The internet of things is about to go from buzzword to reality as your house wakes up to dozens of communicating appliances – but who will own the hub?
THE race for the smart home is on. Last week, Nest Labs of Palo Alto, California, made the software behind its internet-connected thermostat and smoke detector systems accessible to outside developers. The move opens the door for anyone to build apps that work with Nest’s products – which have found their way into more than a million homes since the company was founded in 2010.
Nest Labs says that more than 5000 developers are interested in tapping into its system. These include home appliance giant Whirlpool, fitness tracking pioneer Jawbone, and car maker Mercedes Benz. At Google’s annual I/O developer conference on 26 June, Nest’s founder Matt Rogers said this opening up will let developers do “supercool stuff that they could never have done alone”.
Nest, which was acquired by Google earlier this year, is going to have plenty of competition. Last month, Apple announced its own home-automation software, called HomeKit. It is due to launch with Apple’s iOS8 operating system this year. HomeKit will allow iPhone and iPad users to control door locks, lighting, CCTV cameras and heating/aircon systems – but rather than centring it on a thermostat, like Nest, the Apple TV internet set-top box is expected to act as its hub.
SmartThings, a start-up in Washington DC, has similar ideas – and it has got a jump on bigger firms. It has already shipped thousands of its communications hubs, along with several other in-home gadgets. It has also encouraged users to hack its SmartThings hub and come up with cool tweaks for the system, such as programming the washing machine to send a text when it’s finished, or turning light bulbs blue if a water sensor detects a leak. The firm is in effect turning to its own customers for ideas on how to turn the dream of the smart home into reality.
That reality has been a long time coming. This is largely due to the complexity of getting dozens of disparate objects all communicating with one another. Most companies have solved this problem by building a communications hub, and then asking appliance makers to design objects that can work with it.
Another way to attack the issue is to design more adaptable software. That’s the approach taken by a consortium of 40 companies, which includes microchip designer ARM, BT and IBM. The universal “discovery and interoperation” system, called HyperCAT, aims to allow devices from different manufacturers to discover one another and work together seamlessly.
“Until now, all internet-connected products have been incompatible, so nothing talks to anything else,” says Pilgrim Beart, CEO of a UK start-up called 1248, one of the consortium members. “For the internet of things to happen we need one app to work with multiple services, including ones the app has never seen before.”
Developed with £6.4 million in backing from the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB), HyperCAT lets devices present themselves to apps much as a secure web page does to a smartphone. Each device lists the kind of data it provides, such as temperature, humidity, latitude or longitude, in a standard, discoverable format.
This listing is called the hypermedia catalogue – hence the name HyperCAT. It lets apps browse for the kind of data they want. The TSB has said it hopes to be seeing HyperCAT-compatible devices becoming commonplace within a year.
Meanwhile, companies are lining up to access the Nest system. Whirlpool president Marc Bitzer says the company is working on washers and dryers that will use the Nest hub to operate at times of the day when electricity is cheapest.
Mercedes says its app will inform the Nest hub of your estimated arrival time. That way, it can get the temperature in your home right and open garage doors, too.
Home security solutions are also getting a boost from remote communications. Google followed up its $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest by purchasing DropCam last week for $555 million. The firm makes internet-connected CCTV cameras for the home. And LIFX of Los Altos, California, which makes wireless LED lighting systems, will use the Nest thermostat’s “home” and “away” modes – which can be activated remotely via smartphone – to make lights go on and off around the home and give the impression the house is occupied.
Early HyperCAT applications from IBM’s lab in Hursley, UK, also include novel lighting systems. Andy Stanford-Clark of IBM envisages discreet lights dotted around the house that change colour depending on some user-selected variable – like household energy use. A light connected to a home’s electricity meter could gradually change colour from yellow to red as energy use is peaking, he says.
The companies behind HyperCAT are not overly concerned by the activities of their competitors. “The internet of things goes way, way beyond the home that Google is trying to dominate,” says Justin Anderson of Flexeye, another UK start-up. “It’s going into cars, industry and satellite applications. The market will be very large.”
And people will be wary of signing up with one firm’s hub, predicts Stephen Pattison of ARM: “What will drive this is intelligent demand from consumers who want flexibility rather than locking forever into a single vendor system.”