Exactly what is a home automation system? Basically, it's the technology that
If you didn’t have to do ____, what would you do? This question drives the advancement of home automation. With your hands free of mindless, routine tasks, what would life be like? The hope is that, just as past technologies that are now commonplace opened up human bandwidth, home automation will free us up for meaningful pursuits.
In this article, we take a brief look at how home automation began—including some bizarre early gadgets. Then, we take a tour through the capabilities of modern automation in A Frontpoint home security system. Finally, we’ll glance into the future to see what’s on the horizon.
automation in its early days—very humble beginnings
Famed architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (AKA Le Corbusier) remarked in 1923 that “a house is a machine to live in.” In his lifetime, Nikola Tesla had demonstrated wireless remote control with radio waves, which now makes modern Wi-Fi and Z-wave communication possible. But Le Corbusier could not know what the future would bring: computers, the internet, Wi-Fi, cellular networks, and more.
In the 20th century, inventors were attempting to turn the home into a “machine to live in.” Some of these applications were very useful—others were comical.
In a sense, labor-saving technologies like washing machines, dishwashers, vacuums, running water, and gas heating were the first wave of home automation. They transformed lives. And eventually, labor-saving devices got smarter, incorporating remote control, connectivity, and computers.
A social revolution from labor-saving devices
Technologies like running water, electricity, gas ovens, refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and washing machines freed people from physical, dirty, time-consuming labor. And, as Science Daily notes, many of these devices had a disproportionate impact on the lives of women during periods when men had little involvement in maintaining the home.
In 1900, American women spent an average of 58 hours a week on household chores. In 1975, that number was 18 hours. What did women do with that time? One powerful answer was entering the workforce. Between 1900 and 1980, the proportion of married women in the workforce jumped from 5% to 51%.
Many labor-saving conveniences came into their own in the 1950s. Mass production of modern refrigerators, for instance, began after World War II. And by 1950, 90% of urban American homes had refrigerators.
The first American patent for anything resembling a vacuum cleaner was acquired by Iowan Daniel Hess in 1860. However, it was not very handy (and possibly never assembled by Hess) because it used hand bellows to generate suction. Working vacuums finally entered the consumer market when a 60-year-old janitor-turned-inventor named James Murray Spangler used a ceiling fan motor to create suction and turn a rotating brush. His vacuum business was a failure, though, and he was on the brink of financial ruin. But the husband of one of his first and best customers bought the patent from him. That man was William Hoover. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Early smart devices
Arguably one of the first smart-home devices, Honeywell’s Kitchen Computer, was sillier than a hand-pump vacuum cleaner. Essentially a cutting board attached to a primitive computer, this device was marketed by Neiman-Marcus in 1969 as a time-saving device that could store recipes, generate shopping lists, and balance a checkbook. No units were ever sold—perhaps because it required a 2-week training course to use it and sold for $70,000 in today’s money. The marketing strategy was strangely insulting to the target audience, too. The tagline was: “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.”
Also in 1969, an African-American woman named Marie Van Bitten Brown patented the first camera-based home security system. Her device allowed users to control a camera remotely; the camera looked through peepholes on the door and sent the video to a TV in the house. The user could even unlock the door remotely. Read more about Brown's invention and the history of home security in our article.
automation devices now collect and share information
The ability to automate our lives has vastly expanded since the Kitchen Computer and the Clapper, that wonderfully useful light-control device with the cheesy, catchy commercials. Instead of fussing with clunky equipment, modern home automation truly lets us save time, energy, and attention for what really matters. This is contingent on the modern ability of devices to collect and share information, to do work, and to work together in programs.
Appliances in a “dumb” home don’t collect or transmit much data. But the ability of devices to use and share information about themselves and their surroundings is a core feature of modern home automation. This keeps you in the know (“Did I turn the lights off? Did I lock the door? Who’s at the door?”) and helps your whole home work in concert—without you giving it much thought.
Here are some of the ways that modern smart-home devices collect and use information:
Your phone collects a lot more information than it makes phone calls; depending on how it’s programmed, notifications are sent to and from it about different events. But your phone also constantly shares data—and a key piece of information is your location. When you use Frontpoint’s Geo-services, for instance, you can automate your home to do things based on where you are.
Digital assistants like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and others are great for looking up news, weather, or music on the internet. But they also let you control every aspect of your smart home by relaying voice commands to your home-automation devices.
Environmental hazard detectors like Frontpoint’s Smoke and Heat Sensors, Carbon Monoxide Sensors, and Flood Sensors monitor the conditions in your home and are networked to send alerts when trouble is detected. They can also call for help. When the Smoke and Heat Sensor is tripped, it notifies a Frontpoint monitoring center, where staff attempt to reach you twice by phone before calling 911 on your behalf. When the CO sensor goes off, 911 is called immediately.
Other environmental sensors are concerned more with ambiance than danger. There are smart detectors on the market that collect and share information about temperature, daylight levels, and weather.
Intrusion detectors collect and transmit data about whether different access points—doors, windows, garage doors—have been opened or broken. The Garage Door Tilt Sensor, Glass Break Sensor, and Door/Window Sensor are all great examples of this technology. They aren’t just used to detect intruders, though. A Garage Door Tilt Sensor, for instance, is a great way to let your smart home “know” whether you’ve come home or not. And while you’re away, Motion Sensors can detect break-ins, but you can also use them to tell your smart home which lights need to be on when you’re home.
In the kitchen, lots of appliances are getting smart. Some of these seem like throwbacks to the Kitchen Computer, however: less expensive than $70,000, but still only vaguely useful. A smart microwave, for example, may have some cool features but it isn’t likely to radically change your life. Some items like the Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator are interesting, though. The ability to look at the inside of your fridge from the grocery store is actually pretty handy.
How smart devices “talk” to each other
Information is only useful, of course, when it shared. Modern home automation relies on three core methods of wireless communication between devices. Cellular data keeps you in touch with your smart home even if your smartphone doesn’t have Wi-Fi. And while the Frontpoint Hub—the command center of a smart home—has Wi-Fi capabilities, its cellular connectivity is what allows it to communicate with the outside world more reliably.
Wi-Fi itself is central to the smart home. Some companies design every smart device to use Wi-Fi. While this works, Wi-Fi can use battery life faster, it’s less reliable than cellular, and lots of devices can bog down the performance of your network. For this reason, the only Frontpoint devices that require Wi-Fi are cameras, which rely on it to transmit higher bandwidth video data.
Instead of Wi-Fi, most Frontpoint devices rely on a wireless communication protocol called Z-Wave. Z-Wave uses radio signals like Wi-Fi, but it operates at a different frequency (so it won’t interfere with other equipment) and transmits information more efficiently (using less battery). The Frontpoint Hub has a Z-Wave radio which “talks” to all the devices.
One useful feature of Z-Wave gadgets is that they retransmit signals. If one light bulb, for instance, is too far away from the Hub, other devices rebroadcast the signal, amplifying it and giving it the range it needs. Read more about Z-Wave here.
modern smart devices do work
Information collection and sharing are nice, but this data needs to do something. The essence of home automation is the use of data and computing power to do work. Here are just a few of the things a smart home can do:
Automated light control is one of the easiest things to set up when you’re building out a smart home. Install smart Light Bulbs in your fixtures or use Wireless Light Control plugs for lamps, and you’re off to the home-automation races. You can turn individual lights on, off, or dim them from your phone or automate their action. Read more about the uses of smart lights in this post.
Access control with Smart Door Locks is one of the most powerful capabilities of a smart home. These devices let you lock and unlock a door from anywhere from your smartphone, plus can do it automatically based on your phone’s location or the activation of another sensor. And each smart lock features a keypad that makes losing housekeys a thing of the past. Read more about the capabilities of smart locks.
The temperature control afforded by smart thermostats lets you manage your home’s climate from afar or program it to be just right based on the season, specific events, or time of day.
to program your devices
With Frontpoint’s system, you can set up rules, scenes, and schedules through the app or web portal.
A rule is simply a way to tell your system “If X happens, do Y.” For instance, you could set up a simple rule that “If the fire alarm goes off, turn on all the lights.” With Geo-services, you could set up a rule that turns on the lights and changes the temperature when you within a mile of your house.
Schedules are rules that activate based on time rather than input from a device. To help yourself get out of bed, you might set a “wake up” schedule to switch on the lights and adjust the temperature.
Preprogrammed scenes take input from the user through the tap of a screen, a voice-controlled assistant like Alexa, or a set schedule. A “date night” scene might dim particular lights for a cozy evening in. A “leaving the house” scene could arm the security sensors, lock all of your doors, set your lights to turn off, and adjust the thermostat.
There are a lot of great innovations on the horizon. The spirit of home automation is found in linking new technologies, so we look forward to seeing what else will be woven into the smart home—and the possibilities seem endless.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting smarter, and its potential application in a smart home is figuring out how to automate things for you. Even with today’s ability to program different scenes and rules, you still have to work to figure out what you want. AI may learn just what the ideal temperature is, or set your morning alarm earlier for a day when it knows you have a big work presentation. You won’t even have to think about it.
Some of this future is now, however: Frontpoint's AI Engine can already evaluate daily patterns in your home and notify you of unusual activity. For example, the system can learn that your dog walker arrives to let your pooch out at 2 p.m. each day, and automatically send you an "unexpected activity alert" if they don't show up.
Facial recognition is another burgeoning technology that is already being used to unlock smartphones, so this tech will probably make its way into many smart homes soon. For example, instead of inputting your code to unlock your door or disarm your security system, doorbell cameras may simply recognize your face and take care of everything. When facial recognition becomes more widespread, however, privacy concerns will also increase.
What is a
smart home? In essence, a home that saves time and energy
Whether you use it to lock your door or turn, water the garden, or turn on the lights, home automation is all about eliminating repetitive tasks. With machines to share information, do work, and automate the boring stuff, what would you do? Spend more quality time with family? Work more? Create more? The promise of home automation is in the freedom to focus on what matters.
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