Updated: Feb 13, 2019
When you think of “smart homes” – what comes to mind? Many picture it the same way future technology was envisioned in 60’s cartoons – autonomous robots performing a variety of tasks, moving sidewalks for easy travel, and devices that fulfill menial jobs such as grooming and dressing. The intention is the same between these imaginings and the devices found in our current reality – however the implementation and realized integration of these devices have varying levels of success.
Convenience vs Diminishing Returns
I have a close friend who has taken the deep plunge into the shadowy depths of the smart home realm. Or should I say the bright side of it, since he has 9 Philips Hue Lights. He continues to grow his menagerie of bleeding edge smart home tech; tallying it up, he has 20 of these devices, and there’s no sign of it stopping. His home is like a balanced eco-system, or an interworking of many smaller autonomous parts. It’s always an intriguing experience when I visit his house, in ways both subtle and substantial, whether it’s the tidy floors that are silently and routinely maintained by a loyal Roomba, or the fine-tuned music playing through Amazon Alexa at volume level 10 in the Living Room and volume level 4 in the Kitchen.
One of the main discrepancies I see between modern smart homes and the smart homes depicted in those 60’s cartoons is the true efficiency of making something “smart”. Most of my friend’s smart home devices share two things: having a distinct purpose and having easy/practical integration with his network of devices. The core devices he uses everyday (doorbell, thermostat, lights) are quickly integrated with immediate benefit. Devices that would be less practical to integrate such as a smart toilet (featuring temperature-controlled seats) are likely a lower priority on his list. Adding these additional devices may become more affordable and practical with future advances in integration.
The integration of most smart home devices, in addition to their ability to communicate with other devices/systems, is limited. My friend has experienced incompatibilities and it has limited his choices for adding new devices to his system. When he began his smart home empire, he went with the Alexa platform, instead of competing platforms such as Google Assistant. While most devices are compatible with both Alexa and Google Assistant, unfortunately not all of them are, and some have better integration on some platforms than they do others. For example, my friend’s smart garage door opener has difficulty integrating into his system, since it was designed to integrate with Google Assistant rather than Alexa. This is something future smart home systems can significantly improve on with better interoperability and integration systems.
Integration Isn’t Easy… Yet
When a device needs to be integrated into a system that is not explicitly compatible (i.e. via an interface to a platform such as Alexa/Google Assistant), serious development time is required to build a supporting interface. Developers who build these interfaces usually refer to the device’s API documentation. API stands for Application Programming Interface – it basically provides a rule book of how to communicate with a system, such as what commands can be sent and received over Bluetooth. In more extreme cases, developers have to reverse-engineer communication with a device when the API is not available or has undocumented features.
Frequently, as businesses release new products, they make decisions that hinder interfacing with their products. They may not see an incentive to share access to their API; for example, if their device could be integrated into another product, they may want to prevent/control that integration in such a way that benefits the business (instead of providing an easy integration path). In some cases, there’s a mentality of “not invented here”, where open, easy access standards already in use and publicly available are shelved in preference to the businesses’ in-house standards. While a business may have legitimate reasons for taking actions such as these (i.e. security), often these decisions are made to assert a brand onto the market and can sometimes have a negative impact on integration efforts.
One step that could get us closer to an ideal future smart home would be easier integration with a wider array of devices. To this end, I have personally worked on programmatically integrating a group of unique devices into a smart home with some success. These were devices that required new integrations to communicate with each other and the smart home system. The API documentation provided for some of those devices was terribly insufficient; frequently there would be “hidden features” that I would need to investigate – such as an extra byte in a message representing some data that the API documentation didn’t cover. Other devices didn’t have documentation available for their API and had to be reverse engineered. While the individual devices were “smart” out of the box, the system as a whole required quite a bit of additional work to get off the ground. The takeaway from this project was that it was hard to integrate the individual devices – but when those devices were properly documented and interfaced, scaling those interfaces across any system would be an easier process.
As integration continues to progress with increased demand and improvements in technology, smart homes will continue to evolve. Here at Skayl, I envision that we’ll be a part of the solution to scale this integration the way it was foreseen long ago. Our goal is to make integration painless – making it easy to simply integrate one device into a system without redesigning the system, while also adding additional layers of interoperability. One day consumers will be able to painlessly interface any kind of device to their smart home, regardless of the brand device or the devices already within their home.
Written by: Nicholas DeTello