We live in a magical age.
Today’s homes are aware nearly to the point of sentience. They know when we wake and sleep. They know how to make us feel comfortable. They can reduce our utility costs. Make life more convenient. Secure our homes.
Compare that to what our homes were capable of fifty years ago (which was, well, nothing) and the difference is nothing short of astounding. Especially when you consider that the most significant developments in smart home technology only happened in the past couple of decades.
This article will explore some of the most significant developments in smart home technology and how they either brought the rest of the industry forward or represented a shift in the industry.
Let’s get started with what is possibly the most influential of the bunch: X10.
X10 Home Automation (1975)
Back before the days of wireless connectivity, X10 home automation was the pinnacle of smart home technology. It represented a tremendous leap. It was, for its time, one of the most advanced methods of connecting multiple devices. It did so via household power lines linked to various control modules.
First created by a Scottish company called Pico Electronics, X10 got its name because it was the tenth of Pico’s main projects. Early versions of the system only consisted of a command console, a lamp module and an appliance module. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when more computer platforms were available, that an actual computer software interface for the X10 was released. Advanced versions of the X10 system used radio waves instead of power lines, which were prone to interference and signal loss.
X10 is still around today, providing a wider range of smart home products and still based on their legacy technology.
When you strip them down to their essence, most smart home devices basically just follow a set of pre-defined instructions. It doesn’t matter if those instructions are manually set or if the device learns how to do them on their own. If X happens, then Y happens.
IFTTT (If This Then That) is a free web-based service that allows users to create chains of conditional commands called applets. These applets connect to other web services such as Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and the like, but also can connect to compatible smart devices.
This latter application was introduced fairly early in IFTT’s lifetime, integrating with the Belkin WeMo device suite as early as 2012—merely a year after its launch. It allowed users to forge DIY connections across multiple devices without needing to learn or invest in more advanced tools like Arduino.
Most smart home technology solutions include IFTT compatibility as part of their development tools, ensuring that this simple free service will still play a role in many future DIY applications.
Nest Thermostat (2011)
Although smart home technology has been available for decades in various shapes and forms, it never really captured public imagination until the arrival of the Nest Thermostat—a home thermostat that could learn your behavior and preferences to create a truly personalized home environment. It utilized a combination of sensors, manual user inputs and powerful machine learning algorithms to build a custom experience for every residence with a Nest thermostat.
Why had it made such a splash? Was it the simple, intuitive dial-and-click interface? It’s remote wi-fi connectivity? Or was it because of the reputation of its co-founder Tony Fadell, former Apple engineer and iPod designer?
Whatever the reason, Nest popularized the idea of smart home technology and allowed other intelligent devices to gain a foothold in the crowded home appliance market. Now, smart appliances and devices are available in a dizzying amount of variety, with more advanced features and applications coming out all the time.
Nest has since expanded its line of products to include video cameras, doorbells and smoke/fire alarms.
While Nest popularized the idea of smart home technology, it was SmartThings that proved how much people were willing to put money behind it. Specifically, behind an open platform that would control and automate the behavior of multiple smart home devices over a wireless network.
In 2012, SmartThings set up a Kickstarter campaign that opened with a modest goal of $250,000. It received much higher community support than anyone could’ve predicted. At the close of their Kickstarter campaign, SmartThings had collected a total of $1.2 million in pledges. Not bad for first-time crowdfunders!
Fortunately, SmartThings delivered on their initial promise and more. The SmartThings platform is designed to be as agnostic as possible, capable of linking a large number of IoT-capable devices from brand names like Bose, Yale and Philips. In addition to this already-hefty suite of connections, SmartThings was also purchased by Samsung and therefore has full access to its line of smart devices.
Today, thanks to its strong developer community, SmartThings’ library of SmartApps can connect to a multitude of smart devices in applications far more complex than merely turning your lights on and off.
Amazon Echo (2014)
Pop culture is inundated with voice-activated computers and controls, from Jetsons to Star Trek to 2001: A Space Oddysey. So when the Amazon Echo first made its public debut in a Superbowl ad, it made quite the splash.
In fact, it’s a wonder it took so long.
The Amazon Echo is a smart speaker, a device that functions as both a wireless speaker and a voice command console. While it wasn’t the first such device, it was the first one that was linked to both an intelligent personal assistant called Alexa and a variety of online services, including IFTTT.
But it’s Amazon’s Smart Home Skill API that really cemented its role in the development of smart home technology. With it, developers can teach Alexa to interact with cloud-controlled lighting and thermostat devices, as well as any compatible appliances.
Voice-controlled home environments are no longer a thing of the future—homeowners are now spoiled for choice. Other companies have followed closely in Amazon’s footsteps and developed smart speakers of their own, with Google releasing Google Home in late 2016 and Apple releasing the HomePod at the end of 2017.
Smart home technology has increased by leaps and bounds in the last two decades. Developers are no longer reliant on physical power lines and analog switches. Now, we have the power of world-spanning wireless networks and flexible APIs that open up a potentially unlimited amount of possibilities for making our homes safer, cleaner and cheaper.
I can’t wait to see what comes next.