Where is home automation going and what will be the driving forces? What role will networking play and what will be the underlying technologies? In this two part series we take a look at what’s hot and what’s not.
The dream of an intelligent home that automatically controls the living environment and responds to individual preferences has been around since the advent of the microcontroller first suggested the possibility. High cost, reliability issues, limited capability, and a lack of standards have imposed major constraints on the market, however, keeping home automation more in the realm of imagination than practice. The advent of wireless technologies, the emergence of home-networking standards, and pull from both the entertainment and the energy markets are now revitalizing efforts to realize that dream, although industry participants are still hotly contesting the implementation methods.
The first attempts at home automation provided only simple remote control of basic functions, such as turning lights, fans, and appliances off and on. The X10 power-line-signaling technology, which Scotland’s Pico Electronics first developed in 1975, is typical of these early attempts. The X10 control system sends data at 1 bit/8.33 msec, is limited to 16 commands, and can control a maximum of 256 devices in a single network. Despite these limitations, however, X10 products have enjoyed limited but continuous success in the market and are still available for consumer purchase and installation.
To provide more powerful and comprehensive control functions for home use, the EIA (Electronic Industries Association), now the CEA (Consumer Electronics Association), began in 1984 developing a set of standards for a common command language that would handle a variety of devices. The effort also defined communications methods for many media, including twisted-pair wiring, infrared, RF, and power-line signaling. The resulting CEbus standard, which the industry adopted in 1994 as EIA-600, targeted remote control, remote instrumentation, security systems, energy management, and entertainment coordination with other wiring that carried the entertainment content.
Unfortunately, the CEbus proved to be too much, too soon. It was costly to implement, appeared before the consumer market had been exposed to the Internet and the concept of networking, and did not gain widespread support. What support it had gradually faded. CEbus-product vendor Domosys Corp, for example, eventually abandoned the CEbus in favor of its proprietary PowerBus networking technology. The CEbus industry organization’s Web page, www.cebus.org, is now inactive.
Other technologies arose for home networking, with one of the most successful being the LonWorks platform from Echelon. LonWorks targets not only home automation, but also industrial and automotive control, in which it has seen greater success. Several industrial and building standards, including ANSI/EIA709.1B for control networking, the European EN14908 building-automation standard, and even IEEE 1473-L for in-train controls, have incorporated the LonWorks platform along with its physical-layer signaling over power-line and twisted-pair wiring.
Despite such successes, however, neither LonWorks nor any other home-networking technology has taken off in the market. There are several reasons for the faltering of home automation. One is that no one technology offers all of the attributes that consumers demand in their technology. Another is the lack of a killer application to jump-start widespread adoption with its inevitable cascade of decreasing costs, increasing public awareness, and competition-fostered innovation.
A technology must possess many attributes to be successful in a consumer market such as home automation. These features include:
Affordability: The technology must provide enough benefits with a low enough price that consumers become willing to invest in it.
Ease of use: The technology should be simple enough to install that the average consumer can use it out of the box.
Reliability: Once consumers install it, the technology should work as they expect without interruption and without their attention.
Flexibility: Consumers expect to use technology where and how they wish without significant restrictions.
Long operating life: Consumers expect their investment to pay dividends over months or years without fail. In the case of battery-operated devices, long battery life is essential for consumer satisfaction.
Interoperability: Consumers expect to be able to purchase technology components from a variety of competing sources and have the components work together without effort.
Capability: Consumers have come to expect that a newly adopted technology will provide several important benefits and useful features and that the technology’s capability and features will steadily increase over time.
Currently, every available home-automation technology falls short in one or more of these areas, although proponents are continuously working to address these shortcomings. Sometimes, the shortfall arises purely from the communications medium. Home-automation systems use one or more of three media: wire and cable, power line, and wireless, typically RF. Each approach has its advantages and drawbacks.
Wire and cable media for home automation include twisted-pair wiring, coaxial cables, and optical fiber. These media have an advantage in their high data capacity and ability to provide a relatively noiseless communications channel for network signaling. Their major drawback is cost. Estimates for the installation of cable in construction range from $65 per linear foot for residences to nearly $300 per linear foot in industrial settings. Costs are lower when installation occurs during new construction but still remain too high for most consumers.
A second drawback of wire and cable media is inflexibility. Consumers are not free to relocate controls or endpoint equipment as they wish. The location of the installed cabling restricts placement, and the cost of new cabling is prohibitive.
So where is the future going?
The second part of this story will be posted later this week.