Since at least the days of the UK Government-promoted Year of Information Technology, back in 1982, the notion of controlling the functionality of a home—remotely setting the temperature of the central heating, turning on the oven to start cooking a pre-prepared dinner and many other domestic tasks—has been a long-held goal.
The US electronics giant, Motorola, had at least one fully automated, experimental house out in the Arizona desert at around the same time. And now, many eyes are being turned again towards the USA as the talk is of Apple coming up with a domestic control system that users could manage using their iPhone.
This level of interest in things domestic comes at a time when the combination of domestic management and cloud services make for interesting possibilities. It also comes at a time when a Zurich-based company, DigitalSTROM, is already starting to build a market for just such a system. It has already gained good traction in Germany and Austria, and will be launching in the UK and other European countries later this year.
The key to the system is a simple device that looks like a cable terminal block connector. This is not that simple, however, for it contains a programmable switch/controller for the device it is associated with. This is an addressable switch that allows the device to be both individually controlled and operate as part of a group. The classic application here would be lights operated in clusters with control coming from movement sensors.
It forms half of a master/slave architecture, with the master being the DigitalSTROM meter, which is both energy consumption meter and communications master for each circuit.
This technology is, in practice, not too far removed from what was conceived in 1982 (and demonstrated in the Barratt Homes demonstration house at the Ideal Homes Exhibition that year) though it is significantly more comprehensive in its capabilities from what was achievable back then.
For example, the master controller managed the operation of all instructions, but as part of that process sets them against a set of rules designed to ensure the safety and security of both people and property.
The rule with the lowest priority covers energy consumption. Next is occupant comfort, followed by occupant privacy. Then comes damage protection and finally the highest priority rule of all operations, occupant safety. The parameters of each test can be adjusted to suit the preferences of the occupants. The master system can also orchestrate services such as the clustered operation of lights.
What makes DigitalSTROM different is its use of the cloud to integrate the house, the occupants and the rest of world into a virtual entity, with complex management and orchestration of operations. The company has partnered with TIBCO to provide what is, in effect, a domestic Internet of Things (IoT) environment for each house. This exploits TIBCO’s capabilities in data collection, collation and management from all the individual device controllers, its data analysis capabilities based on both the collected data and external data feeds, and its event management capabilities to control what actions occur at the house.
As an example of what this might mean in practice, the occupants of a house may have set a programme of house events for the day ahead, such as what temperatures should be maintained and when (which could include extending awnings over windows to keep direct sunlight out) and what time the slow cooker should go on and at what setting.
But external data feeds, such as weather forecasts and local weather readings, could then indicate that a storm was coming, while local traffic information shows extensive traffic jams in the area. The system can then manage the retraction of awnings (a major possible damage risk in a storm) and the re-timing of the slow cooker because of inevitable delays in occupant arrivals.
According to DitialSTROM CEO, Martin Vesper, this capability can be built up into complex services and events. He also noted that it can then help with informing the public about a wide range of information that they might well find useful in their own lives.
“For example,” he said, “we have developed a service that posts information to Twitter about individual devices in the home, such as the real energy consumption of white goods like fridges or cookers. This is then compared in the Twitter posting with the manufacturers’ published data on energy consumption for those devices. We are calling the service Truth or Fiction”.
This cloud-based approach also starts to open up new service possibilities, both for DigitalSTROM itself and other businesses. For example, Vesper is already considering the possibilities of accumulating anonymised data on locations, houses and individual products that could form the basis of centralised statistics service for the insurance industry.
It could also be used to generate valuable information for local maintenance service providers such as electricians and plumbers. They could access the house data and get a complete picture of what is installed, where it is in the house, what has broken and what is needed to effect a repair.
It might also be possible for occupants to take their preferred settings—their preferred environment—with them if they move house. They could simply load in their own data to have the house reset itself to the new parameters.
In practice, however, Vesper sees a more immediate implementation for this type of capability.
“We are already talking with hotel chains about setting up systems where regular customers can have their preferred room environment, which could include things like TV channel management, preset for their room when they come to register,” he said.
The possibilities for integrating a house and its occupants with their environment, both locally and more widely, do seem to be extensive. They also open up a wide range of business opportunities for many service providers, so long as they have access to the cloud.
This was first published in Cloud Services World in June 2014