The term home automation suffers from an unfortunate stigma. Long considered to be a plaything of the wealthy, it is dismissed as something extravagant or unnecessary by many. If you consider the historical barrier to entry, such an assessment makes sense. One had to hire an expensive installer to install even more expensive equipment and then pay by the hour to set it up and maintain it. When all was said and done, you had a proprietary system that was primarily focused on control — using some sort of in-home interface to switch lights, adjust thermostats, etc. No one could really argue against it being a luxury.
The technical landscape in support of home automation has changed drastically over the past several years. Let’s break it down by layer.
The past: The heart of the automation systems was a proprietary hardware device running closed-source software. Programming the system (either initially or to tweak things after the fact) required hiring a highly-trained installer or effectively becoming one yourself.
The present: Devices such as Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone, CuBox, etc. have shown that hardware platforms capable of running automation systems can be had for less than $100. The open-source software community has produced mountains of free software that run on these devices and can be used as the basis for automation systems.
The past: Use of expensive, proprietary remote controls or mounted screens useful only for the automation system and tethered to within a few hundred feet of the home’s perimeter.
The present: Millions of people carry around a multi-purpose, high-resolution touchscreen device in the form of a smartphone or tablet. Always-on Internet connectivity means these devices can potentially connect to the home from anywhere.
The past: Devices such as lights, thermostats and sensors are proprietary to the automation system and couldn't easily be installed or configured by the homeowner.
The present: The market is bristling with big name hardware vendors such as GE, Honeywell, Lutron and Leviton that produce affordable, controllable devices. Most adhere to a communication standard such as Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, Ethernet, etc. making it much easier to integrate with and control them.
So having said all that, where’s the mass-market home automation revolution? I’m convinced it’s coming or I wouldn’t have gotten involved in it. But I believe there are a few things that are hindering its velocity.
• Remember those communication standards I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago? While it’s great to have standards, it can be harmful to have too many. It’s unsettling for a consumer to put all of their eggs in one basket (by committing to a single standard) and no standard seems to have the perfect combination — widely-available, reliable and affordable devices that cover all major automation use cases.
• Apple has proven that people are willing to pay more for devices that “just work” and are easy to use. There have been a variety of companies that have released automation devices that tout ease of use and, although not expensive by historical standards, still cost enough for consumers to hesitate. Freely available solutions seem to swing completely the other way — it’s free so it doesn’t need to be easy to use or well documented. “Read the code” is often your primary support option.
• Many of the solutions out there still focus primarily on control. While it’s extremely convenient and fun to control your home from a smartphone, it can still be considered a frivolity. I believe automation systems will go from luxury to necessity when they can unequivocally show they pay for themselves many times over by reducing your home operational costs.
Hobson tries to overcome many of the current challenges associated with home automation.
• Hobson is automation hub software that allows you to build a “best-of-breed” automation system. You can pick and choose home control hardware based on the best fit for your needs rather than the communication protocols they speak.
• Hobson is freely available under an open-source license. This means anyone can download and use it for free.
• Hobson is very lightweight which enables it to run on inexpensive, non-proprietary hardware. You can run it on an old PC you have lying around, a new low-power mini computer or a fault-tolerant server running in a data center. The choice is yours.
• Hobson is being designed to provide insight into your home’s energy usage and recommendations to reduce your bills. This makes it much more than a mere control system and will allow it to offset its minimal cost quickly.
• Hobson will have a cloud-based service that simplifies the setup and usage of the system. This makes it accessible to less technical users. Although that service will be fee-based its use is not required. It is merely a convenience for those who don’t want to “get their hands dirty” learning how Hobson works.
• Hobson is built on an extremely modular architecture that makes is easy for developers to extends is capabilities. Great lengths have been taken to insure Hobson’s API is well documented so developers can add support for new devices and features themselves. “Read the code”, while still valuable, is considered a last resort.
Hobson is currently in private beta but will be generally available soon. Keep an eye on this site for more information.