A couple of years ago we published a story with the headline, "Your Next Home Will Be A Robot," based on some promising figures that suggested the home automation market was poised to explode. Since then big-name players like Verizon and Google have tried entering and revolutionizing the robot home game, with mixed results. But now it looks like smaller, independent firms may actually be the most viable way to robotize your home. If the future is finally here, you'll have Kickstarter to thank.
The SmartThings project blew past its initial $250,000 funding target a short while ago, and now with less than two days to go it's shot through a million dollars of Kickstarter funding. That's a level of success that puts it on par with some of Kickstarter's most successful funding events such as the Pebble smartwatch and Amanda Palmer's new album.
SmartThings, according to its Kickstarter pitch is all about, "Adding intelligence to everyday things in your world, so that your life can be more awesome." It does this simply, with independent detectors that wirelessly connect to a hub that looks much like your wireless Net router. The detectors are dotted around your property to sense if doors are open or the mailbox has been filled with letters, or even if you're getting out of bed in the morning. Via electronic alerts and smart plugs, the system can be configured to warn you your doors aren't locked, ping you if the mail has arrived, and turn on your morning coffee pot.
It's not complicated, highly modular, and designed to be hackable so that the more enterprising user can even build in their own sensing systems. But its main draw, compared to professionally installed automated home systems, is that it's very easy to install and to reconfigure as your daily needs change. There's no need to dig up your walls to lay cabling to support it and so on.
With over $1 million behind them, the SmartThings team is also concentrating on taking their device international right from the get-go. And as well as partnering with Instacube to add an Android-powered smart screen interface to the service, SmartThings is also teaming with Ubi to add voice control, the energy monitoring system Wattvision, and the Pebble smartwatch. It's worth noting that all these additional systems are Kickstarter-funded too.
Meanwhile, there's another automation service that has smashed the $1 million mark on Kickstarter--and still has over seven weeks before its funding window closes. But where SmartThings is all about taking the idea of the "Internet of things" and applying it to home automation, LIFX is much more specific: It's about bringing 21st century remote-control LED lighting to the average home. Based on standard lightbulb formats--while looking like some of the expensive swap-in LED bulbs that firms like Philips hope will replace your incandescents--LIFX is actually Wi-Fi enabled so it can be commanded from a smartphone.
The team claims this is "the smartest light bulb you've ever experienced," and notes that as well as being energy efficient and multi-colored, it'll last up to 25 years. (Compare that to most of the tech-y things in your life!) Like SmartThings it's also promoted on its simplicity and flexibility because needs no "electricians or ugly control boxes." As well as being simple remote-control switches, the LIFX bulbs can also play a part in your automated home because they can be programmed to gently dim or brighten to help lull you to sleep or wake you gently in the morning, and they can even react to act as mood-light visualizers to music.
For yet more proof that home automation is very much a Kickstarter staple, check out the Ninja Blocks project, which was successfully funded in March. On a much smaller scale, and designed to appeal to people who like to tinker with gadgets without needing to have an electronics degree, Ninja Blocks is also designed to be very cheap.
Similar to SmartThings, the idea is that small sensor-laden wireless units can be deployed and trigger actions--the project suggests tasks like snapping a photo of your front yard and saving it to Dropbox when motion detection happens, or switching a lava lamp on if your friends are playing on Xbox Live. This interactivity is enabled via web apps, and it requires a bit more tweaking by users than SmartThings, but the uses for wireless temperature sensors, light or motion sensors and buttons to work as a home automation system are many and obvious.
Though each installation of a system like SmartThings or LIFX will vary greatly in cost depending on how smart you want your home to be, and how many modules you install, it's a safe bet that it'll cost less than the tens of thousands of dollars that a high-end domotics system can cost you to install and maintain. It's worth noting that firms like Belkin have woken up to these same issues, and Belkin's WeMo system seems competitively priced...even if it's not quite as slick or powerful as SmartThings.
And that's perhaps where we get to the interesting part of this. Home automation tech has been around for years, so why does it finally seem to be rocketing into the mainstream via Kickstarter? Part of the reason is price, and the modular nature of the Kickstarted projects combined with the fact that the makers are small startups that lack the overheads of larger firms helps with this.
Another element is timing: The heart of a home automation system is its main control unit and this unit's interface. Now that we all carry powerful wirelessly connected smartphones, and our homes are filled with wireless signals, much of the expense and technical complexity of a dedicated home automation hardware unit can be replaced with simple cheap hardware and an app. Another element is the crowdsourcing nature of Kickstarter--with SmartThings' team seeming to listen to the ideas and requests of their backers even as the project was being developed.
[Image: Flickr user Ah_blake]