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A smart home that's really smart

A smart home that's really smart

Forget the smart gadgets. The ultimate home automation appliance is the house itself.

"The network is the computer."

That's the old Sun Microsystems slogan coined by Sun computer scientist and researcher John Gage. The slogan predated cloud computing, but it's a great way to envision the cloud idea.

The slogan for today should be: "The house is the Internet of Things appliance."

OK, that's not nearly as elegant as the Sun slogan. But I think the successful model for home automation is where the home has intelligence built in, and where the house itself is "smart," with sensors and brains, while other devices simply add capability. The idea of a smart home is a smart idea when the home is built smart from the start.

Here's the first step: We need homes designed architecturally and otherwise with automation built in, not as an afterthought, but as a primary objective.

Tiny house makes big assumptions

Homes are currently designed and built with no expectation of home automation support. One reason for that is the old chicken-and-egg problem. Home-automation devices are designed with the assumption that homes provide only outlets, so homes are designed with the assumption that only outlets are required in order to support home automation devices.

I think all of that will change as smart-home appliances go more mainstream -- a process that's happening quickly.

In fact, you can already buy homes that come with automation. One is called the Kasita, a tiny (270-square-foot), stackable, prefab house that was showcased at SXSW and is due to go on sale later this year.

When your new Kasita arrives, it's already equipped with various home automation appliances, including an Amazon Echo, a Nest Thermostat, Philips Hue lighting and more.

The Kasita is modular on multiple levels. The living units themselves can be stacked one upon the other on a specially designed dock to make a kind of multistory apartment building (the first one is in Austin), and wall plates can be swapped out for bike hooks, coat racks and other items you might normally nail into a wall.

It's interesting that the makers of the Kasita chose to include an Echo, a Nest thermostat and Hue lighting. That decision shows that these leading products are ready for the mainstream. The culture is quickly evolving from "what's a Nest Thermostat?" to "obviously we're going to need a Nest Thermostat." It might as well just come with the house.

No, these popular products aren't fully built in. They're merely included. But in a perfect home in a perfect world, they would be built in.

One Silicon Valley company is working on it

A smart home where the home is actually smart

Another vision comes from a startup called Brain of Things, which is making what it calls "Robot Homes" in California.

The homes are actually apartments with built-in fixtures and hidden, integrated sensors that enable the homes to adapt to the owner's lifestyle and preferences using machine-learning algorithms. For example, the dwellings have 20 motion sensors throughout the living space. The automation systems have to be installed when the units are built -- special-purpose cables, as well as sensors and switches, are integrated into the walls. A "Robot Home" apartment can't be retrofitted.

Conceptually, the overall systems are comparable to the Nest Thermostat -- they capture data about behavior and preferences, then learn to predict what you'll want. But in addition to controlling heating and cooling, as the Nest does, these Robot Homes also automate plumbing, lights, appliances and the home entertainment system.

For example, the blinds automatically open when you get up in the morning and then automatically close at night.

You can also use voice commands or a smartphone app to control the house. Monitoring, and automated feeding, of your pets is also part of the deal.

If anything unusual happens inside the house while you're away, or if you get a package at the door, you'll get a notification on your smartphone.

Interestingly, user privacy is based on the Apple iPhone model -- data never leaves the building. And there are no motion sensors in the bedroom.

Brain of Things says the technology adds around $125 to the monthly rent and $30 per month in maintenance fees for the landlord.

I think the Brain of Things is on the right track and that it has established a great model for all home builders.

Homes built today will be around for decades. It's better to build for tomorrow, not yesterday.

When we first got power

When you buy a house, you expect it to be wired for electricity, and for electrical appliances to be built in as well -- ceiling lights, a water heater, a furnace, a washer and a dryer. Of course, this expectation didn't exist before 100 years ago (give or take a couple of decades, depending on the location of the house).

At first, homes were simply wired with electricity -- the walls got outlets. But over time, new home construction assumed certain behaviors around electrical appliances. For example, power (as well as plumbing) in a dedicated laundry room or, barring that, in a convenient part of the garage. Most setups also include a dedicated four-prong dryer-specific outlet.

Homes typically have many outlets on the wall above the kitchen counter, based on the safe assumption that people will be plugging in blenders, toasters and other gadgets. Lights are usually built in above those counters.

At one time, bathrooms didn't have outlets, but now they always do, thanks to electric shavers, toothbrushes, blow dryers and other devices.

In short, our homes "learned" to embrace the electrical revolution by design, and not just with the provision of outlets.

I think the same thing is going to happen with the home automation revolution.

The advantage of building in

If you think about the three main devices in the Kasita system, it's clear how products like these could be improved by further integration into the home.

The Amazon Echo, which is already branching out into Tap and Dot variants and integrating with the Ford Sync Connect, would benefit from microphones and speakers all over the house -- built into the light fixtures, perhaps.

The Nest Thermostat could work better and more efficiently with temperature sensors in every room.

If every light in the house were based on the Philips Hue platform, including kitchen and bathroom lights, the mood of an entire house could be set automatically.

Most importantly, all these devices should share the same set of built-in motion detectors and other sensors, plus a beacon system for knowing who's in what room -- and even the exact location within a room. The microphones used by the Amazon Echo could also be used by other devices. And, most importantly, a centralized artificial intelligence system could integrate everything together without personal data being uploaded to the cloud.

Home automation that fully delivers on the promise of the connected smart home needs more than interoperability between random products. The home itself needs to be designed from the ground up for home automation, just as 100 years ago homes were starting to be designed for electricity and a lifestyle built around a wide assortment of electrical appliances.

Home automation has been presented to us as a mind-boggling variety of smart devices that are supposed to talk to each other but often don't.

That vision (the peer-to-peer gadget vision) is not nearly as "smart" as devices that function as a multifaceted interface between the house itself and the humans who live there. We talk to the house and live our lives in the house, and the house learns to do everything for us.

What's needed, and what's new about the Brain of Things approach, are homes that are built from the very start for integrated home automation.

In a real smart home, the home is really smart.

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