Plug-and-Play Home-Automation Solutions August 2013
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A previous Explorer article discusses the current state of the art in home-automation solutions for do-it-yourself (DIY) enthusiasts, noting that an ecosystem of devices, controllers, and protocols has developed recently that allows DIYers with even modest technical acumen to deploy comprehensive home-automation systems that rival those that professional installers deploy. Another category of home-automation solutions has emerged recently that focuses more on casual users than on DIY enthusiasts and has a set of features and functions that enable easy integration into existing home-network environments, together with a premium user experience that rivals (and in some cases exceeds) that of high-end contractor-installed systems.
These new solutions embody some of the "plug-and-play" (PnP) simplicity of the many inexpensive, limited-purpose home-automation solutions that use proprietary plug-in modules and handheld radio-frequency remote controls to allow people to turn lights or appliances on and off remotely. But instead of proprietary remotes, these new solutions use mobile devices like smartphones and tablets as remote controls, via software applications and standard wireless-networking protocols—much like the solutions for DIY enthusiasts that the previous Explorer article describes. However, unlike those solutions, the new class of PnP home-automation solutions generally can function without the need for a dedicated "always-on" home-automation router or other separate control device. Additionally, the new class of solutions tends to use general-purpose Wi-Fi network connectivity—already commonplace in connected homes—as opposed to wireless-network standards like Z-Wave that are geared more toward home automation. These differences are key to making the new class of solutions very easy to install and use, but they also tend to limit users' ability to integrate the solutions into comprehensive home-automation networks, in which one can control many categories of devices and systems at once via a unified interface.
Given the diversity of PnP solutions already available in the market today, the rapid pace at which the PnP home-automation market is evolving, and the recent emergence of Wi-Fi routers that also serve as home-automation control hubs, one would be mistaken to make too many generalizations about PnP home-automation solutions. The examples below illustrate how diverse the PnP home-automation market is already, while highlighting some of the common attributes that the different solutions have and the different—and often very clever—ways that developers have gone about making sure that their solutions are as easy as possible to install and use.
Lockitron is a device that attaches to the interior section of a deadbolt lock and provides remote locking, unlocking, and monitoring functionality. Apigy, the start-up that created Lockitron, initially offered a series of smart-lock products that replaced existing deadbolt and door-handle locks, as well as a module that adds smart-lock capability to many types of electronic door locks. Each of these products shipped with a "mini-server" module that plugged in to a user's Wi-Fi router and served as a wireless bridge between the household's internet connection and the lock system.
In most respects, these initial Lockitron products were very similar to the smart door locks that companies like Schlage offer. Lockitron's principal differentiators included free internet-based access and control over the locking system (Schlage requires that users pay a monthly fee for remote access, although users can bypass this requirement via using a third-party Z-Wave device to control the lock), a compelling user interface, and a very convenient way to grant temporary third-party access to the locking system. The Lockitron's user interface primarily takes the form of an application for smartphones, and its designers have paid careful attention to ensuring that the interface is simple, minimalistic, and aesthetically pleasing. The access-sharing feature allows a Lockitron owner to grant other people temporary access to the device by their entering their email addresses or phone numbers; the Lockitron service then sends the individuals download links for the Lockitron application and preconfigures that application to access the lock.
Despite these compelling features, early versions of the Lockitron could hardly be considered PnP home-automation devices because of the requirement that users remove their door locks and replace them with Lockitron equivalents. The latest version of Lockitron is much closer to a true PnP experience; it omits the separate Wi-Fi plug-in module and removes the need for users to replace their existing locks. Instead, users install a module that fits over the interior portion of their existing deadbolt lock. The module controls the lock by physically moving the thumb-turn lever that controls the lock from the inside (consequently, the new Lockitron will work with only deadbolts that have an interior thumb turn). The module also integrates a low-power Wi-Fi-connectivity system from Electric Imp that connects the Lockitron to the user's home Wi-Fi network directly, eliminating the need for a separate bridge module.
Currently, no other smart lock device on the market offers the kind of PnP convenience that the new Lockitron offers. Although installation still requires the use of a screwdriver (to loosen the deadbolt to install a backplate to which to attach the Lockitron module), it is far easier to install a Lockitron and integrate it with an existing home network than to do the same with any other smart lock product. Notably, connecting the Lockitron to a home Wi-Fi network does not require plugging the device into a computer via a USB cable (as is typical for Wi-Fi connected home-automation peripherals). Instead, a user needs only select the Wi-Fi network and type the password into the Lockitron smartphone application and then hold the phone's screen up to the Lockitron module. A sensor on the module detects patterns of light flashes from the screen that carry information about the Wi-Fi configuration, allowing the device to connect to the network. Apigy has stopped offering its initial Lockitron products (except the electronic-lock module) in favor of the new version, which has garnered significant levels of interest in advance of its commercial release thanks to a successful crowdfunding effort. One hopes the new Lockitron device will prove to be as simple, reliable, and usable as its funders expect it will be, perhaps leading to a change in the smart lock market in favor of more PnP devices.
LimitlessLED and Lifx
Because of their high cost relative to the cost of conventional alternatives, LED lightbulbs have become attractive targets for integration of home-automation functionality. Adding the components necessary to transform an LED lightbulb into a smart bulb can result in only a small proportional increase in the overall cost of the bulb; at the same time, the smart lighting features add significantly to the bulb's overall value proposition. Philips Hue, the first smart LED lightbulb system to emerge in the marketplace, appeared at a time when LED lightbulbs were still very rare and very expensive ($60 or more for a 60 W–equivalent "dumb" LED bulb); consequently, the nearly $200 price for the three-bulb Hue starter pack was somewhat reasonable, especially considering the very high quality of the Hue bulbs and their highly versatile dimming and color-changing features.
LED lightbulbs have since fallen very sharply in price, with high-quality 60 W–equivalent white bulbs now commonly available for about $10 apiece. Until very recently, smart LED bulbs have not fallen in price also; Philips's Hue continued to be the only smart LED bulb solution available, and its price has not gone down since its introduction. LimitlessLED now offers 60 W–equivalent smart white LED bulbs for $16 apiece and multicolor 40 W–equivalent bulbs for $18 each. To use the bulbs' smart features, users will also need to buy a $17 module that plugs into a Wi-Fi router and acts as a bridge between the home network and the smart bulbs. (A starter kit is also available that packages two white bulbs, the control module, and a handheld remote control for the lighting system.) As Philips Hue does, users control the smart lightbulbs primarily through a smartphone application that allows them to turn individual bulbs on and off remotely, control dimming, and control color temperature via a slider (for the white bulb) or select the bulb's RGB color output via a color wheel (for the multicolor bulb). LimitlessLED's lighting solutions come from a white-label manufacturer in China, and equivalent solutions are thus also available under a number of other brand names, including EasyBulb, Mi Light, and AppLight. Thus far, users appear to report high satisfaction with these new smart bulb solutions, although some reports have indicated that the colored bulb units do not output as much light as marketing materials claim.
Lifx, a start-up funded through crowdfunding website Kickstarter, offers smart LED bulbs with a unique "hubless" design. Like the new version of the Lockitron, the Lifx bulbs integrate Wi-Fi connectivity hardware and so do not need a separate control module in order to integrate with a home network. In a multibulb installation, one Lifx bulb acts as the Wi-Fi bridge and transmits control signals to other bulbs via low-power mesh networking. Thus far, Lifx appears not to have actually shipped any products (despite having announced a June 2013 ship date for an initial production run), and its bulbs cost $78 to $89 apiece—much more than any competitors' (including Philips's Hue) bulbs cost. Assuming Lifx bulbs do make it into the hands of customers, the bulbs may end up offering the best PnP experience of any smart lightbulb on the market thanks to the hubless design.