Create your own smart home

Home automation used to be the bastion of luxury penthouses, hobbyist hackers and Bill Gates, but pervasive internet access and cheaper equipment means that anyone can now switch their heating on with a swipe of their smartphone.

The Tomorrow’s World smart home revolved around talking fridges that spare you a trip to the supermarket, but the technology that’s made it to market is less concerned with gimmickry, and instead focused on more pressing needs: reducing energy bills, improving security and connecting entertainment media.

In this feature, we’re going to reveal how the concept of the smart home is now tantalisingly close to an affordable, mainstream reality.

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We’ll show how many pieces are falling together to create connected homes that have long been out of reach to all but a few dedicated enthusiasts.

Plus, we’ll show how you can start to benefit from smart-home technology right away, with a selection of gadgets and services that will add a touch of automated magic to your home.

The next big thing

Industry evangelists believe the smart home, and by extension devices within it, will be the next key growth area for consumer electronics.

“It’s a similar journey that we took from dial-up to broadband to IPTV and everything else, and we’re in the same place now,” says Mary Turner, CEO of AlertMe, a smart-home technology provider backed by British Gas. “This isn’t about green tech or saving money, this is about the internet – it was about communication to begin with, then engaging with content, and in the third phase it’s about engaging and interacting with your home – it’s about the internet growing up.”

Smart-home companies foresee a world where a central hub plugged into routers puts consumers in complete control of their homes from anywhere.

Alert Me

Key fobs will tell the system when you leave home, switching off lights, activating locks and turning down the heating. Connected devices such as thermostats, security cameras and washing machines will be controlled from a smartphone app so that consumers can alter settings remotely, monitor rooms, turn lights on or pop the oven on for tonight’s Sloppy Giuseppe.

At its heart, the smart home is the logical extension of “the internet of things”, with devices interacting with a central account that consumers can manage from anywhere.

The near-ubiquitous ownership of smartphones is accelerating the smart-home surge, overcoming the expensive route of a professional fitting a proprietary set of equipment.

“Mobile has a big influence on consumer behaviour when it comes to home management platforms,” says Greg Roberts, vice president for iControl, a software developer that’s launched smart services in Europe via Swiss ISP Swisscom. “Tablets and mobiles enable the apps we develop to make it easy for end users to control or automate their home. A web portal means people can do things from anywhere.

“We have standardised a platform on open protocols: one being ZigBee, which is the wireless protocol that talks to the gateway and machines, but the system also uses Wi-Fi, and can talk to Wi-Fi cameras,” Roberts says. “Since it’s based on standards, hundreds of manufacturers are building things here – especially home health and home management.”

There are now dozens of apps that control connected devices in the home. MobiLinc, for example, is an iPhone app that uses any wireless connection to control up to 1,024 devices using the Insteon or X10 protocols.

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