Knowing where you are in a smart home

Smart Home is one of the big buzzwords of the year. But what exactly does Smart Home technology mean, and what can it do for us? More importantly, where will it go in the upcoming years?

The first generation of Smart Home products have taken the form of connected thermostats, switches, cameras, plugs, appliances, and other things that are enhanced by Internet connectivity. This connectivity has enabled homes to be controlled by people through their smartphones and mobile devices.

The value for the people is clear; air conditioning can be turned on a few minutes before people get home, ovens can be started, lights can be adjusted, garage doors can be opened, doors can be unlocked, and more.

A second-generation of Smart Home products have taken the form of sensors and detectors, that detect when basements flood, pipes drip, doors open, lights turn on, appliances finish their tasks, and more, and notify people via smartphones or mobile devices. These sensors essentially enable first generation Smart Home connectivity to run in the opposite direction instead of people controlling their home by their smartphones, the home communicates with the people.

With this second generation, which is on the market but not yet strongly adopted, people can receive notifications when pipes drip, basements flood, kids open the refrigerator, rooms get too hot, liquor cabinet doors open, and much more.

There’s no debate that Smart Home technology of this sort, enabling two way communication between people and their homes, will be valuable and useful. It is truly a natural extension of the connectivity and mobile applications that we all take for granted.

It is interesting, however, that the original visions of “smart homes,” going back twenty or more years, had much more to do with homes adjusting themselves to the people that were walking around them than homes communicating with people. For example, the famous smart home that Bill Gates built in the late 90’s tracked people as they walked around a home, and automatically adjusted the climate control, background music, art on the walls, and lights, all to fit the preferences of the people that were in each room.

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Granted, that was a time when there was great focus on digitisation of art and music, and much less on interactive mobile devices. Nonetheless, the “smarts” of the smart homes of the time were in automatically reacting to people’s presence in the home, to automate things without requiring people’s attention and intervention.

Shouldn’t this sort of home automation, based on the locations of people walking around a home, be easy to implement today? Unfortunately, not necessarily.

There is a huge growth in recent years in indoor location technology, in which mobile devices track their own locations as they move around a site. ABI Research called 2014 the “breakout year for indoor location technologies .” Grizzly Analytics identified 2015 as the year that indoor location technologies will mature into serious solutions. Can’t this technology enable Smart Homes to react to people walking around in a smart and automated fashion?

Unfortunately, most of the indoor location technologies on the market, including both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth based systems, are only accurate to within four or five meters. In addition, many indoor location technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), take up to twenty seconds to detect and confirm the location of a person that arrived in a new place.

These limitations drastically limit the ability to support Smart Home capabilities, since it would be likely that the system would mistake which room people are in, and not react to their presence until it is too late to be useful.

For Smart Home systems to react automatically to people moving around the home, they need to track locations accurately enough to detect not only which room someone is in but which picture or appliance they’re standing near, and quickly enough to know a person’s new location as soon as they arrive.

New technologies, such as Ultra-wideband (UWB) radio, is bringing much more accurate and fast indoor location positioning to market. UWB can track locations to within 10cm, which is accurate enough to know not only which room somebody is in but which picture they’re looking at or which appliance they’re using. UWB can track locations very quickly, within a second of a person arriving at a new place. And, most importantly, UWB is now available in low-power integrated chips since 2013 making it easy and economically viable to embed in Smart Home equipment.

When Smart Homes are able to track people’s locations accurately and quickly, the climate control, lighting, music and art will be able to react instantaneously to the preferences of people in each room. This location awareness will drive the third generation of Smart Home systems, bringing more “smarts” to Smart Homes.

Once fast and accurate location tracking is available, additional Smart Home capabilities are opened up. If a system is absolutely sure when a person is within 10cm of a specific place, this location awareness can be used not only for personal preferences but also for security.

Older indoor location technology cannot tell whether the homeowner is sitting at their desk or standing on the other side of the desk (or the other side of the room), but once a system can be sure that the homeowner is sitting at the desk itself, drawer locks or computer access systems can use this to enable easier access in a very secure manner.

Garage doors can open when a person gets into their car, but not when they go to get a hammer from a garage workbench. Elevators can grant access to floors restricted to people that are in the specific elevator and not in nearby elevators or hallways. And these systems can then close and lock the doors when the person gets inside, since they are able to distinguish accurately which side of a door a person is on.

These are only some of the applications that a Smart Home can make of precise and fast location tracking. What else would you want your Smart Home of the future to do automatically, once it knows accurately and quickly where you are?

Mickael Viot is marketing manager for DecaWave.