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 having your setup 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.

33 thoughts on “Home Automation: Evolution of a Term

  1. “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.”

    Problem is that’s one half of home automation. The other half is still more pricey than it’s non-automated counterpart and hence keeps it out of the hands of the majority.

    1. I think that is becoming less true every day. Right now manufacturers are charging a premium for internet-connected versions of their projects (my garage door opener and my thermostat both offer expensive upgrades to get them on the network, neither of which I chose to pay for). But as the market becomes more competitive these will become stock features.

      1. I hope they don’t become stock features – a recent search on my fridge manufacturers FAQ yielded 3 pages of results about wifi and touchscreen issues and nothing about why the freezer wasn’t cold! Like yourself people avoid them because they are unnecessary, expensive and another point of failure or neglect like the blinking VCR clock of old.
        I try to seek out simpler goods – mechanical timers on the toaster and microwave for example. I’ve paid a horrific premium expensive electric kettle (£150) because it is serviceable and all metal.

        1. Those wifi enabled food storage boxes SUCK.

          I could shove anything in to the fridge side and food would be cold. Not too warm. Not frozen. Everything in the freezer stayed frozen. Easy.

          The new box doesn’t have zones, it has fucking gradients. Food on the far left at the top (freezer side) will freeze rock solid. Food in the freezers bottom left will be soft, like soft serve ice cream. Food in the top middle (fridge side) will freeze unless it’s all the way to the right, then it’s perfect. Unless it’s at the bottom left (also perfect) or on the bottom right, too warm. Forget the door pockets, those have entirely different rules.

          My wife paid about $500 extra for the stupid Android interface on the front when that money should’ve been put towards better insulation.

          My toaster? Yeah, don’t get me started on that one.

          I’m not against home automation or IOT. But people have gone completely bonkers about it. I don’t need the porcelain god playing Aaron Copland while I’m praying.

  2. I would like to comment that Z-Wave is most definitely not open source. They provided the definitions for the communications protocol, but they have NOT released the SDK for interacting with the chips, firmware for the modems, and certain other functions. Additionally, in order to brand yourself as having compatibility with ZWave, your device must go though a certification process and use the proprietary Sigma Designs chip.

    Sigma Designs has definitely made advances in openness the past few years, but still has a long way to go.

  3. From my experience, I don’t think it was the interface, or if it was X10 or Zigbee or Wifi, they’re simply the conduits – yes, if the gui is a nightmare then you either can’t or don’t want to use it, and if the data-link requires additional effort then it increases the hurdle to entry but I feel they’re all quite minor.
    I would have focused on :
    – efficacy (does it actually do what it’s supposed to do – having a thermostat to control the house is great, but only if it actually keeps your house to a consistent temperature and doesn’t require you to touch it regularly)
    – use-case/need (quite a biggy really – do you need an “internet enabled” kettle? you have to fill it with water and empty it so you’re going to be interacting with it directly anyway. Maybe you might want to set a temperature but you could do that when filling and the only other thing is knowing when it has boiled, which is broadly a time dependency so an alarm will generally suffice if you’re going to another room temporarily)

    I’d avoid worrying about price as being a ‘thing’ – it’s not a unique problem to home automation so a bit of a dead-end.

  4. The main barrier I can see to home automation is that I don’t see a reason for a large, overarching system controlling everything. “What did the dishwasher say to the toaster?” seems to be best answered with a punch line (maybe somebody else can supply one; I’m drawing a blank) instead of with a WiFi packet sniffer. Most of the home automation devices either seem to fall into one of two categories:

    1. Useful, but doesn’t have any need to tie into any other home devices. Example: A smoke detector that sends you a text if it detects smoke.

    2. Parlor tricks that may be amusing, but seem like more hassle or money than they’re worth to me. Such as light bulbs I can tell to turn on in odd colors with my cell phone.

    For complex home automation to become popular, it either needs to become so cheap that a lot of people say “Why not?” or needs a better reason for people to buy it than to earn Bond villain cred. After all, even if Bond villains did have fabulous girlfriends, you KNOW who they’re going to end up with by the credits. And while Bond had plenty of gadgets from Q, he probably just rents whatever flat he can afford on a civil servant’s salary, and isn’t home often enough to bother with automating it.

    1. How about a system that can tell you when you forget to close all of the doors and windows before turning on the AC? Or can switch between AC and Heat depending on the temperature, even if you forgot to turn it on? Toasters and Dishwashers could even be part of a load balancing scheme. Don’t go over this many watts at any one time. Run the dishwasher when there’s an excess of energy from a solar array. Stuff like that.

    2. Well, devices that are aware of each other could be good. I’ve got a projector in the living room and a bunch of big windows with blinds. It’d be neat if when I started streaming to an attached chromecast the receiver and projector got turned on (that bit’s sorted, HDMI CEC is magic), the blinds got dropped, the lights dimmed, the dishwasher and washing machine paused.

        1. My washing machine is in a closet type area that’s basically in my living room and it makes it near impossible to watch TV while doing laundry. Even with the doors shut.

      1. I was in a lecture room that had such a thing. It was very annoying because as speakers changed, the blinds cycled open and closed as signal was present or not. So maybe just remote control is enough.

        As I am playing with node red to make weird connections with even just few things in the house, i realize that in many situations similar to yours, it is good to just have control to everything and not bother with complicated rules.

    3. I think this is mostly right: there are commonly two kinds of “automation” offered to consumers: parlour tricks and remote controls. IMHO if it’s a glorified remote control, it’s not automation.

      However, there is a third way – have a google for Building Management Systems aimed at commercial premises. They are what I think home automation will start to become, including:
      – proper security controls, e.g. time-schedulable NFC access with logging instead of crappy insecure zigbee locks, integration with lighting, CCTV, etc,
      – energy management for passive-solar buildings: controlling shutters, water pumping (hydronic heating), furnace/aircon scheduling and load-shedding, airflow damper adjustments,
      – synchronising heavy electrical loads to availability of PV solar power.

      Doing this automation well can result in significant energy savings, which is of course why commercial building owners buy into it. Better to spend $20k on a good BMS and save $10k/year in heating/cooling costs through continuous optimisation of energy flows, integrated weather forecasts, etc.

  5. One thing I hate is how Internet dependent a lot of the “home automation” stuff is these days. Revolv is just one example of what that leads to: corporate-dependent devices that can suddenly not function anymore on a business whim. It would be fine to have something that can be supported by an Internet gateway as long as it’s perfectly functional without it and you could change which one you use. It’s completely brain-dead stupid to have something where I have to ping an external server just to change the thermostat in the next room. I recently bought into the Amazon Echo system that is just as bad, but at least the dots were cheap and I don’t depend on that. Hopefully one day something similar that is open source and can have a brain on my own home server will exist. The far-field microphone tech needs to be replicated though. That’s at least half of what makes those so good.

  6. All this home automation crap is just that, a total and utter piece of crap. What a waste of time. It basically sums up the state of affairs we are now in with so-called ‘tech’ companies. They seem to be worth literally trillions, but what have they actually acheived? Facebook: tell everybody in the world you are having a cup of tea, or taking a dump or whatever. So what? Its not really rocket science, just a basic web server at the end of the day. Twitter: tell everybody what you are thinking, all of the time. So what? Again, its just a basic web server. The same can be said for all the other rubbish (instagram etc etc). Don’t get me started on those companies that just remove all the vowels from normal words (printr, tumblr, etc.) or those ones that just put ‘ly’ on the end. Total crap. The internet itself was a great technological revolution, but how come all these silicon valley companies expect to make billions just for doing the most obvious basic stuff. Do they think we are all stupid? (probably). Hey, alexa, go turn yourself off, permanently.

        1. Well no, you are totally correct.

          But that’s not whats happening. People insult and troll on social media, get angry and stupid. (Tho some use it in a good way, yes)

          And advertising, there is some difference in being informed or being influenced. Take coca cola for example, you already know what it is and if you like it. Same as everybody. Yet we see their ads almost daily. If this is information, why show it to people who already know?

          We are humans, we get affactionate, we get influenced. Maybe stupid is the wrong word, but it’s certainly not smart or rational.

  7. Currently…

    1. “Home Automation” using third-party connected products means giving up ALL of your privacy. But it’s easy.

    2. “Home Automation” while trying to protect your privacy is only for the realm of DIY, which means it is very difficult for the average person.

    Hopefully as time goes on, the general population will realize that having the likes of Google OWNING your life is unacceptable and in response easy to use third-party products will embrace open hardware and software designs that let you choose how “connected” you want to be to the spy behemoths like Google.

    Note however: There is an ever more important threat that exists. It’s happening today. It’s called Big Socialist Government. How long will it be before ALL your connected devices are mandated BY LAW to connect to the Government? Not long. It’s already happening with so-called “Smart” power meters, and other devices you CAN NOT turn off. In the U.S. State or Washington there is a (currently opt-in) thing that you can not remove that tracks and measures where you go in your car so the Government can TAX you based on usage. This scary stuff is bound to grow unless WE put boundaries on what the Government can do!

    1. To me it seems far more likely that the general population will come to accept Google, Amazon, or Apple having a huge amount of personal information in exchange for the convenience.

    2. i always find the fear of the government usage of this data laughable the real threats are always the for profit companies and what they will do with it. companies have time and again proven they’re ready will and able to F&^k over anyone or anything to get their way. they’re even the reason governments go carupt in the first place but people never want to admit that.

  8. Which Echo has Z-Wave radio? Are you sure about this? Maybe wanted to write Homey?

    “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.”
    So if I have two TVs that’s home automation? Crap.
    To me automation is when something happens without interaction from me. Eg my blinds open when my alarm goes off. Porch light switches on when door is opened but only when is dark and switches off after 5 minutes. I get a videoclip if alarm is armed and door opens. Heating turns on when is cold and off when is not cold. Boiler switches off when smoke or co alarm goes off. Light on hallway turns red when someone uses the toilet.
    Switching lights on with a remote or app is not automation no matter how many lights you have.

  9. I’m in home automation. DIY mostly. a lot of time involved. local industrial plc with modbus devices. Could be reached remotely if needed (with a specific network gateway) but absolutely and physically disconnected.
    For me home automation means add something useful, not only fancy. home automation should be an addition to something else existing in my house
    But that something should always run WITHOUT home automation. Except the fancy not-so-important ones (like external leds in my garden. Can live without them)
    I have a geothermal unit. Added a lot of sensors. but the geothermy will work without them. I have a french drain. Had some troubles (pump clogged) without warnings. I added a connected floater, so I know now if my pump is dead.
    Same with my pond.
    Added cams on some strange places. In my main drain, near the back water valve, inside my geothermal blower, just to obtain more information (if you had a clogged main water drain, you’ll understand).
    I don’t get the idea of talking to my devices. I don’t want to talk at night just to open a light in my toilet… My thermostat is presently not smart (with geothermy, keep the same temperature along the day is better than let it drop), but I purchased a communicating unit to -locally- access it from any computer/tablet of my home. And firstly interact with my other sensors. Cloud server ? Forget it, if the company has some troubles/leaks, you’re toasted.
    I run my home automation mostly with wires. Yes, kind of old-fashion but in my experience cables are better if you can choose that solution.
    The worst: internet enabled security system. Am I that stupid/lazy to allow my alarm system an internet access ? When I leave my house, I push a button. When I come home: I press some known code. Not that difficult. It’s my security… The only thing I changed is to use a cellular gateway instead of a landline (50$/year vs 20$/month) or worst – internet phone..
    home automation nightmares : multiple protocols from a galaxy of vendors. Honestly, it’s going better and better. Gateway with multi-protocols, open source, etc.
    useless devices : a switch to remotely (phone) light a, sorry, one bulb. An internet connected fridge. Man, do you really need a fridge to tell you what’s inside ? Use your brain.
    useful device : sonoff pow. nice little switch to remotely power on/off a device and know it’s power consumption. Far easier than a kill-a-watt meter.
    Some small solar PV system (solar panels, deep charge batteries) to stay functional even with power outage (I’m in Canada). All my home automation is running on 12V DC. Like my router/switches/fanless server.
    marketing non-sense: water floods warnings through internet: you receive a msg on your phone if there is a flood. Yeah, then, you beg for a friend to close the main valve ?? I added an electro-valve connected to water leaks sensors. If leaks then shut down main valve and send warning. Less stress (and damage) in case of.
    in my french drain, I have two pumps, bilge pumps (12V DC – regular 600 gph and extra 3700 gph). Because when you have floods, the main power is generally down, and your regular pumps doesn’t work at all. I had heavy rains last year and city mains were full. After 1 hour of heavy rains, water came back trough the pipes and from the street. The electricity of the street stopped. My pumps worked. And I had light (few 20w leds in garage/kitchen/desk) to see the miracle.
    my near future: install solar panels (vacuum tubes I already have), interconnect them with my hot water system and my geothermal unit, install a btu meter to know the provided energy.
    this is not very fancy. No alexa, no google nest, no voice commands. But a solid useful automation.
    Sorry for my broken english & mistakes, my mother tongue is french.

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