Six ways that technology is changing our homes
The future is here and it's happening in your home. Adrian Weckler explores how the latest devices will make our domestic life run more smoothly
1 Most homes are becoming 'smart homes' without us even knowing it
You might think that smart homes are entities owned by people in California or Sweden. But a smart home is simply an ordinary home with some bits that let you control them from a phone or which enable various systems to 'talk' to one another. Like your lights. Or your alarm. Or your heating system. The most common examples are products such as the Nest smart thermostat (€269), which connects to your heating system and then runs it according to how cold it is or by what time it is. Alternatively, it runs things based on whether you're in the house or not. Products like Nest are programmable from your phone and can do a huge number of things, based on other conditions occurring around them. It analyses the times that you use your heating and starts to suggest times when you might not need your heating on. It does this using sensors and software. The company claims that most of its thermostat users end up with lower heating bills.
2 Almost all household appliance lines are starting to come with some form of online connectivity or artificial intelligence
You may not yet own an internet fridge, a robotic vacuum cleaner or a web-connected washing machine. But judging by the production plans of the major manufacturers, you probably soon will.
Take hoovers. A growing number of the major brands now have one model in their line-up that is designed to go around your house by itself, cleaning. Dyson's 360 Eye model may be the best in class, but Samsung, Roomba and others are close behind.
Using a combination of sensors, cameras and artificial intelligence, these cleaning machines are increasingly independent of manual management: you just set them down and away they go, navigating various obstacles in your rooms. And they can be monitored via your phone through your home's WiFi.
Fridges are slowly getting the connected treatment, too. Samsung's newest model uses a combination of cameras and sensors to tell you when certain foods appear to be going off. They can also be checked via your phone from a supermarket, to let you see whether you're running low on milk or eggs.
Cookers are developing in slightly different ways. New models from Miele, for example, come with advanced sensors that measure the size or proportion of food you're preparing and then cook them for the adjusted amount of time. The idea is that you never under-cook or overcook a roast chicken again. (For those who worry about the lost art of cooking, manufacturers are betting that for every culinary masterpiece you lovingly prepare for dinner party comrades, there are five or six more prosaic dishes that you just have to knock out on week days for your family.)
And even if you don't want to invest in a new home appliance, some manufacturers are now making add-on gadgets that turn old appliances into new connected ones. For example, LG's SmarthinQ sensor can measure things like vibration on the outside of a washing machine or movement on a safe door. The idea would be to let you know when a washing cycle is finished or when someone has opened a safe.
3 Voice controls are probably the waY of the future
We've all seen the way that Star Trek officers control machines - from on and off orders to complex questions - by speaking commands out loud. That process is well under way in the real world. The early adopters are devices such as Amazon's Echo and Google's Home, which take voice orders from you to control WiFi-connected systems around the house (including your lights, music streaming and heating). They also act as voice-controlled interfaces for common queries and internet searches, talking back to you. Apple and Microsoft aren't far behind, plotting to integrate home devices with Siri and Cortana, respectively. These systems aren't for the paranoid, however: because they are 'always listening' in your home, there are more than a few fears about surveillance vulnerabilities.
4 Not everything needs to be connected to your phone
Some smart gadgets don't need humans to tell them what to do anymore. They're starting to talk to each other. Specifically, some of them are using an emerging standard called IFTTT ('IF This, Then That'). This is a system where one connected devices does something - switches on a light, for example - while another one detects something else happening. For example, if a sensor on a door detects movement, another sensor attached to a lamp or the radio or the heating might turn one of those things on. There are umpteen household products and gadgets adopting this standard, such as Philips Hue lighting, Nest's Thermostat, Amazon Echo, WeMo smart plugs and more.
5 Lots of this stuff is very affordable
There's a lot you can get for less than €100. One of the cheapest and easiest ways to make almost any device in your house 'connected' is to attach it to an inexpensive 'smart' plug. Belkin's WeMo plug is probably the best example here. Costing around €40, it basically connects whatever is plugged into it to your phone (via a free phone app). At a minimum, it allows you to switch it (and therefore whatever is connected to it) on and off from your phone, wherever you are. But you can also program it. For example, you can ask it to keep track of when the sun goes down (by checking online) and to switch itself on when this happens. So being 'connected' is now a common, affordable reality: you already own most of the tools needed to make it happen.
6 Even luddites will be tempted by new wave home security systems
Enquired about a home security alarm recently? Most of them now come with pretty advanced remote monitoring capabilities. Off-the-shelf options are popular too. There are umpteen webcams on the market that give a live feed to your phone from wherever you place one in your home. These not only let you have a look at what's going on in real time, but they also now have motion detectors that send your phone alerts if any movement is detected. Some such webcams even store clips for you online so that it can't be gotten around simply by being smashed. Webcams are also very handy for keeping tabs on sleeping infants. Then there are things like smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. Some of today's 'smart' models have beefed up sensors that can tell the difference between too much steam and smoke and eliminate other 'false positives'.