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Building IQ: The smart hubs controlling connected homes

We explore how new technology and a faster internet are converging to bring about the first Australian smart homes.

There may be components in your home that are starting to grow in intelligence, or are already considered “smart”, like your TV or your phone – maybe even your lightbulbs.

These devices connect to the world around them and can react to your actions and even learn from them, but it takes more than a lot of smart devices to make a smart home!

We’re only just starting to dip our toe in the vast ocean that is smart technology. Currently, most of the smart devices we have in our homes are isolated from each other, fulfilling their purpose unaware and unconcerned by what’s happening in the world around them.

But when they all become connected through one central nervous system, the technology stops being scattered pieces of a puzzle, and transforms into a far more powerful whole. Instead of having a number of smart devices in your home, you have one smart home.

This is the technology just around the corner for Australians. As more premises get access to the nbn™ network and more of our devices connect to fast internet, smart homes can become a reality. 

The Internet of Things + machine learning x fast internet

So what is a smart home? Let’s start by breaking down the formula above. The internet of things (IoT) is a concept we’re sure you’re familiar with – it refers to the act of bringing internet connectivity to everyday devices.

The most obvious and widely used device to receive such connectivity is the mobile phone, which became the smartphone.

But you won’t have to look far across your home now to find other devices that are connected to the internet. Obvious examples may include your TV, stereo system, security camera and video game console. But now that’s expanded into lightbulbs, fridges, coffee machines, air conditioners and plenty more.

These devices are wi-fi enabled, so you can access them remotely and tell them to do something or monitor their stats. You might log in to your air conditioner, for example, and turn it on before you get home.

As for machine learning, that term refers to the process in which a computer-controlled device can adapt its activity without human intervention.

So in the above example, rather than you logging in to the air conditioner to tell it to turn on, the air conditioner itself will learn that you usually arrive home at 6pm, and will turn itself on at the optimal time to reach the desired temperature ahead of your arrival.

Machine learning relies on the cloud and real-time big data analysis. It involves crunching millions of numbers from around the world in order to optimise itself to global trends, then it adapts these to your individual requirements.

And this requires accessible and fast internet connectivity. So when you take a connected device, empower it with machine learning and then facilitate it through fast internet, you create the environment for a smart home.

In the smart home, machines not only learn about your needs, but can allow devices to adapt to the actions of each other. To use the previous example, this will help your air conditioner learn over time that, while you may get home at 6pm on Wednesdays, on Thursdays it’s more like 6.20pm.

And on Fridays 5.50pm – except in winter when you have soccer training and you get home at 8pm. It also means that your home knows you’ve been delayed by a breakdown causing heavy traffic and how that has changed your arrival time, so it can push back your air conditioner’s start time accurately.

A smart home vs smart devices in a home

Smart homes therefore are all about improving efficiency and lifestyle, so you might save money and have more available free time. It’s about taking all the devices in your home that can connect to the internet, and making them not only 'self-aware', but aware of and connected to each other.

In this way, a smart home will know that nobody has entered a room for a while and will power down the lights, turn off the air-conditioning and put the TV in sleep mode.

A smart home will know what time you have set your alarm clock, and will ensure your kitchen is warm and the coffee is ready by the time you wake up. A smart home will understand that plenty of natural light is coming into a room, so will turn off the lights to conserve power.

A smart home will have realised that you enjoy watching the news when you return home, so will turn on the TV and channel accordingly.

A smart home will detect your face and set the shower’s temperature to the exact heat you personally desire, as opposed to a housemate’s. A smart home might even detect smoke and power down nearby appliances and call an emergency service.

Three companies helping to lead the way

It will likely come as no surprise that the three big companies helping to push society towards the smart homes of the future are Amazon, Google and Apple.

They are in the infancy of creating their home hubs, signing up more and more partner devices as they grow.

Google Home

Already available in the USA, Google Home is a virtual assistant that can help run your life. The device looks like a simple speaker, and it connects the user to Google Assistant, and through that to the internet and other connected devices in your home, so that everything can be operated by voice control.

The Google Demo gives you a good overview.

What is Apple TV

There is an app for that, or so the saying goes. Apple’s iOS devices represent one of the largest ecosystem for apps in Australia, and the company has used its Apple TV device to help lay the foundations for a smart home future.

While traditionally used to play games and stream media to your TV, Apple TV also acts as the go-between linking compatible devices in your home to your smartphone or tablet when you are out of the house.

This system allows you to ask Siri to do something almost anywhere at any time when you have a connection, and for the action to occur back at your home.

What is Amazon Echo

The direct competitor to Google Home, the Amazon Echo is a similar speaker-like device that connects to the internet and compatible devices in your home.

It uses Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, to try and fulfil your requests. It is available now in the USA, and is expected to come into Australia this year alongside the arrival of Amazon.

So when Amazon opens its retail into Australia, not only might it offer the Echo, but the range of smart devices for the home that are compatible, which could see it receive rapid uptake.  

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