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Issue 40

Connected Home - Challenges In The Field And What’s Next

Kovacs Zsolt
Mobile Applications Capability Group Lead
PROGRAMMING

Smart Home is one of the most popular Internet of Things (IoT) use-cases in the consumer space and with a lot of exposure to the software engineers due to the increasing number of product manufacturers that are forced to offer value-added services to keep up with competition. Smart Home is more than Home Automation: it adds Broadband, Entertainment Energy optimization, Health and Security on top of Automation.

As an important player in the field of IoT and Industrial IoT (IIoT), Accenture has already a major contribution in Smart Home domain offering end-to-end solutions and platforms to its customers, under the name of Connected Home.

In this article we will look into the challenges faced by consumers, product manufacturers, developers and other stakeholders. The challenges range from hardware and software interconnectivity to usability issues all the way. In-between security and monetization issues play a major role. Ultimately we will try to guess, based on current trends, what is to be expected next in this domain.

Let's start with a sample use-case to understand the context better.

Sample use-case

Michael lives in the rural Germany. He has a house equipped with Miele washing machine, Nest thermostat, Bosh Buderus boiler, automatic roller-shutters and connected electrical switches to control appliances. For security, he has motion sensors installed in various rooms, combined with Samsung SmartCam(era). He needs to have an outdoor weather station, so he buys one from Netatmo. In order to be self-sufficient energetically and to lower his bills, Michael purchases solar panels and batteries to store redundant energy.

With all this technology around, Michael has trouble to remember where he left his remote for the roller-shutters and he is constantly faced with cabling challenges for wired equipment. He needs to open up different apps to control his Philips Hue lights and SmartCam, even Nest and Buderus fail to work with each other seamlessly.

Michael learns there are platform providers that solve some of his issues, so he phones up a well know integrate, Louis to offer him the best alternative for his situation. Louis proposes to install Revolv to integrate all his hardware under one hood. He also fixes Michael's connectivity issue between Buderus and Nest, by installing a relay panel on his boiler. Now Michael is good to go.

After a few months, Michael realizes his energy bills significantly drop, after he implemented the suggestions of his Smart Grid energy provider. He is not concerned anymore about the security of his house while being away and he actually receives a bonus from his insurance company. He has added comfort by being able to connect all the devices in a way that add value to him like: his alarm is adjusted based on weather and traffic conditions and, amongst others, the roller-shutters lower during a sunny day, so that the sun doesn't heat up his house unnecessarily.

To be continued…

Can I do the SamE?

Some of the use cases are context dependent, some can be reconstructed everywhere. Smart Grid is not yet present everywhere and not all insurance companies offer this service either. Traffic info is not measured on all roads yet. However, all these services are gaining ground and it will be possible to integrate some in the near future, while others only in the longer term.

CHALLENGES FROM DifferENT pointS of view:

Consumers: As we could see, Michael prefers "fire & forget" solutions (60% of consumers). Devices should be energetically autonomous and people should not care about keeping them up to date with security patches. Michael needs a simple and easy control mechanism that allows for most of his ever-changing use-cases and he wants to keep his options open when it comes to HW. He would like to avoid headaches whether one of his existing devices is compatible with the one he wants to buy or not.

Developers and service integrators: Louis, on the other hand, faces a much larger problem. Different protocols are around, protocol implementations in the form of libraries and smart object definitions to handshake capabilities of these smart devices. For these reasons, solutions developed these days have the Smartphone or a Home Controller at the center of the ecosystem, making a star-network in both cases. On the protocol front, XMPP, MQTT, LwM2M, 6LoWPAN, CoAP, IPSO, ZDO are the biggest players, the library front ranges from big guns like Apple with his IoT implementation HomeKit, to open standards, like Open IoT stack Eclipse SmartHome that has LwM2M, MQTT and CoAP implementations. From skills perspective, Louis faces another challenge: various skillsets from embedded to wearable/mobile/bigscreen/car, API & microservice development and analytics are needed to develop end-to-end Connected Home solutions. Louis needs to learn all his life.
He needed to know 6LoWPAN and Nest cloud API to integrate Nest, XMPP and P2P technologies for SmartCam. Netatmo was integrated using a REST API just like Philips Hue, MQTT was also used.

Product manufacturers: Adam, like the increasing number of his fellow competitors, keeps close to his customers. He produces Nest and offers free updates to the users and promises to keep their personal data secure. He realizes that Nest is not yet smart enough to communicate locally to all possible devices, so he offers cloud APIs to integrate the rest of the users' appliances. Besides Smartphones, most of the devices are not yet smart and product manufacturers, to differentiate themselves, offer value-added cloud services on top of their products. Philips Hue, Nest are good examples of that. Most of these devices are built on the ZigBee open source stack, integrate the proprietary Z-Wave chip or expose a BLE interface. It's easy to see how interconnectivity suffers. To make money, Adam needs to come up with clever options from freemium, in-app purchase, subscription based, pay-per-use to premium model.

Service providers: Alex is a platform owner and he is faced with the challenge to glue together all the above. His platform is especially useful during the time when there are so many interoperability issues between devices. Alex strives to bring Michael on the platform, to support all Adam's devices and use-cases, to offer him ease of integration and good monetizing options, while maintaining his differentiation. He doesn't necessarily agree to Louis.

There are other stakeholders in this ecosystem. The government provides the infrastructure via SmartGrids and regulations for energy price. There are also different industries that are interested to interconnect, like Insurance, Energy and Telecom.

The Glue. What does A Connected HOme Platform Do?

Alex thinks he has a better option to what Louis proposed. Let's see what his platform does.

Discovery of devices. Home Controller implements Z-Wave, ZigBee, WiFi, BLE and is capable of identifying all the devices that are in the range of action and acts as an internet gateway or a network controller for the ones that don't connect to a cloud service. Star networks and client-server connections are typical these days, mesh networks and peer-to-peer connection is the connectivity between the devices of tomorrow.

Securing logically and physically for anti-theft. TLS is mainly used as a secure communication channel for securing sensors and actuators, MD5 hashing can also be used. However, a semi-decentralized signing/verifying is desired, like Blockchain Certification Protocol that will aid secure communication between devices even without a platform and a management authority at hand.

Configuring the devices. Each device has various capabilities (think about solar panel & washing machine), different ways to configure. Some configurations are common like frequency of data polling, other are very much device dependent and described in the Smart Objects like IPSO, ZDO. One particular aspect in a battery-powered device is knowing and improving battery lifetime; how to operate in critical operation mode in low battery conditions. Security systems are a good example.

Monitoring the devices. Viewing current data (eg. Netatmo weather station, SmartCam) or viewing historical data.

Integrate devices in use-cases; create scenarios or scenes (Z-Wave term) that are personal and relevant. As an example, Michael's alarm clock adjustment; HVAC changes operation mode triggered by door locking, lighting and blinds adjusted, TV watching scene with some lights off, some partly on, blinds down and volume levels up to a limit etc.

Firmware update of the field devices. This typically happens without user intervention when subscribed to a service. Some manufacturers offer free updates and stay closer to consumers; others, not so close and may even charge for updates.

In-app purchase of actual physical devices, software packages or items (eg. 100 SMS package for notification), extended warranty/maintenance, integrated services (eg. Apigee, Critercism) for further added value.

WHAT'S NEXT?

It is a disrupted market. New startups are introducing groundbreaking new products, intensifying the competition. There are 120 major Home Energy players only in North American market, source: GTM Research, 2015

Security is the top reason people buy smart home technology according to 90% of current deployments. Energy optimization is a distant follower and other use-cases started to appear as well. Entertainment is a top trending use-case and this is where large companies are currently focusing their efforts as well.

Adoption is expected to increase as consumers see the considerable reductions in their energy consumption and improved comfort Connected Home can deliver. 50% of USA/CAN consumers say they plan to buy at least one smart home device in the next year (iControl report). Those who know someone with a smart home have almost double likelihood to buy than the rest. Gartner predicts a typical family home can contain more than 500 smart devices by 2022 but right now most consumers see Connected Home as a nebulous term without a clear value proposition.

On the protocol front, it is desirable that one protocol implementation will emerge. Will it be Thread? Will open source be the future?

On the energy front, Smart Grid implementations move much slower. Public investments are needed and this is just not there yet in most countries. So I'd not plan for the next decade to have it in Romania, while building highways represents a challenge to us…

On the entertainment front, Apple is pushing hard on its Apple TV. They say "Apps are the future of television". Is it possible this is their quest to take over not only our living room but our whole house as well?

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