Published On: Thu, Aug 13th, 2015

Would You Feel at Home in a Smarthome?


Like smartphones, smarthomes will also simply creep into your life. When you buy appliances a few years down the line, you will find that they do not make these dumb any more. When buying a doorbell, you will be faced with a choice of surveillance kits. To paint your house, you will find electronics dissolved in the paint, to maintain the temperature. To renovate your house, you will find that doors and windows are no longer simple wooden structures but electronically-reinforced super- smart security personnel. In short, you will no longer find devices that you have to operate, but will end up with a house full of devices that talk to each other, manage themselves and, ultimately, keep you safe and comfortable, too. The phenomenon has already started setting in with assorted products like smart thermostats, smart power sockets, energy management systems, connected home monitors, automatic garden sprinklers, connected slow cookers, drones that check who is at the door and more. Here we look at some futuristic research, products and applications.

Not just smarthomes, but a smart neighbourhood, too In March this year, Google was granted a patent for ‘Security Scoring in a Smart- Sensored Home,’ which mainly deals with communication and collaboration between sensors embedded in a smarthome. Some of the applications detailed in the patent are really interesting. You know what best you can do with today’s alarm clocks. In the future, a smarter alternative could automatically judge how long it takes you to get ready for work and wake you up accordingly. It would wake you up earlier if it observed traffic on your route or when you have set up a meeting for earlier than usual. Or, it might let you sleep a little longer if you arrived late from office the previous night and do not have a meeting till noon that day. Another interesting scenario detailed in the patent is that of multiple homes connected together to form a smart neighbourhood that will have improved security, cooperation for energy management, the ability to alert one another in case of events like fire and accidents and so on.

This door has no handle or lock to break Mitsubishi Electric’s model smarthome in Tokyo shows off some wonderful futuristic technologies, starting right from the door handle. When you arrive at the house, all you can see in front of you is a snazzy metallic sheet with a small peephole. There is no handle or lock visible on the door. But as soon as the biometric camera (yes, what you thought was a peephole) has scanned you and recognises you as an authorised inhabitant, a door handle pops out of the sheet. As soon as you touch the handle to pull, it quickly and unobtrusively checks your temperature and heart rate to ensure you are okay. If there are any updates for you, you will get those right away—it will tell you if your parcel has arrived or your child is yet to return from school and so on. You can also check the whereabouts of other family members and when they are expected home (as the door syncs to their schedules, too). If that sounds too futuristic, let us step into the kitchen. But before you do that, your vital statistics and that of your family members have already reached your fridge. Based on the stock inside the fridge and depending on the health parameters collected by the door handle and other connected devices being used by the rest of your family, this smartdevice gives you suggestions on what to cook. Once you decide on the menu, step-by-step cooking instructions and estimated preparation times are displayed on the kitchen countertop. The countertop has movable, ultra-thin induction heaters that can slide from end-to-end, as well as outlet-free, non-contact power for blenders, steamers and other kitchen appliances. According to news reports, the company has no immediate plans to launch these devices. It wants to take time to design the products carefully so that these can gel with users’ lives, to help without overwhelming them.

A drone to guard your house This year’s CES saw interesting drones being demonstrated by companies like Yuneec, Hexo+ and Hobbico. In a post-event interview, Ryan Kephart of Yuneec suggested that drones for home surveillance were a practical but unexplored area. Drones are stealthy; these can hover about and can be controlled by smartphones. Today’s drones are capable of continuously streaming audio and video, too. So why cannot a combination of drones and software be used to watch a house? This could be an interesting twist to future smarthomes.

Wearables that turn into authenticators In a Wired article, Kevin Foreman, director of product vision at Vectorform, explains that, wearables will play a significant role in the future smarthome. These would be like your key to the smarthome. Nymi, for example, is a wristband that continuously monitors your heartbeat and uses it as your signature to authenticate you to several other systems. It eliminates the overhead of having to manually identify yourself to other systems and devices using passwords or fingerprints. Plus, your heartbeat is inimitable, so it is a very secure technique, too. Over time, Nymi could also be improved to track the user’s body temperature to adjust air-conditioning, accordingly.

Smarthome tech for a healthy heart While many people think of smarthomes only from the perspective of energy management, comfort and entertainment, among other things, there are some for whom a smarthome could be a life-support system. Here is where MIT’s new wireless sensing technology, Vital-Radio, can be of help. The device, when built into the walls of a home, can monitor the occupants’ heart rate and breathing without requiring them to wear even a single sensor. According to the results published in a research paper, the technology boasts a median accuracy of 99 per cent from up to eight metres away. The system as a whole can track more than one occupant, at all times, whichever room he or she might be in, whether sitting, sleeping or moving. Researchers came up with this device based on the fact that wireless signals are impacted by even the smallest motion in the environment, even something as mild as our chest heaving during inhalation or exhalation and vibrations caused on our skin when the heart beats. The monitor first identifies the person’s presence, focuses on him or her and then measures the heart rate and breathing pattern by transmitting a low-power wireless signal and measuring the time it takes for the signal to be reflected back to the device. The patterns are then analysed by the device. The key benefit of this device is that it is totally non-intrusive. You do not need to wear anything at all. So the device can constantly watch the occupants of a house and, over time, apps can be used to study patterns, identify increase in stress levels, abnormal health conditions and so on. Now, that sounds even more useful than energy saving, right?

Love them abundantly, but watch only silently A real-life story covered by Heather Kelly in CNN’s Tomorrow Transformed shows how two daughters used a highly-customisable, do-it-yourself (DIY) home automation system from SmartThings to unobtrusively keep an eye on their 77-year-old mom, Mary Lou, who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. When Lou leaves home at an odd hour, a silent sensor on her front door alerts her daughters on their respective phones. Sensors on her keychains help find out if she leaves her condo premises, while some in the kitchen keep an eye on her eating habits. More sensors in the bedroom track when she sleeps, how she sleeps and when she wakes up, while flood sensors in the laundry room and smoke sensors in the kitchen assure her daughters that Lou is safe. The sensors are connected to a local wireless hub and together with a smartapp, these help Lou’s daughters give her the satisfaction of living independently and safely in her own home, while they remain assured of her safety. There are other companies like Lively, BeClose and GrandCare that offer connected accessories such as beds, toilets, pillbox sensors and blood-pressure-, weight- and glucose-monitoring devices. Most of these work silently without invading senior citizens’ privacy, which is most important to let them live with dignity.

Tech gives the gift of independence Not just senior citizens, there are also many youngsters with disabilities who are beginning to use technology to help them live independently. In the case of Eric Pebbles, an active college professor, who also suffers from spastic cerebral palsy due to oxygen deprivation at birth, a smarthome is a boon. He roped in smart technology provider Smart Solutions to build an independent living space for him. After assessing his requirements, they came up with a detailed plan for the house, which included automated doors, lights, thermostats, shades and security cameras, which could be controlled through an app on his smartphone. This enabled Pebbles to control these equipment from anywhere in the house. Smartlogic built into the system executes commands based on the situation without being explicitly given each instruction. When Eric is ready to go out, a one-touch command executes multiple tasks like unlocking and opening the door, switching off the air-conditioner and lights, opening the garage door and closing all these after he leaves. In a Web report, Pebbles said, “You do not know how good it feels to be able to open my own front door and enjoy the view. Thanks to technology, I can.” The best part is that all this magic has been worked into a normal apartment and not a specially- constructed one, so it is something anybody can try and implement for themselves.

Avoiding bugs It is evident that as smarthome technologies gain momentum, these will serve a mixed purpose of convenience, comfort and necessity. In the case of such critical applications, say, where a person’s parameters or whereabouts are monitored for healthcare reasons, it is also important that the system should work without faults. Understandably, researchers around the world are attempting to identify and overcome bugs in smart technologies. In one such research published by Juan Ye and team at School of Computer Science, University of St Andrews, Scotland, they observe that abnormal sensor events hamper the correct identification of critical (and potentially life-threatening) situations, and that existing learning, estimation and time based approaches are inaccurate and inflexible when applied to multiple people sharing a living space. They also point out that sensor anomaly, which might be caused by people accidentally moving or dislodging sensors, can be even more problematic than broken sensors. This is because dislodged sensors could report values that are within a reasonable range but not accurate, so it would be difficult to find out that these are malfunctioning. Addressing this is, according to the team, more difficult than straightforward damage of sensors. To solve this problem, the researchers have developed CLEAN, a knowledge-driven technique to detect anomalies in event-driven binary sensors. According to the authors, “CLEAN combines knowledge and statistical models by using well-defined knowledge as part of a clustering based outlier-detection technique.” The system does not rely on any training data or annotated data and is therefore not affected by any change in the occupants’ routine activities. A flexible and dynamic mechanism is used to configure and adjust thresholds at runtime, which reduce the engineering effort. It can work with any number of sensors and users, and can be scaled up, too. The concept has been tested using several third-party real-world datasets with different sensor deployments, user profiles, etc, and has been found to be effective. Hopefully, we will see this and other research findings deployed in future smarthomes.

Smart, no doubt, but should be used smartly, too The first reaction to these products and projects is amazement, followed by a sense of satisfaction, albeit peppered with a little fear. It is good to know that smarthome technologies enable people with disabilities to live on their own terms. It is comforting that these technologies let mothers be at peace at their workplaces, while getting constant updates about the whereabouts and safety of their kids. It is also nice that these technologies free up some of people’s time and mindshare. Fortunately, these also save them a bundle by reducing energy consumption. But, at what cost? When you find a free hour, you should listen to this National Public Radio debate on whether smart technology is making us dumb. It is available on www. debate-is-smart-technology-makingus- dumb Hard to believe, but it could be true that too much of technology could reduce our ability to think and make decisions for ourselves. It is a boon for those who really need it, but others must exercise their discretion. You cannot have too much of a chocolate cake just because it is delectable.

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