Your house is getting smarter - and your phone is the brain
23rd Apr 2014 | 15:25
The technology of today and the promise of tomorrow
Smartphones are nice and feature-stocked these days, but we know what the phone buying hoardes are like: everyone wishes they did more. Sure, you can tweet from them, but we want them to be able to cook us dinner and take the robot vacuum for a walk.
The good news is that's a future which may be closer than you think.
We're already on our way there, as phones are gradually connecting us more to other devices. For example many smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One, now have infrared blasters, which can be used to control televisions, set top boxes and even air conditioners, removing the need for a separate remote.
But as the internet of things takes off (and the universe of things expands) more devices are becoming smart and connected, more and more potential is being unlocked in smartphones; before long they may be the brain of homes everywhere.
And if your smartphone is the brain, your router is the heart, as most smart devices are connected via Wi-Fi, so your router keeps it all going and keeps everything connected.
A lot can be done already, though in many cases it requires additional setup costs. Apple AirPlay lets you stream or mirror photos, videos and games from your iOS device to your HDTV, allowing you to view your snaps on a big screen, but aside from needing an HDTV there's also a middle man in the form of Apple TV, which is required to make it work. That in itself costs around £80 ($99, AU$109).
On the music front there are things like Sonos, which lets you use your smartphone to stream music to any room in your house, allowing multiple people to listen to different things in different rooms with ease, or just filling your whole house with music.
But with a basic one room setup coming in at £169 ($299, AU$399) and the price going up substantially for multiple rooms or higher quality speakers it's far from cheap.
On the more affordable side, things like the 'Unified Remote' app for Android and Windows Phone lets you control a Windows PC from your phone, complete with a mouse, keyboard and custom remotes for media, task manager and more, so you don't have to stay chained to a desk.
Similarly the Xbox SmartGlass app gives you a similar level of control over your Xbox 360 from your smartphone, meaning you can enter text without having to use a clunky controller.
Appliances are starting to get smart too. There's now such a thing as an 'iKettle' and no, it's nothing to do with Apple. It's a Wi-Fi enabled kettle that you can turn on from your smartphone. It will then tell you when the water has boiled and even keep it warm until you get there.
Even more usefully: it can send a message to your phone first thing in the morning or when you arrive home from a long day at work, asking if you'd like to turn the kettle on, so the water will be boiled by the time you make it to the kitchen.
Unfortunately the price angle rears its ugly head yet again here, as at £99 it's quite a lot more than a standard kettle. That's particularly problematic when you consider that most users will be apprehensive about upgrading when traditionally a kettle is a device that only gets replaced once it breaks - you'd have to really want that convenience.
Other appliances are seeing similar features added. For example LG's Lightwave oven can be used as an oven, grill, microwave or toaster and the best part is that all of those functions are controllable from an app on your smartphone.
This means you can adjust the cooking temperature and check how much longer something needs to cook for without ever setting foot in the kitchen... once you've actually put the food in it, that is.
Warming up the home
Behind the scenes things such as your general toastiness are also getting a smart overhaul. Honeywell's new evohome system allows you to create up to 12 thermal zones in your home which can be controlled individually, so you're only heating the rooms you're using and then only when you need to.
To make things even easier both the heating and hot water can be turned on and off from a smartphone app.
Google has also raised temperatures by buying out Nest and offering the smart thermostat through Google Play store.
Both use apps to control the devices when you are both in and away from the home. In Europe Google is being closely tailed by tado - a heating app that promises to reduce your heating costs by 26 per cent.
Alongside living rooms, kitchens and heating, home security has also been revolutionised by smartphones.
Alarms, motion detectors, cameras, doorbells, locks and more can all be controlled by smartphones now. Take the SkyBell. When someone rings your doorbell you can get an alert on your phone and see a video feed of them. You can also talk to them through your phone and it works wherever you are as long as you have a Wi-Fi connection.
So whether you're in the bath or on holiday you can still keep track of who's coming to your house and even communicate with them, giving you security and peace of mind.
Then there's the Canary security hub, which is an all in one security device complete with an HD night vision camera, a microphone, a motion detector, an alarm and temperature, humidity and air quality sensors.
And it's smart too, gradually learning about the environment of your home so that it's better able to differentiate a genuine threat from something harmless. For example a sudden, dramatic temperature change could indicate a fire, but if you live somewhere that's always very hot it will be smart enough to not keep alerting you about the heat.
When it does alert you about something you'll see details of it on your smartphone and can choose how to respond, whether that's by ignoring it, making a call, sending a message or triggering the alarm. Even when there aren't any alerts you can always access Canary remotely from your phone if you just want to check on things.
All of these devices are available now or due to hit the market soon and they all aim to make life easier, by giving you as much control as possible from wherever you are, just as long as you've got your smartphone with you.
The setup cost is a stumbling block for some of them, but once you've overcome that they bring you a long way towards having a truly connected home, empowering you to do things you never could before, be it freeing your music or keeping an eye on your home from afar.
But this is just the beginning, as work is being done to make household devices even smarter in ways which could revolutionise the home.
So what about the FUTURE?
By looking to Asia you can already get a glimpse of what's next to come, as places like South Korea are way ahead of the UK in the connected homes stakes. For example, Samsung makes a fridge (sadly only available in South Korea) that has a touchscreen, allowing you to tell it what food you're putting in it.
That food index is then synced to your smartphone, so when you go shopping you'll be able to see at a glance exactly what you already have. The fridge can also send an alert to your phone or to your television if the door has been left open. We imagine that's colloquially called the 'Sigh-inducing' app.
Then there's LG's HOM-BOT vacuum cleaner. Automated vacuum cleaners are nothing new, but this one lets you remotely take control of it with your smartphone. You can activate it from your phone and even steer it. You don't even need to be in the same room as it has a built in camera that streams to an app on your handset.
We've actually had a go on this one, and while it doesn't help the cleaning, the novelty value of moving the vacuum cleaner with your phone never gets old.
Of course there's a flipside with all this extra tech: you might also be concerned about the energy use of all these connected devices.
But actually by having devices that intelligently know when to turn on and off it's likely to actually save you energy, which is one of the points touted with by Honeywell for it's evohome. Plus there are smart devices for homes that specifically deal with keeping track or your electricity use, such as the British Gas Smart Meter, so you can always keep on top things.
Through the power of apps, smartphones can also potentially add extra functionality to connected devices. You can see the beginnings of this with Philips Hue light bulbs. Out of the box these let you turn your lights on or off and change the colour of your lights with your phone or tablet.
However, Philips has also opened the Hue API up to developers, which has led to apps which expand their functionality. For example there's now a 'Hue Disco' app, which lets you program the lights to pulse in time to music, while another will make the lights blink whenever you're tagged in a Facebook photo, which, if you're sufficiently popular, is also a guaranteed way to get a headache.
If other smart household items, such as fridges, ovens and televisions open their APIs up to developers then a lot could be achieved. Gaps in functionality could be filled and custom apps could give you even more control of your house from your smartphone.
Televisions, for example, could be given access to more content sources or made to support more file types, while apps could keep track of use-by dates for food in your smart fridge.
Looking further ahead, devices are likely to start communicating with one another as well as with your phone, as that, after all, is what the internet of things is all about.
Samsung's smart fridge does that already to a small extent by being able to communicate with your television, but the real future will come when things become even more automated, minimising the need to control devices at all, giving you a daily roundup of all the bits you need to know.
That could mean a toaster that communicates with your kettle to ensure that your tea and toast are both ready at the same time. Or speakers that can communicate with your television and will know to turn music off in that room when you start watching something. Not to mention the curtains that will then automatically close to create a cinematic experience.
That's the real future, a home where all the devices are connected to one another, not just to the internet or to your phone; we imagine most would still like to have a smartphone or similar device at the centre for all the things to kick it all off with a flick of the finger.
Your smartphone will give you remote access to all of these things, letting you fine-tune their behaviour and take control when needed, be it to change the channel on your television or take control of your robot vacuum cleaner.
- Want to create your own connected home? Here are 10 gadgets to get you started.