Ian H. Rowlands, 6 November 2014
Smart homes are attracting much attention from transnational businesses. That is not particularly surprising - they represent a huge potential market, and they could be truly transformative. Energy analysts would be wise to pay attention to these developments: energy is not only central to many smart home proposals, but it could be a key 'connector' across both resources and issues.
A smart home is a home that incorporates advanced information, communication and automation systems in order to provide occupants with sophisticated monitoring and control over the home's functions (in areas like energy, security and entertainment). Visuals - like those here and here - further highlight what is meant by the term smart home.
Many global business heavyweights are ratcheting up their interests in smart homes. Apple's HomeKit will pair the iPhone and the iPad to connected devices around the home; Apple TV could also be critical, as might the anticipated Apple Watch. And Google's Nest Labs has been active recently, purchasing DropCam (which makes home-use cameras with two-way communication) and Revolv (which makes a hardware communication hub for the smart home), and launching a developer program called 'Works with Nest' that integrates third-party devices. Though 'Apple vs. Google' looks to be the headline battle in the smart home space, observers would overlook Samsung, Microsoft or others only at their peril.
Such developments are exciting, for the smart home of the future could bring a range of benefits across various issues.
- Energy: Future 'prosumers' could - on a sunny summer afternoon - manage lighting in their homes so that excess solar electricity (produced by rooftop PV panels) can be offered for sale to the community power market.
- Security: Not only could intruders be repelled, but the smart home could keep occupants secure from internal failure. A water leak could be detected rapidly: an alarm could be sent; the smart home could turn off the water supply to the house to prevent additional damage and text the homeowner a contact list of nearby plumbers who are open and available.
- Health: The bathroom becomes a place where vital signs are monitored - not only could individual readings possibly prompt suggestions and/or warnings, but longer trends could be analyzed with 'big data mining' techniques. All of this information could be transmitted on the mirror in front of the occupant while they brush their teeth.
- Diet: In the kitchen, user inputs regarding upcoming travel schedules and entertaining plans could help to generate shopping lists, which are then transmitted to preferred grocers for just-in-time delivery. Meal suggestions could also be provided by the smart home: the inventory of available ingredients, combined with dietary goals, could point the hungry occupant to 'how-to' videos of relevant recipes.
But these smart home benefits are by no means guaranteed; moreover, challenges associated with security and system integrity, privacy, system lock-in and the digital divide are real and worthy of continued consideration. Analysts should remain focused upon how such hurdles can be overcome.
In the end, there are at least three key messages for energy researchers:
- Issue expertise in energy system understanding (supply, transmission and demand) will continue to be critical, because energy systems will be central components of smart homes.
- Consideration of how energy 'sits with' other resources in household and community systems - for instance, how water demand drives energy demand, how energy supply options constrain transportation options, etc. - will also be very important.
- Finally, multidisciplinary approaches - those examining technical and social insights simultaneously - will be vital.
Smart homes offer great potential, but risks are also present. To secure the future we want, advanced research, pilot studies, and multi-stakeholder reflections must co-exist. At WISE, projects that combine such elements are underway and are contributing to Ontario-wide - and global - discussions on smart home development. See, for example, the work of the Energy Hub Management System project, activities from ISS4E regarding Smart Homes and Buildings, and WISE's research spotlights about harvesting energy around the home, framing environmental messages and smart grid security.
Working collaboratively, smart homes can be part of a sustainable future.
Ian H. Rowlands is Professor and Acting Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) at the University of Waterloo.