Despite its name, home automation really hasn't been all that automated. There might be motorized draperies (yes, they open and close without pulling the string) or a front-door lock that you can activate wirelessly — for instance, from a smartphone.
But these devices didn't work together. Each had its own controls, and they might not even have used compatible wireless technologies. Such gadgets may be good for hobbyists who geek out over putting motors in things, but not for regular folks.
Now, several companies are trying to make home automation easy by creating technologies that allow software and services that connect the disparate gadgets and get them to perform several tasks together — such as opening the front door, turning on the lights and firing up the stereo when you pull into the driveway.
One of those companies is a startup called Revolv. The company makes a single small box, called a hardware hub, which is designed to control all the devices in a home, whether they use common wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or relatively obscure ones, such as ZigBee or Z-Wave.
"Our hardware hub has seven different radios,” said Revolv co-founder Mike Soucie. "It can talk to all these devices, depending on what language they speak." This could include thermostats, locks, security cameras, garage-door openers and even those automated drapes.
One neat feature on the hardware hub is its ability to use a single smartphone app in place of the individual apps for each connected device, such as a wireless lock or a Sonos streaming music player.
But Revolv takes its hardware hub one step further by incorporating Geosense technology. Through the home Wi-Fi network, the hardware hub connects to the company's cloud service to automate tasks based on your location.
For example, consider your drive home. Using Revolv's app, your smartphone transmits its location to the cloud service. When you reach a certain distance from your home, it sends a signal to turn up the heat, even tapping into online weather data to determine how long it will take to bring up the inside temperature, Soucie explained.
Then, as you pull up, it opens the locks and turns on the lights and music — and you haven't even pressed any buttons on the smartphone app. "Three things happen, all with your smartphone [still] in your pocket," said Soucie. "You walk in the door with groceries, [and] you don't have to fumble in the dark anymore." [See video of how Revolv works ]
Revolv will make the hardware hub available to consumers beginning in the fall. The company hasn't yet said how much the hardware hub or cloud service will cost.
Ninja Blocks automates automation
Not every company can build a complete automation system from scratch as Revolv has done. Another startup, called Ninja Blocks, is trying to make the process easier by providing the software and online services that small companies can simply plug into. "It enables hardware people to make interesting devices and software people to make interesting services," said founder Pete Moore." [See also: Why Cloud Computing Is Hazy for Many Americans ]
"You won't buy this technology from us," said Moore. "You'll buy it from somebody that's integrated our technology, and it will make their app cheaper and better."
Moore demonstrated a drag-and-drop system that device makers and service providers can utilize to make automated services. For example, he dragged an icon of a button onto a timeline and dragged next to it a camera icon and then an icon for the cloud storage service Dropbox. When Moore pushed a button on a remote control, a security camera took a photo of him and uploaded it to his Dropbox account. That may not be the most useful scenario, but it demonstrated how easily a small developer could set up services for customers.
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