One of the products that really got my attention on ISE 2013 is a touch panel from automationNEXT. When I had a close look at their product, I recognized Android UI Components in the user interface. In the first instance, I thought it was a Android tablet mounted behind a well finished front panel. However, when I asked they explained that it is a real dedicated device. This is notable because nearly all manufacturers of home control panels seen so far choose to use proprietary software.
I strongly believe that using standard software from parties like Google will be the future for home control panels. The products from automationNEXT are a step in the right direction and I believe they can integrate easily with home automation software from those parties as soon as it will be brought on the market. Using these software will enable users to download apps to their home automation system depending on their needs.
However, there are also companies who do not really believe that this concept will work in all situations. They have a good motivation for this as well. An example is Vercoma, who I also had a conversation with at the trade show.
Vercoma delivers IP based video intercom systems. These systems are a little bit more expensive than conventional systems using a bus system, however, they do not need their own bus system. They can make use of an existing infrastructure used for internet access and has, because of the IP based solution, many value adding features like text messages and an internal intercom. The performance of the system was really impressive, certainly compared to another app based solution I saw on the trade show.
However, as more and more companies are bringing touch screen devices to the market that have to be mounted to the wall on a central place on the home (e.g. the Toon from Eneco), a logical next step will be to combine these devices, for example like the touch panel from automationNEXT discussed above. Energy companies like Eneco then will focus on making available apps for these home control panels instead.
The focus of Vercoma is on housing associations etc. who in general do not like tenants to tamper with this kind of devices and also want it to be accessible for elderly without the technical knowledge. For these kind of applications, there will be a long way to before open and customizable systems like Android will find their way to this market. I believe parties like Google, Microsoft and Apple will find a way in which they offer housing associations a way to decide which applications will be installed by default and which freedoms the tenants will have to install apps for example their own washing machine.
The first public version of eControl will be ready for submission to the Apple App Store soon. It will offer support for the MiCasaVerde Vera, Plugwise Source and the Light Manager of JBMedia and KlikAanKlikUit. Up to two systems of choice can be added in the first version. For each of the systems up to 10 devices (Switches, Dimmers, Energy meters and Climate sensors) and up to 10 scenes can be controlled. This version will be made available or free!
Other features like multiple locations, support for security cams, thermostats, RGB lights, the option to add pictures, custom themes and multi language support are also under development. Some of these features will be made available short after the first release. And if this is not enough, a Windows Phone 7 version is also under development!
More information will be made available soon.
As soon as my framework for home automation software is stable (my goal is to realize this in the first half of this year), it will be time to launch the third stage of my rocket. In this stage, a licensing model for custom build applications based on the framework will be introduced.
Selling custom build applications on a license base is also in line with the movements that are going on the software market in general. With the introduction of cloud computing and SaaS, on which software applications more and more rely, many more software companies are moving to licensed base selling models. But to be able to sell custom build software at license base, you should be able to minimize the costs on the custom development part.
For my home automation framework, the only parts left for custom development will be the configuration of modules, the user interface and vendor specific protocols. With the current version of my framework, it will take around two days to implement all supported functionality for the average http based protocol. The framework will take care of queuing, error handling etc., so these techniques do not have to be implemented for each protocol separately taking also away a lot of work.
As most of the efforts will be on the shared part, it might be possible to share these costs over the licenses. A margin will cover in most cases the custom development part. Only clients who like to have complex protocols to be implemented have to take additional custom development fees in account.
The first stage has already been launched and the second one is already stand by. The framework I am creating has as goal to form an easy to extend base for home automation software. It can be extended to collect information from multiple home automation systems, like the functionality already available in eControl.
One of the most important characteristics of the framework is that it’s basic design should be applicable to a broad range of devices, from smart phones to home automation gateways. This is a really big challenge, as all these kind of devices have to deal with different kind of requirements like power consumption, usage of resources and costs on data usage. However, we see, for example with looking at the upcoming Windows 8, that even complete operating systems are now being designed in a way that they can deal with all these kind of requirements.
I will not describe the framework in every detail, but some of the most distinguishing features will be discussed in this blog post. I will begin with the way the framework will handle data.
Home automation systems are build up by multiple devices like lights, climate sensors, multimedia equipment and much more. There could also be involved multiple devices that are meant as interfaces between these devices, like network bridges and serial device servers. The framework will be capable of collecting information from all these systems. Extensions can be made easy on top of basic functionality like error handling, queuing and auto detection mechanisms.
All information collected from the devices, including rooms, scenes etc. that have been configured, will be stored into a cash. Rooms, scenes and other duplicate information will be merged automatically. This collection of data will form a layer between the connections with the home automation systems and the applications on top of it and can be extended with data objects for all kind of devices.
Depending on the type of device, a user interface or other application will be build on top of the data cash. The user interface will also be build using specif patterns making it possible to define it’s design without knowledge about the protocols or any other technical implementation on device level. Applications, like speech recognition, macro engines etc. can also be build on top of the same interfaces, making them usable at multiple home automation systems.
Next to these three layers, other extensions can be made in the form of managers. A manager will be responsible for one specific functionality like data storage, connection management or user interface themes. A connection manager for example will, in case of a smart phone, be responsible for making the choice to connect using a local connection or via Internet. The base for this manager will be the same for all smart phone applications, but implementation will be different as each smart phone OS will have it’s own set of APIs to determine when the devices uses for example a cellular data connection.
The image below gives an abstract view of how all components are related to each other.
I believe that this kind of frameworks will be integrated in all kind of operating systems like Windows and Android. Google is already active on home automation with it’s Android@Home project and the nice video’s in which Microsoft show their vision about the future also make us believe that integration of all devices in home will become a fact.
Integration of home automation frameworks into operating systems will bring home automation to a next level where integration with for example smart grid systems will be realized via apps that can be downloaded and run distributed over multiple devices.
The smart phone application I was talking about is of course eControl. I already told what eControl will do and I even posted some screenshots. But what distinguishes eControl from other home automation applications? I agree, it will not be it’s name.
It should be a year of 7 or 8 ago when I came up with the idea of a framework that should make it possible to synchronize object models between software applications running at different devices. While frameworks for synchronizing objects where also at that time not something new, my ideas went a little bit further by making it possible to define different kinds of behaviour like permissions at higher abstraction levels, load data via XML like documents and a self organizing network of connected nodes. However, also some other things got my attention like domain specific modeling and those ideas disappeared to the background.
When I started the development of software for controlling home automation systems, my ideas of synchronizing objects got a second life. What I wanted to create was software that collected all information from home automation devices in home and handles that information in a uniform way, making it easy to build user interfaces and other application on top of it. The design that resulted from there made it into a smart phone application I call eControl.
Many home automation systems work with a central device or server (also called Home Automation Gateway). All home automation devices in home will become registered on this central unit and smart clients will control them through this central unit. The central unit will function as a kind of translation device. To be able to controll devices from the Internet, the central unit will connect to a kind of forwarding service on Internet. The image below gives an impression of such a set-up.
eControl however is designed in a way that it will be less depending on a central unit. Where possible, eControl will connect directly to devices in a self organizing way, making setup of a home automation system much easier. eControl will also make optimal use of services available with the smart phone, like cloud storage. In many cases, this will even take away the need for the end user to set up additional user accounts. The image below shows the same set-up with eControl.
Of course, to profit from all these advantages, the home automation systems to connect with should also support discovery mechanisms and automatic port forwarding. Also some additional security precautions have to be taken and multiple data connection can have advantages but also disadvantages around data efficiency.
The architecture of eControl is also suitable to be used in other kinds of home automation software. A framework is already under development and will form the base of eControl. For the moment, only elements that are crucial for making eControl a functional application are implemented.
Maybe it’s time to show more about the projects I’m working on at night and in the weekends in relation to my ambitions. As many people know, I’m working on some applications for smart phones for controlling home automation equipment. What some of them know is that the real product behind these applications will be a framework for home automation software. This framework will allow home automation software to be extended easily with support for additional devices, protocols and cloud based services. What nobody (except for myself) knew till now is the real intention behind these projects, developing valuable assets that can be used to realize more ambitious projects.
My projects can be compared with a multistage rocket. To bring one project on a higher stage, it needs anther project to lift on. My home automation projects are projects that are needed to bring other projects of myself to a level they can be launched. From the first stage off launch, untill the last launch, the rocket will look like:
- Smart phone application for controlling home automation equipment
- Home automation framework
- Offering custom build home automation software at license base
- Automated software product line for home automation software
- Platform for creating automated software product lines
- Platform for automated software creation by using knowledge from expertise systems
- Automated software creation using AI algorithms
Each stage will result in it’s own products that are part of a much more ambitious vision. Unlike a multistage rocket I hope that jettisoned stages will grow further in a way that they will profit from the results of following stages instead of burning into the atmosphere. However, they are primarily meant to serve a higher purpose. For example the smart phone application will be build in a way that it can grow with the framework. Thereby, the smart phone application will influence the design of the framework. The framework will be designed in a way that it extensions can be made at minimal efforts, making costs more predictable and making it possible to offer custom build software at licence base. And this way it will go further.
The ultimate goal will be a situation in which programs (simple as well as complex) will be created from scratch without the involvement of software developers. This sounds like science fiction, but I really believe it will be possible. Of course it will take us many years to get there, but it will provide us with enough challenges for the next decades.
I will write a blog post about each of the stages. By doing this, I hope to get in touch with people who share my vision and also see opportunities.
Recently I build a prototype of a RGB-controller which can be controlled over a home network using eControl (a smartphone application I’m building for controlling home automation devices). The RGB-controller is based on an Arduino with network shield, which should proof that a ‘Internet of things’ with low cost devices is realizable right now.
The Arduino uses a ATmega328 which is a 8bit microcontroller with only 32KB of flash memory and running at a max of 16MHz. The ethernet shield is using a simple W5100 controller, which means that all TCP/IP protocol handling should be done by the micrcontroller. So I’m not cheating by using an ethernet controller with build in webserver.
To compare, the average home router (sold around 25 Euro) contains a 32bit microprocessor running over 100MHz and contains at least megabytes of flash. The average smart phone (sold around 200 Euro) comes is around1GHz containing gigabytes of Flash. For the people not knowing what I’m talking about, it will be hard to find cheaper hardware then the hardware I used for this prototype.
The prototype includes the following functionalities:
- Automatically obtaining an ip-adress from an home router using DHCP
- Advertising the device (making it detectable) using a online service connected to using DNS
- Simple HTTP server making it possible to smartphones, computers etc. to connect
- HSV like color cycling
And there is even enough memory left for applications like:
- The addition of an RF Transmitter making it possible to control for example wireless wall switches
- Running time schedules, scenes etc.
- Addition of climate sensors
- Addition of an IR-receiver
A YouTube movie will be created soon!
Today, April 1, I officially started my own (part-time) business. With Extundo Apps, I will focus myself on the development of software for home automation systems.
Within the next year, a number of applications for smart phones and tablets will be developed and released. Many of my ideas that are now just concepts will find their way to the world through these applications.
This time I will spend less space on my blog to it.
In contrast to the previous year, there were a lot of companies showing home automation interfaces on SmartPhones and Tablets. Together with developments like Philips leaving this market with its Pronto remotes, we can conclude that the market is moving rapidly and new market segments will get in reach. However, one of the most important things to make tablets a really interesting replacement for dedicated remotes is to improve the user interfaces. I am sorry that I have to say it, but in general they are still awful!!! Companies are often still trying to push as much as possible on a single screen or are nearly literally copying the user interfaces of there competitors because they seem to miss the initiative to do some research themselves.
There was also a lot of attention for Smart Metering. Not only companies specialized in Smart Metering could been found on the event, but also a lot of general purpose home automation systems were showing energy statistics on there touch panels, web interfaces and whatever you can think about.
The lower-end market was, just like previous year, underrepresented. There was only one company that really got my attention after speaking with them. This start-up will enter the market March next year with surprisingly low priced home automation sets. For a little bit more than 200 Euro for a starter set containing a small remote with display, internet gateway, two switches, two dimmers and two energy meters it will be still difficult to attract people who are still thinking about spending a tenner for a wireless remote set from the DIY-shop. But I am sure it will attract people that realize that a Z-Wave set is much more value for money than a set from the DIY-shop. Other people need something more.
At the end of the day I can conclude that there are a lot of opportunities for my own plans for home automation. I am nevertheless still missing something that will make home automation really attractive for the mass public. Looking at the popularity of the overpriced iPad, I am sure that this will no longer be the price. The fun-factor has become the main focus of the public and needs therefore to be taken into consideration.