The basic idea behind the "smart home" is pretty ingenious: Different appliances in the home or office communicate with each other and with the homeowner or visitors, making their lives easier and more convenient in the process. The door lets you know whether it has been locked correctly – or not. The heating system automatically recognizes whether anyone is in the room or not and adjusts the temperature accordingly. When the first computer is turned on in the morning, the coffeemaker in the kitchen starts brewing a fresh pot of coffee. That, at least, is the way things work in theory.
In practice however things are different. Whereas the promise of the smart home entails great convenience and simplicity, the reality is often quite different, with user-friendliness being the first casualty along the way. For example, the basic principle of turning on a light switch turns into a genuine procedure using an app-controlled LED: First, you need to take your smartphone out of your pocket and unlock it. Then you need to locate the app and activate it. Then you need to touch the right spot on the screen to switch on the light. It was probably faster for our cave-dwelling ancestors to rub two sticks together to make a fire.
In response to this state of affairs, a new "SmartHome Initiative" has been set up in Germany – a non-profit association dedicated to the rational use of technology. "Living with technology needs to be considered as contemporary, convenient, sensible and – with regard to the demographic shift – increasingly necessary," declares the Initiative.
But the association also stresses the need to ensure that technology serves people, and not the other way around. This opinion is shared by Dr. Christian Pätz, speaker of the European Z-Wave-Alliance*, which is committed to helping create a uniform communications standard in the smart home. "Ultimately there are three major issues concerning the smart home," says Pätz. "First, you want to prevent any errors the user might make. For example, forgetting to turn down the heat or leaving a window open upon leaving a room." Next, he comments, comes the issue of greater convenience: the front door unlocks itself automatically or the light is automatically turned on when the user arrives. "The third argument," he continues, "involves energy efficiency, i.e. lower power consumption." As an example he lists the interdependence between cheap solar power and the programmed starting time for an energy-guzzling appliance.
But all of this can only work, maintains Pätz, if it matches the needs of the occupants– and the required technical communication options are available. A huge stumbling block for the smart home is the lack of interoperability between equipment from different manufacturers. The technology for holistic residential and building concepts has actually been available for a long time. But the implementation generally fails due to the incapacity of devices to exchange data as well as to the absence of a central system which can successfully manage all of these separate entities. That is the special focus of the Z-Wave Alliance*.
"More than 300 manufacturers within the Alliance have already agreed to a standard," reports Pätz. New products and solutions need to be subjected to a test by an independent certification lab to ensure the required communication standards have been fulfilled. "This is comparable with the Android mobile operating system from Google," says Pätz. "Although there are many different smartphone manufacturers, all of them can run any app from the Play Store." The technical foundation plays no role, he explains.
"Certification according to the Z-Wave standard is particularly useful for small manufacturers," says Pätz, "since niche solutions can be integrated into existing systems without the development of a proprietary infrastructure."
Take the intelligent window handles manufactured by Soda, a firm based in Siegen. Outfitted with a battery and wireless chip, they alert the facility manager if a window is open (window handle in horizontal position), tilted (handle vertical, in upward position) or closed (handle vertical, in downward position). When the last employee leaves the office, the system can send a smartphone alert to the security contractor, who will close any open windows. The sensor in the window handle can also be used to report a break-in. This makes it possible for even small companies to upgrade their security systems quickly and conveniently, without any extensive modifications or major new investments required.
"Once we succeed in getting all the different components to communicate with each other and can put together any combination of manufacturers, we will have achieved our goal," declares Z-Wave speaker Pätz. After all, he remarks, it is not a matter of cramming homes or offices with technology, but of expanding existing systems as needed, item by item. Now that is smart.
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* Exhibitor CeBIT 2015