Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (October 2015)

Home Automation: Are We There Yet?

By Bryan Bergeron

For the price of a bare-bones Echo ($180, www.Amazon.com), you can get a half dozen wireless timers and remotes for controlling lights, appliances, and your home security system. X10-compatible home automation devices are commodities — inexpensive, ubiquitous, and they work. Unfortunately, they’re also a bit boring.

At the other end of the home automation market are the cloudcompatible smart thermostats and cameras, typified by the Nest learning thermostat and Nest cam, respectively (www.nest.com). Both can be controlled through your smartphone from anywhere in the world. Plus, the learning thermostat is compatible with a variety of devices — from smart locks and sprinkler systems to ceiling fans.

If you want to make the Nest cam fully functional, you’ll have to pay a $10 monthly fee to Nest Aware — not something I’m prepared to do. 

One of the advantages of the Amazon Echo is that it’s compatible with Belkin WeMo and Philips Hue devices. WeMo is compatible with standard Wi-Fi routers and iOS devices, such as the iPad. Hue — which is primarily for lighting — also works with a standard Wi-Fi router, and both iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.

I’ve used the Philips Hue lighting system with my iPhone for about a year. It’s expensive, however, at about $200 for a Wi-Fi/Hue bridge and three 60W equivalent LED bulbs. Which brings me to cost. The basic “star trek” package — which allows you to say the equivalent of “Computer, lights on” from anywhere in your living room — is about $400 — $180 for the Echo and $200 for a basic Philips Hue lighting system. 

Add a few Belkin WeMo Wi-Fi switches for your existing lights or appliances, and you’re easily approaching $500. Still, this sort of off-the-shelf functionality that actually works was science fiction just a few years ago.

As Google, Apple, and now Amazon compete for the front end of the home automation market, there are likely to be more and more affordable peripherals and tools. More importantly — from an electronics enthusiast’s perspective — is the availability of inexpensive peripherals that can be easily torn down and repurposed for other uses. Think of replacing an RGB LED with three opto-isolators to control three servos, for example.

I think we just might have the “star trek” computer system of the 1960s. Now, someone needs to start working on the transporter, so we can say “Beam me up, Echo.” NV