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Will The Home Automation Revolution Be DIY?

We talk to industry experts about whether the smart home will be a phenomenon of the people.

Will The Home Automation Revolution Be DIY?
[Image: Flickr user Images Money]

At its most accessible, a connected home can be created with consumer-friendly devices that require little or no installation–an approach largely popularized by the likes of Nest.

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Take Canary: A home security product without a single wire that raised a staggering $1,961,862 on Indiegogo in July 2013 and is currently in pre-order.

One unified device is equipped with motion detection, temperature and humidity sensors, microphone and speaker–providing reassuring eyes and ears inside a home while you’re away. Its key, however, is the sophisticated software it runs, according to Canary cofounder Adam Sager. Canary learns your habits, so it knows how to make the most of that sensor data–the idea is that it becomes smart enough to realize whether something happening in your home is normal or suspect.

“Instead of just being a binary sensor, we decided to add a lot of intelligence to our device. We looked at building artificial intelligence and machine learning into the device, so when we came out it was a different approach to security,” Sager says.

Sager believes Canary fills a gap in the market for a consumer-level security device. A solution so simple, he says it doesn’t even classify as DIY. In other words, it’s not a solution geared for the Lowe’s weekend warrior–instead, you might one day find it at a big box electronics store.

“[Canary] is designed for normal people to install and use, whether you’re a renter or an owner or just someone who doesn’t want to install a fully integrated system,” he says. “That’s the middle ground between the fully integrated model and the DIY model–the consumer model, and this wasn’t being addressed at all.”

DIY Home ntegration For Geeks And Non-Geeks Alike

The DIY model moves from single, simple devices to more complex, integrated systems. They typically include some kind of “brain”–either a dedicated device or computer running software–that gathers information from various sensors and then calls all the shots by sending commands to a slew of control devices installed throughout the home. Control devices are anything from a simple module plugged in between a lamp and the wall to smart light switches, HVAC, security systems, and whole-home media interfaces.

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This DIY space has long been owned by the geekier among us, requiring comfort with hardware, programming, and electrical wiring. But that’s starting to change.

Simpler, less costly smart devices that can wirelessly communicate to the “brain” have matured into reliable whole-home choices, making the decision to automate increasingly tempting for early adopters. Many of these wireless devices use an open-standard wireless technology called Z-Wave to communicate with other devices on the network. With technologies like Z-Wave, or other popular contenders like Insteon, DIYers don’t need to mess with a hard-wired system or specialized programming to achieve the results they want.

Another emerging trend is simpler solutions to that all-important brain of the system. User-friendly, “no programming required” smart hubs, typically controllable from a mobile device, now offer an alternative to more technical choices.

One such solution, Revolv, plays nicely with technologies like Z-Wave and Insteon, along with brand names like Sonos, Philip Hue, and Yale Locks–aiming to elegantly tie them into one seamless system that is dead-simple to set up.

Revolv is a TechStars company that launched in November 2013. Ryan McIntyre, cofounder of Foundry Group, a venture capital firm based in Boulder, CO, is an investor in Revolv and believes solutions like Revolv and the third-party smart devices it integrates with afford much of the same convenience and functionality offered by pricy pro solutions.

“What Revolv and other crowdfunded device startups are doing will absolutely be disruptive to the incumbents over time,” McIntyre says. “The real disruption is that we now have consumer-grade, readily available technology in the form of our handhelds and tablets that can finally make this technology accessible to a wider audience. A Revolv system and a smartphone could replace tens of thousands of dollars of functionality. Of course over time that’s going to really disrupt the incumbents.”

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Mark Walters, chairman of the Z-Wave Alliance, a consortium of manufacturers and service providers dedicated to wireless control products based on the Z-Wave open standard, predicts that over time the concept of the connected residence will become second nature regardless of logistics of the install. “Who would have ever thought that we would be able to download apps to our phone, yet we do it all the time,” he says.

Walters cautions that there is still the ability to get in over your head. “People buy these gateways to their homes that control their door locks and their lights and they leave the password as ‘password.’ Not only can they can get in over their heads by not thinking about simple things like passwords, but with electrical wiring too,” he says.

While Z-Wave technology appeals to the DIYer, the bulk of their business is coming through the channel of third-party installers.

“[In the U.S.] we’re probably 70%-75% assisted delivery, predominantly from security companies–the ADT’s, the Vivints, the Honeywells,” Walters says. “They put in about 6.5 million houses last year, that’s about 75% of the home installations of 2013.”

Walters maintains that home control can be done very successfully whether it’s achieved by DIY or with professional home install. “If you do it right you get tremendous advantages, if you do it wrong you could be opening yourself up to some disappointments. Fortunately this stuff is not too hard to do and manufacturers are getting better at providing instructions on how to do it and ways to test it.”

Professional: Ultimate Polish For A Price

Professionally installed solutions can range from subscription models–like those from security, cable, and Internet providers–to supremely customized, premium solutions. Their proponents argue they can deliver a level of refinement, aesthetics, security, and simplicity that goes beyond the capabilities of a DIY.

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Tom Barnett, director of Residential Marketing for Crestron, a company that manufactures complete systems for home automation and audio/video control, likens the high-end professional install to a tailor making a great suit.

“They’re going to ask questions, take measurements, figure out the design challenges and then deliver something that merges seamlessly with the design of the home,” he says. “There is a bespoke nature of the whole thing where you have someone who has put in a number of home automation systems before that is very familiar with the various systems.”

In terms of security, Barnett explains, “because you’re building a bespoke system, you make all of your own choices about how that’s going to work. For example, we have an iOS and Android app, but you don’t have to have those apps at all and you don’t need to connect your system to the Internet. You have the ability to customize what parts of your system are connected to your home and which ones are not exposed to the Internet.” Which he considers a different and much more custom approach than most connected home devices.

He added that the market Creston serves often involves interior designers and architects working collaboratively with an installer. As such, sometime the best automation solutions are the most invisible. “It’s the woodwork, it’s the wallpaper, it’s the furniture and the art that you want to have taking people’s attention to the space, not a bunch of light switches,” Barnett says. An example he gives is that a Crestron solution might eliminate the wall thermostat altogether, instead hiding the electronics completely.

Dave Pedigo, senior director of technology at CEDIA, the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association, agrees with the aesthetic advantage of the professional install. “As far as technology goes, residential technology has gone from a nice to have to a need to have. CEDIA has worked with American Institute of Architects, the National Association of Home Builders, and the National Association of the Remodeling industry to show the advantages, and they are significant, of using a professional to install technology in the home. Utilizing a professional who has the skills and expertise in these systems will ensure an end result that has the features, reliability, and performance end users are looking for.”

The Trade:

According to Pedigo, some of CEDIA’s members have been doing the smart home for two decades and most are focused on growing the market and showcasing the benefits of the pro solution.

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“Many manufacturers are trying to sell direct to consumers because it’s just the easiest path to revenue, so there definitely are products out there that a consumer can install, they don’t need a ton of experience, and in general it works as close to or as good as expected. So for some of our members that is probably a little bit of a threat but that being said, there are new parameters and considerations that are changing the way these systems go in. We’re seeing a significantly larger number of products that are going onto to a consumer’s network and causing all sorts of strain. There are lots of products out there that a consumer can install, but are they doing it under the best practices, is definitely up for debate.”

Pedigo goes on to explain that there are larger implications for the entire market when it comes to security. “There is such mass adoption of Internet-connected products, the concept of surveillance and data security is a little nerve-racking at the same time. A week or two Google acquires a robotic company [Boston Dynamics] that’s making robots for the military and now they’ve bought Nest. One of these days I swear the house is going to tell you, “I’m sorry you’re not allowed to leave today.”

There are a lot of moving parts that are merging to provide the framework for mass adoption of the smart home, including incredible advances in technology and consumer proclivity toward technology. The first wave of digital natives are now in their teens so it is a given that this nascent trend will ultimately be a widespread reality.

As Ryan McIntyre says, “Smart home automation has been just around the corner from being mainstream for 20 years, why now versus then? A big part of the reason why it’s going to happen now is we all finally have super powerful common interface devices, smart phones, and tablets, that was not something you could assume 10-20 years ago.”

Mobile and tablets may well have been the missing links to the smart home movement. Fifty-six percent of American adults now carry a smartphone with them, according to a 2013 Pew study. As our always-on connection to the digital world, they are the gateways that open the door to our connected homes.

Brandy Alexander-Wimberly and Dave Hochanadel are independent writers and part of the Interrupt team, a strategic marketing agency devoted to the building materials and home improvement space. Follow them @InterruptWithUs

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