Interoperability: The Key to Unlocking the Home of Tomorrow

By Joe Murphy

The smart home, while once a tech mythology, is now a reality thanks to the growing number of connected devices and the rapid growth of the Internet of Things.

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Imagine being welcomed home by—well, by your home. Wireless services, mobile apps and voice assistants enable a level of home automation that readies for your arrival everything from your preferred thermostat setting to the brightness of lighting throughout each room. Your favorite music plays through a Bluetooth-enabled home audio system. Then, the oven turns on to pre-heat your family's dinner. While the house of tomorrow might feel more like something out of a sci-fi movie or a setting reserved only for the rich and famous, tomorrow is now.

The smart home, while once a tech mythology, is now a reality thanks to the growing number of connected devices and the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Consumers across the globe have begun to recognize the convenience and cost-savings benefits that come with transforming their home into a smart home using one or more connected-home devices. In fact, connected-home devices are estimated to grow at a compound annual rate of 67 percent throughout the next five years—much faster than the growth of smartphones or tablets. In total, 1.8 billion units are projected for shipment in 2019, according to a report from Xona Partners.

As disparate home systems—smoke alarms, fire alarm control panels, security equipment and intrusion detection systems, lighting controls, lawn sprinkler systems and smart appliances—are integrated and connected, the possible conveniences, cost savings and new services will only multiply. In just one future scenario, homeowners will be able to control how much they spend on electricity by measuring usage from sensors embedded in light bulbs and appliances.

The benefits of smart-home technologies go beyond only providing convenience and cost-savings while consumers are at home. For example, smart security systems provide peace of mind while homeowners are at work or on vacation, via remote monitoring. And new smart home energy systems are reducing gas and electric bills by adjusting temperature settings based upon whether or not people are in the home. Additionally, ubiquitous wireless services make it possible for connected-home system technologies to now offer conveniences, such as receiving notifications when a garage door has been left open or lawn sprinklers need to be turned off.

But is it too good to be true?

While the smart-home market has captivated some early adopters, it has struggled to reach the mass market. Early adopters are often willing to invest time and effort with new innovations, working through software issues or bugs. The average consumer, however, may not share this view, causing frustration and potentially rejection of new products.

The widespread success of smart-home technologies hinges upon solving some core challenges, notably usability, cybersecurity and interoperability. Informed consumers buying smart-home systems certified in all three of these areas can not only limit their own frustrations with setup and usage, but also protect the health and safety of occupants of their smart home.

Much attention has been paid to the usability and convenience provided by these technologies, ensuring that the latest features to help streamline and digitize everyday tasks accurately perform. The same goes for the cybersecurity of connected devices operating in a highly vulnerable—and growing—IoT space. However, research has found the largest barrier to smart-home adoption lies within that last challenge, poor interoperability—or, in other words, how devices communicate with each other.

Think about it: communication between two people in a house is often affected by distance, closed doors, ambient noise and so on. Similarly, transmission between two devices may suffer from some of the same factors. The number of walls or ceilings, and even competing neighbors' wireless networks, can make it difficult for wireless devices to communicate. In addition, certain surfaces like tiles, windows, blinds and mirrors can bounce audio signals in unwanted directions and make it difficult for our voice assistants to understand us.

For now, interoperability issues among smart devices have largely been contained to performance. However, what happens when communication discrepancies bleed into safety—like being locked out of the house or left without a working smoke alarm, or a senior citizen unable to use his or her medical alert to call for help?

Current product testing to combat these potential disruptions looks not only at whether devices are communicating properly during normal operating conditions, but also at what happens when the Wi-Fi goes down, there is a low Internet signal, the power goes out or other possible scenarios arise that may affect connected devices.

When you consider the large universe of devices and technologies potentially deployed in a smart home, it's clear their true power is best realized if they can share information and instructions with one another. There are several competing protocols at present, and more to come. These days, consortiums are forming to compete for the platform that can win in the marketplace. Additionally, industry leaders are working to establish basic interoperability tests and evaluate the emerging smart-home platforms.

The convenience and easy living the smart home promises for tomorrow will continue to bring forth exciting innovations—which can only thrive by solving the challenges of today.

Joe Murphy is an experienced director of business development at UL, with a demonstrated history of working in the public safety industry. He is a strong sales professional killed in Bluetooth, LTE, 4G, mobile communications, and go-to-market strategy. Joe has an engineering degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.