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Home Automation: The Unfulfilled Promise

Home Automation: The Unfulfilled Promise

Aside from managing simple tasks like lighting and thermostat control, home automation systems haven't taken on much of a role in the household. However, as new technologies like home computer networks get a foothold in consumers' homes, and as smart grid technologies gain greater acceptance, home automation systems may reach a tipping point.

By Stuart Lipoff
05/05/09 4:00 AM PT

For the last 30 years, many people have invested a lot of money and effort chasing an unrealized promise of hoped-for explosive growth in home automation. With not a lot of commercial progress, it might be seen as foolish to pursue opportunities in this space. However, the promise of addressing latent needs of the 100 million households in the U.S. -- and the rest of the world -- to create a new consumer electronics (CE) category is highly seductive.

For a number of reasons, it may be timely to consider lessons learned in past failed efforts to kick-start a mainstream home automation business in order to try to surface some real, near-term opportunities.

Like so many new opportunities in the CE space, there is a short list of success criteria that must be understood and evaluated. It is easy to over- or underestimate the timing because of the highly nonlinear nature of drivers of success balanced against the inhibitors of growth. Only when the cumulative weights of these success criteria are satisfied can we overcome the inhibitors and thereby cause a new product category to take off. So, analysis of the reality of opportunities for home automation is a two-step process consisting of understanding the success criteria and determining whether enough has changed in the last 30 years to reach the tipping point.

Success Criteria

The success criteria for a new CE category are not unlike the success criteria for any new product. However, in the consumer space, these criteria have much higher barriers commensurate with the much higher rewards of success:

  • screaming benefits with favorable cost/benefit ratios
  • painless pathways to implementation
  • social acceptance of the applications

In the commercial sector, even marginal benefits with favorable cost/benefit ratios are often enough to ensure a product's success. In the consumer space, however, there is much more inertia. To capture the interest of consumers, you need an outstanding benefit that is a big enough to create excitement. Historical home automation has been relegated to timing the porch lights and setting the thermostat -- hardly the stuff to create excitement, even if there were a new, favorable cost/benefit ratio.

Despite these benefits, if the implementations of comprehensive home automation systems have significant warrants, then the benefits will not overcome the inertia. The historical situation in home automation is one of an unstable and confusing lack of compatibility standards and a lack of complementary ecosystem of product OEMs, designers, installers and services. When implementation is just too much trouble -- requiring expertise that goes beyond the buyer's comfort zone -- it will not happen.

History and Status Quo

By learning from past failures and acknowledging opportunities for improvement, we can determine the success criteria for take-home automation application.

The first advance in home automation beyond mechanical timers to turn on lights and set back thermostats was the X10 power line carrier system developed in 1975. This technology is one of the most successful technologies of home automation to date and continues to live on today.

Despite X10's success, the total size of the market for X10 has been very limited compared to mainstream CE products such as TVs and cell phones. The success of X10 can be attributed to a stable, mature technical standard supported by multiple respected OEMs with inexpensive devices that can be installed in do-it-yourself fashion by consumers. Because the benefits of remote control of lights are modest, the adoption by households has also been modest.

In 1984, the Electronic Industries Association (EIA) had a more ambitious plan to ignite a new home automation industry. The EIA released a comprehensive set of standards called "CEBus" covering the use of coaxial cable, infrared remote control, radio frequency and fiber optical media to control and support a wide variety of applications including lighting, environmental control, security and control of entertainment and communications systems.

CEBus technology had the support of all the big players, including semiconductor suppliers, electrical supplies OEMs, appliance OEMs and many others. However, there was no major application or overall benefit that provided enough incentive to overcome the pain of buying, installing and servicing a comprehensive home automation system.

Fast-Forward to the Present

Today, we are on the verge of success in deploying home automation systems, but not for their own sake. Rather, they will ride on the coattails of other home networks, which are primarily adopted to support home computing, telecommunications and multi-room distribution of home entertainment systems, consistent with the visions of organizations such as The Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA).

Once this computer/entertainment network infrastructure is in place, the incremental cost to connect sensors, actuators and controls throughout the home will be small, so low-bandwidth can easily piggyback on the network backbone. Mature, low-cost RF (radio frequency) technologies such as Zigbee, Bluetooth and even WiFi can provide painless and inexpensive connections.

In taking into consideration past mistakes and the lessons learned from them, we can try new ways to find social acceptance. Today, we get some help from President Obama. A major initiative of our new administration is green energy and smart grid technology. Hopefully, in a few years we will all be able to have homes with home automation systems connected to the utility managed by smart grid.

A combination of tax incentives and energy utilities pushing government subsidized installations and implementations will tie the home energy meters to appliance load management and distribution automation applications. The benefits to the consumer will come with time, but with a government push, social forces and low incremental costs, this time home automation actually has the opportunity to take off and become a success.


Stuart Lipoff is past president of the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society (CESoc) and currently a member of the CESoc Administrative Committee (ADCOM).


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