I was digging through the mess in the loft the other day and I came across a box of gadgets and gizmos from the days before wife and kids. It was a look at a brief history of time when you needed adapters to make parallel printers work with serial ones, and thick yellow cables to move files from one computer to another. In other words, it was junk.
However, in that box was something that reminded me of something I experimented with about twenty years ago, the X10 home controller.
What this bit of kit allowed me to do was to program my lights and other appliances to switch on a various times of the day. So, for example, I could program my lights to switch on at 5pm in the winter just as it was going dark. Or, I could have the kettle start to boil at 7.30 so when I got out of bed, all I had to do was pour onto a teabag.
This was the beginnings of the 'Smart Home', although I'll be honest, it was still pretty dumb.
Would you believe, there’s actually a definition by the UK Department of Trade and Industry?
They say that a smart home is "a dwelling incorporating a communications network that connects the key electrical appliances and services, and allows them to be remotely controlled, monitored or accessed.”
Thankfully technology has moved on from when I dabbled with X10, and homes really are beginning to get to the 'smart' stage where they don't just switch things on and off depending on the time of day, but will do something based on triggers and actions. These 'things' can be fairly simple, such as turning the heating on when it gets cold, or closing the blinds to keep the sun out at a certain time of day.
They can be fairly complex though. For example, many of us have houses where the heating will switch on if the temperature drops below a predetermined level. That's great, but what if we're away for the week, what's the point of heating an empty home?
It's now possible to set up situations where the heating will only come on when certain criteria are met. For example, when the home isn't occupied, only put the heating on when it goes really cold so you can protect the water pipes. It's also easy to override this with a smartphone application so if you're on your way back from your holiday and the weather's bad, get the house nice and toasty for when you walk through the door.
Security is also a major factor in smart home technology. For example, your alarm is no longer a “dumb” system that simply fires off a bell to annoy the neighbours, it can alert you via a text message or an app on your phone. In fact, your phone can then give you a view of the room where the intrusion has taken place so you can see for yourself whether it’s someone making off with the silver, or it’s just the cat again.
Such systems can also call the fire brigade through connected smoke alarms. For the elderly or infirm, a panic button can call help and relatives if there’s a problem. In fact, where there’s an input of some kind, an output can be programmed to alert, call or perform an action.
Not only are homes getting smarter, but appliances are catching up, too. For now, many electronic switches will simply turn on a kettle or a light by providing power to the device. As you can imagine, this has its own problems. For example, if you forget to put water in the kettle and it’s automatically set to switch on in the morning, it could boil dry. OK, it’s not the end of the world, but it kinda defeats the object!
However, things are moving on. For example, the iKettle is a wi-fi based kettle which can be controlled via an app. You’re no longer forced to get up at a set time any more you can tell it to start warming the water as you get out of bed! Yes, I know, firstworldproblem.
Far more interesting is the smart fridge though. This allows you to scan the barcodes of items as you put them on the shelves. What’s the point of that? Well there are a few ways this can help.
For example, how often have you opened the fridge door to be met with a mess of rotten veg? Surely it’s not just me? Well, the fridge can keep track of your use by dates and let you know when things need to be used or thrown away. Not only that, it will suggest recipes so you don’t get to that point in the first place.
There’s a point at which we all have to decide whether what we’re doing here is simply our love of fancy gadgets or there’s a practical use. Smart homes, happily, fit both roles.
Security is the obvious highlight of a smart home, as already mentioned above, but they also allow us to save money. The ability to switch lights off when we’re not in a room means we’re not wasting electricity. We don’t waste energy heating an empty room and we also don’t buy food we’re never going to use.
It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to recoup the money spent on a smart fridge in savings from rotten vegetables, but it’s a step in the right direction. As with all technology, it gets cheaper and easier to implement over time and you can expect, very soon, smart homes and appliances will be a part of all of our lives.