It uses one button, its mobile app is free and it’s compatible with a motion sensor for an extra $30. The motion detector will send you text updates and is “ultra-customizable” in integrating to Web services and apps you’re already familiar with. So, for example, when you return home from work on Friday evening, you can set it up so your favorite song will blast through the house, getting you pumped for the weekend.
More complex home automation controllers certainly require more complicated installation. But even some of the higher-end models boast being as easy as installing a light switch. Or screwing in a light bulb. With the GE Link bulb, lighting can be controlled remotely with a smartphone app. Through a wireless hub, dimming or highlighting an entire room or entire house is possible from anywhere, anytime, with the touch of a finger.
Amazon’s ever-growing home automation department has thousands of products in the categories of energy and lighting, monitoring and security, entertainment, wearable tech, and other sections, and many of the big-box stores have growing departments of their own. There, you can dive into niche-based products, more advanced controllers, or the more sci-fi type stuff, like the Nest Learning Thermostat, which programs itself after identifying how and when you use your home utilities.
Consumers can expect this technology to gain mass appeal, as giants from the tech world throw tons of money at smart homes. Apple is working on smart home hardware, Amazon is beefing up its investments in the technology, and Microsoft is launching a start-up accelerator focused on home automation. Meanwhile, Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion in early 2014.
To be sure, as smart homes become more common, challenges will arise. Ensuring security will be a vital component of its larger acceptance, and as with any new technology, the unexpected is to be expected. But with developments like these, the machines might be on our side after all.