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Think Your Home Is Smart? Think Again

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Post Date: 2024-01-29, Renesas Electronics America

Today’s smart home isn’t all that smart—not yet. 

The many smart devices available to consumers,  whether they are security cameras, air conditioners, furnaces or cordless, roving vacuum cleaners,  are more controllable than they are smart. We’re only just beginning to see the emergence of the smart home that will do  intelligent things by itself. 

In an exclusive interview with EE Times, Omer Cheema,  senior director at Renesas Electronics,  said the future of smart homes is one that is context-aware—by leveraging artificial intelligence along with the  available connectivity and sensing capabilities.

Real-world examples include automatic adjustments to the thermostat  based on who is in a room.  “Lighting systems can adapt, and security cameras can do certain things at certain times,”  he added.

Today, consumers have a lot of control, thanks to apps on phones that connect to devices like smart plugs and lights.

“This is control,” Cheema said. “This is not intelligence.”

There is still a long way to go when it comes to improving the user experience, he added.

Last year, Renesas bought Reality AI, a developer of an edge AI software environment,  and it has been combined with advanced signal processing,  machine learning (ML) and anomaly detection on every MCU/MPU Renesas core. A proprietary Reality AI ML algorithm  delivers accurate and fully explainable results supporting diverse applications that can enable many smart-home  applications.

This combination implemented in an HVAC system that’s equipped with sensors could detect the slightest wobble or  disruptions in airflow to initiate predictive maintenance. It can also adjust the environment based on how many people  are in a room.

Smart-home devices fall under the emerging markets for Omnivision,  which provides sensor technology in multiple segments, including smartphones, automotive and security.

Most sensors available are not especially smart, although an increasing number of applications enable awareness,  such as laptops that can sense when a user has stepped away and smart doorbells, Devang Patel,  a marketing executive at Omnivision, said in an exclusive interview with EE Times.

     

The next frontier is for sensors to go beyond rudimentary detection and make decisions locally to enable more  automation, he said. A smarter doorbell could, for example, recognize a resident returning home and unlock the door.

More intelligence enabled by sensors would allow for a smart home to manage the environment,  such as raising or lowering the temperature depending on the presence of people in a room,  Patel said. “If you see too many people in the room, you might control the temperature accordingly.”

These scenarios will spur a new category of sensors that are low-power with integrated computing,  he added. Aesthetics will also be a factor, as homeowners won’t want intrusive,  bulky camera-like sensors peppered throughout the house.

AI must run on connected, commodity hardware

Just as important as developing the algorithms that enable intelligence in the home will be making sure they can run on  commodity hardware. AI today is often associated with advanced GPUs,  but smart-home algorithms will need to be less data-intensive.

Connectivity and the cloud have been and continue to be foundational to the evolution of the smart home,  Renesas’s Cheema said, mentioning Wi-Fi,  Bluetooth and Zigbee/Thread. “The infrastructure beneath the smart home is being built now,” he said.

Renesas is already providing the key connectivity pieces. But intelligence at the edge is what’s needed for homes to be  smart, not just controllable, whether it’s security systems, vacuums or home appliances,  Cheema said. “What kind of additional algorithms can we provide them that will make their device home appliance stand  out as compared with the competition?”

User experience must be simplified

Creating a user experience that doesn’t require advanced networking skills is a key challenge because the number of  connected smart-home devices is going to proliferate—and they will all need to interoperate,  Cheema said. The out-of-box experience is important for consumers,  but home devices today are not always easy to connect.

Gamgee CEO Paul Hendriks sees user experience as a major hurdle for the smart-home market. He founded the  Amsterdam-based company to make the Wi-Fi in a smart home smarter. “In the end,  Wi-Fi will be the most dominant connectivity for smart homes,” he said.

The software that helps connect everything is also critical, Hendriks said,  noting that this is especially true for the user experience because the average homeowner often does not understand what  a router is or where the Wi-Fi connectivity is coming from.

“There’s a steep learning curve,”  he said, shown by the fact that many early adopters of smart-home devices struggled with connecting them,  spent a great deal of time on the phone with customer service reps and ultimately returned the products.

Hendriks—who has a background in telecom—has yet to be able to connect his own Wi-Fi printer to his router and didn’t  immediately realize his refrigerator had Wi-Fi capabilities, he said.

If the smart-home market is still in its infancy, it’s because the whole user journey is immature.

“That’s the puzzle my company is trying to solve,”  Hendriks said. The Gamgee mobile app aims to help manage the digital home more easily with features like parental  controls and security.

Wi-Fi will enable environmental awareness

To further simplify the smart-home experience,  Gamgee is levering Wi-Fi sensing to support motion-detecting applications rather than use cameras and sensors,  Hendriks said.

With a few weeks of training,  Gamgee’s mesh Wi-Fi would be able to distinguish between various members of a household. He said this opens the door to  many use cases,  both inside the home and in other environments. Hotels could keep track of whether a room is occupied or not,  and elder-care facilities could detect if a resident has fallen.

But no matter the application, Hendriks said the user experience is lacking.

   

Homeowners who have a smart doorbell and want their shutters to open when it rings so they can see who’s at the door are  out of luck. Both could work perfectly, but they don’t work together, and that’s why consumers get frustrated.

Hendriks said most companies with products to sell want to sell their products—whether it’s the doorbells,  appliances or routers—themselves;  they’re not all that focused on an integrated user interface. “They create closed environments because that’s the only  way they can control it.”

Home security and aging populations are the primary drivers of the smart-home market,  even if a robotic vacuum seems cooler, Hendriks said.

“We see a growing aging population where people still live on their own in their houses and fall detection and fall  prevention becomes quite important,”  he said. Energy costs, especially in Europe, are also a problem that can be addressed by smart-home devices,  as automation can help to better manage energy use, he added.

Device proliferation adds management complexity

The growing number of devices in the home is further complicating connectivity, Hendriks said:  “It’s becoming more convoluted.”

This complexity makes securing devices more difficult.

One industry initiative looking to reduce complexity and improve interoperability is Matter,  an open-source connectivity standard for smart-home and internet-of-things devices overseen by the Connectivity  Standards Alliance.

CommScope, a network-connectivity company,  recently integrated its PKIWorks IoT security platform with STMicroelectronics’ STM32WB microcontroller unit (MCU). The  partners’ solution simplifies manufacturing-secure, Matter device credentials development and provisioning,  essentially enabling devices to be commissioned at the MCU level without developer intervention.

Secure connectivity is a key enabler of smart-home ecosystems,  and it is one element of Infineon Technologies’ broader smart-home portfolio. The company’s Optiga product family of  hardware-based security solutions is designed to protect both data and devices in smart-home appliances,  while its Xensiv sensor range enables highly accurate and reliable status monitoring in smart-home devices.

    

A healthier, more energy-efficient home

Aside from connectivity, sensors are a key building block for the smart home, especially for more creative use cases,  Renesas’s Cheema said.

Occupancy sensors, temperature sensors, environmental sensors and gas sensors enable a smart and healthier home.

There’s quite an uptick in sensor adoption in geographies that grappling with poor air quality due to pollution,  Cheema said, adding, “Gimmicks aside, providing something that helps with your health is more valuable.”

Like Gamgee, Renesas sees power use as a critical smart-home element,  including the battery life of devices distributed throughout the home:  Developing ultra-low–power devices is essential to the smart-home experience so that homeowners do not regularly have to  change batteries.

Another cost element is that all of these devices, no matter how smart, need to be able to run on commodity hardware,  even as they get smarter with AI algorithms.

The good news is that most smart devices do not require large amounts of data to be stored locally.

Russ Ruben, director of automotive and emerging segment marketing at Western Digital,  has a different perspective on the maturity of the smart-home market.

“A few years ago, there was a lot more buzz about all these home appliances and whatnot,”  he said in an exclusive interview with EE Times. But connected-home devices are now prevalent in many homes,  whether people realize it or not, he said, noting, for example, that most TVs sold today are smart.

“The noise around it has reduced some, but I do think it’s still a growing and thriving marketplace,”  Ruben said. However, there are not a lot of new inventions, he added,  even as the number of devices in the home has proliferated. “The general excitement that you used to hear has toned down  quite a bit.”

There’s a difference between smart and actual intelligence, too.

“What do you define as being a ‘smart’ appliance?”  Ruben asked. By his definition, a smart device is something that can connect to Wi-Fi or be paired with a smartphone.

And just because an appliance can be connected doesn’t mean it will be, he added.

“We’ve got smart appliances where the general population is not taking advantage of all those whistles and bells that  are on it,” and sometimes for good reason, Ruben said.

He noted that he has a washer and dryer that can be connected to Wi-Fi to tell him when the load is done. “That’s what  the beep on the dryer’s for,” he said. “Why do I need it to show up on my smartphone?”

Demand for data storage remains low

Western Digital often touts the high capacities of its latest hard drives and SSDs,  and it has been providing data storage for a wide range of smart devices. But the data-storage demands of the smart home  remain low, Ruben said.

Smart lighting doesn’t need data storage,  and even devices that communicate with a smartphone don’t run enough code to need NAND flash, he said.

Because most devices are run off of some sort of central hub,  there isn’t one that has a significant amount of software that is increasing data storage capacity—while only a few  applications like security cameras require much local storage, Ruben said.

Set-top boxes are beginning to require more data capacity as more applications are added to them, he said,  and over the long term,  the smart-home market will produce exciting things that will improve lives and need more data storage.

Even as the number of devices proliferates,  there will need to be some sort of consolidation of platforms and operating systems so that devices can all work  together.

Samsung’s SmartThings recently announced support for third-party Matter bridges to enable integration of non-Matter  devices into the Matter ecosystem,  thereby expanding device compatibility options for users. The company is also embedding SmartThings Hub functionality  into existing and new products, including its sound bars and smart TVs.

Ruben said companies like Amazon and Google are trying to design for compatibility across many different devices that  can be activated by voice.

He said with all the bells and whistles that are going into new homes—including his,  which was built last year—it would be nice if everything was more centralized and controllable. “That improves the user  experience immensely,” he said.

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