Home Automation: Evolution of a Term

Home automation: for me the term recalls rich dudes in the ’80s who could turn off their garage lights with remote-control pads. The stereotype for that era was the more buttons your system had—even non-enabled ones—the more awesome it was, and by extension any luxury remote control had to be three times the size of any TV remote.

And it was a luxury–the hardware was expensive and most people couldn’t justify it. Kind of like the laser-disc player of home improvements. The technology was opaque to casual tinkering, it cost a lot to buy, and also was expensive to install.

The richie-rich stereotypes were reinforced with the technology seen in Bond movies and similar near-future flicks. Everything, even silly things, is motorized, with chrome and concrete everywhere. You, the hero, control everything in the house in the comfort of your acrylic half-dome chair. Kick the motorized blinds, dim the track lighting, and volume up the hi-fi!

This Moonraker-esque notion of home automation turned out to be something of a red herring, because home automation stopped being pretty forever ago; eventually it became available to everyone with a WiFi router in the form of Amazon Echo and Google Nest.

But the precise definition of the term home automation remains elusive. I mean, the essence of it. Let’s break it down.

The Historical Term

When our parents and grandparents talked about automation, they thought in terms of “labor-saving devices” that performed certain chores while controlled through a simple interface. For instance, motorized devices running off of house current like automatic dishwashers, clothes washers, and dryers, or garage doors with openers. Arguably thermostats are home automation; they literally automate the process by which the house temperature remains in the comfortable range.

What does it even mean? The word automation refers to a process that one might ordinarily do by hand, but now is actuated via a control system of some sort. There’s always a control interface, even if it’s a relatively simple device like a dryer’s dial.

But to those giant-remote-wielding folks in the’80s, automatic clothes washers were an old hat. They weren’t thinking of not having to use a hand-wringer as part of their clothes-washing regimen. They wanted something else.

The fact is, the technologies we label as home automation vary as as time goes on. If it’s in everyone’s home, it’s not home automation. If everyone has it, it’s just the way houses are. Once we expand what’s possible, those old definitions just don’t make as much sense. Those “homes of the future” of the ’50s? They became what everyone expected by 1980.

This morphing of definitions gives rise to conundrums like, why is one appliance to fall under the home automation definition, but a very similar device is not? Surely we could all agree that a thermostat we could control with a phone or tablet constitutes home automation. But does that old school, non-WiFi thermostat count? What about your burglar alarm or sprinkler controller?

The Rise of WiFi

Maybe it boils down to the interface. Could it be that home automation was never about the motorized Venetian blinds at all? It’s always been about the interface, the controller.

Behind the control pad or tablet screen or whatever, lies the hardware with some sort of communication protocol governing how it sends and receives data. One of the first of these protocols was X10, which hid bits in the 120 VAC waveforms of wall current. Around since 1970, X10 has faded into the background with only a limited store of outlets and switches for sale, serving already-installed systems. It was indubitably cool but too buggy to stay popular for long.

The next hotness was wireless, like Zigbee low-power mesh networks, a protocol used by hacker-friendly XBee radios. Another big one is Z-Wave, a wireless protocol that went Open Source in 2010 and has been further buoyed by the fact that Amazon Echo comes with a Z-Wave radio allowing it to control those devices. GE offers wireless switches and outlets, for both Z-Wave and Zigbee.

WiFi became a household staple, enabling a new generation of appliances like smart thermostats and light bulbs that can be controlled through apps. It’s the perfect, user-friendly medium for connecting a network of fixtures and appliances. Of course, all the commercial home automation controllers have adopted WiFi in whole or part. It’s the level of tech most people can figure out.

This does bring up a pertinent question: Does a single light bulb controlled by a remote control constitute home automation? I suppose it’s akin to a TV remote control. That’s not automation, really, it’s just so you don’t have to get off your butt to do one thing. But if there’s more than one, absolutely. A network of individually controllable light bulbs clearly would fit the definition.

The prevalence of WiFi also led to a revolution in controllers, moving away from white plastic wall units (the coveted burglar-alarm chic) to phones and tablets, and from there to voice control.

Just Let the AI Win?

Taking advantage of WiFi, Amazon and Google have jumped into the home automation craze with their Echo and Nest products, Internet-connected hubs that can be controlled through voice commands or apps.

Not creepy at all!
It’s socomforting to just let Alexa be in charge. She should just know what I like based on my purchase history. I buy #4 hardware for me and macadamia nuts for my wife. Why also not let Alexa learn my favorite temperature and humidity level? Alexa can keep track of the thermostat so I can play the dad role and micromanage it. Safety equipment like fire alarms and CO2 detectors are a cinch. Definitely landscape lighting. Have Alexa handle my security as well, door locks and motion sensors and cameras. Dude, voice-controlled oil diffusers.

This hypothetical immersion in an AI-controlled environment is a big leap and I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace it. Does it come down to someone guessing your WiFi password having access to your entire life? Should the same system that controls your stereo also know how many times the toilet has been flushed? Is one system controlling everything kind of like like keeping all of your keys on the same ring: you can’t make toast because your phone’s under the couch? Plus also if the AIs rebel we’ll all have to re-learn how to make ramen and lock our doors manually.

Or it could be less sci-fi than that. When Google subsidiary Nest bought smart home company Revolv, they announced the end of life for all of their products installed in people’s homes (with “lifetime” service contracts!). Abandonware sucks. Can you imagine getting your setup got bricked by the manufacturer? It’s having your light bulbs all stuck in the “on” position because your phone charged down, but forever. You can imagine the fury of those who invested in a system only to have it not work anymore. Forget unsupported–it’s dead.

Maybe there’s a better way?

Just go Open Source?

If you’re not ready to have an Internet-enabled speaker listening to your every word and changing your Watch List without asking, there is another path. WiFi-connecting microcontrollers and minicomputers have burst onto the scene in the past few years, making it easier than ever for regular folks to create their own smart homes. I’m talking about the Pi and BeagleBone, and also those ESP8266 chips that seem to be everywhere these days.

A few years ago we were talking in terms of an Ethernet-shield-equipped UNO controlling a PowerSwitch Tail on a floor lamp. With these powerful little computers and their Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity, we have radically expanded what’s possible for pretty much anyone willing to open a book.

More to the point, we can create solutions that work for us rather than hoping someone else’s solutions can be adapted. Say you’re always leaving the garage door open. What if you had a Pi with a time of flight sensor shining down from a rafter and telling it when the garage door is up, and automatically closes the door if it’s after 10 pm and the door has been open for more than two hours. It may not come together as slick as pairing a light socket with your Nest, but by DIY standards that’s pretty easy to do. You can even go simpler. A dirt-Cheap ESP board like a SparkFun ESP thing practically programs itself.

We’re probably preaching to the choir here, but if home automation has always been about controlling your house, maybe the best way to retain control is to make the hardware yourself.
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