Have you streamed the entire Netflix back catalogue or shot every Xbox Live baddie in sight? Are you wondering what else your fast broadband connection is good for? How about using it to turn your house into a smart home? Scott Bartley shows you how
FIRST, WHAT IS A SMART HOME? For many people, the idea of an internet-connected smart home is like something out of the realms of science fiction. However, the internet has given rise to an entire ecosystem of devices and services that can, without much fuss, add a Space Age layer of convenience and security to your home – and at almost any price point. Even if the thought of a fully connected home is a step too far, chances are there’s a gadget or two out there that can be genuinely useful to the right person.
Areas like home security, entertainment and household chores are all ripe with opportunity. The companies building these gadgets know this, so it’s easy to find all manner of connected devices, ranging from security cameras, lights and streaming music players, through to barbeques, fridges and vacuum cleaners. All of these can be made to do your bidding through a mix of voice commands, artificial intelligence and good, if now rather old-fashioned, mobile apps.
WHERE TO START - SMART SPEAKERS AND CAMERAS
While it’s possible to pay someone thousands of dollars to rig your home like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, connecting the parts of your house that actually matter is simple given the wide range of connected gadgets available. As long as there is good Wi-Fi and internet to connect to, most of these devices don’t need anything more than a power socket to install them.
When it comes to home entertainment, the rise of smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home – which are connected to the internet 24/7 (and all but useless without it) – have started to make their mark. Not only can they be used to stream music, podcasts and other audio, but they can also double as a personal digital assistant operated by voice commands.
Home security provides another reason for getting onboard with the connected home. The ability to keep an eye on the house, both inside and out, from almost anywhere using an internet-connected security camera, is incredibly useful.
Options abound so there is no shortage of choice, but two of the big names in the business are Ring – makers of the Ring Video Doorbell system – and Google-owned Nest. Here is how they approach home security:
Ring my always-on digital bell
Paying from $199 to as much as $749 for a doorbell sounds crazy at first, but there is more to the battery-powered Ring Video Doorbell than chimes. The chocolate bar-sized base model sports a high-definition video camera, wide-angle lens, night vision, Wi-Fi, microphone and a speaker. All of this makes it possible to answer a knock (or button push) at the door via a mobile app, even while away from home. In other words, as long as there is an internet service available, it’s easy to tell a courier where to leave a parcel, or even to hide from pesky salespeople trying to hock their wares. It’s also easy to pretend there is someone home using the Ring Doorbell.
You can add more than one doorbell too, or even the Ring Floodlight camera to improve coverage around the house.
As is often the case these days, there is a subscription service that adds yet more benefits. With a Ring subscription you get cloud recording. This means Ring Doorbell will automatically upload video of anyone ringing your doorbell, or any other motion detected, to the cloud. This means even if it’s not possible to check the alerts it sends straightaway, it’s easy to go back later and see what happened.
The upshot of all this is that the entire system relies on having a fast internet connection backed by a strong Wi-Fi signal to get the best out of it. The system is, at heart, a private video-streaming service and that makes fast internet crucial.
Feathering the digital nest
While the Ring system tends to focus on what’s happening outside the house, Nest cameras look inwards (although they do make an outdoor camera, as well).
Sadly, in New Zealand, Nest sells only a small number of the products available to its American customers, but these include a couple of nice indoor cameras, an outdoor camera and a smoke/carbon monoxide detector called Nest Protect.
Like Ring, the Nest cameras can detect motion and then send out a mobile alert, so users can tune in to see what’s going on. However, Nest adds another, smarter, layer on top that brings in facial recognition too.
All Nest’s smart processing is actually done in the cloud rather than in the device itself. It does this by continually uploading video from the Nest Cam to the internet, where Nest software analyses and stores the video. That’s right, Nest cameras are constantly streaming live HD video (albeit privately) to the internet.
Needless to say, this is a bandwidth-intensive activity and Nest is the first to say that for all this to work it needs a connection with a minimum upload speed of 2Mbps. We would add that an internet plan that includes a decent monthly data allocation is also necessary.
Light up remotely
Even lights work better with Wi-Fi these days, and Philips’ Hue kits are a perfect example. An expandable, Wi-Fi connected lighting system, it hooks into your home network and makes it possible to turn the lights on or off using a mobile app. This sounds like the height of 21st century laziness, but there are legitimate reasons to consider it – security being one, and automated convenience another. The ability to turn lights on remotely while away is a good way of fooling the bad guys into thinking someone is at home. Lights can also be dimmed and, if using the more expensive coloured bulbs, lighting recipes can be thrown into the mix as well, to set the mood.
Clean house the digital way
Robotic vacuum cleaners like Roomba tend to keep to themselves, handling most of the dirty work without any human input. However, they still need the internet to program cleaning schedules, and to receive alerts should they get themselves stuck, or if a wheel gets jammed. Sadly, humans will still be needed to empty the dust catcher.
IF THIS, THEN THAT
Even though these examples are only a small sample of the kind of connected devices available (we haven’t even touched on barbecues, heat pump controls and fridges), it’s easy to see how the internet can make them all much more useful.
They can become better still once they all start talking to each other. This isn’t some Terminator-style doomsday scenario, rather it’s a way of coaxing the various gadgets from different manufacturers to work together.
To reach this state of connected Zen, some prior research to ensure the various gadgets being bought are capable of talking to one another, is necessary.
This is because there are competing standards, some of which aren’t very open (Apple Homekit gear, for example, is fairly exclusive). In contrast, some products are designed to work with each other right out of the box (Nest cameras and Philips Hue lights, for example). However, a better way is to check if a device supports something called IFTTT, which stands for If This, Then That.
All the devices mentioned above support IFTTT. This means that by downloading the IFTTT mobile app, it’s possible to do things like have the Roomba pause in its cleaning cycle if the Nest Cam sees the phone being used. Or, the app can turn the Hue lights on (or off) when someone enters (or leaves) a room. Some products work well together, some don’t, but with some careful research before purchasing, the possibilities are endless. And everything is powered by fast broadband and home Wi-Fi.