A Brief History of Home Automation (Starting from 2013)

Several years ago, Ben Jurow gave me a tour of the Savant Systems showroom in Soho. I felt like I stepped into the future– a really, really expensive future where almost every electronic device was controlled by networked iPads running off central controller software. It made me wonder where automation technology was headed and why real estate developers weren’t more involved in its evolution.

Back then, IoT devices were far from mainstream, and DIY home automation was supremely clunky. Philips was among the first pioneers to really get Wifi lighting right with its Hue bulbs. Wemo also released a suite of devices including light switches and wifi outlets. Each company had their own companion apps, leading to the frustrating user experience of switching between apps to get the right settings on all your devices. I call this the multi-app (aka shitty) experience.

Having suffered #firstworldproblems through the shitty experience myself, I had envisioned the future state of home automation (back in 2013 I drew the diagram below) to be a more seamless, ergonomic experience where a localized central “brain” in the home would consolidate input signals (such as app inputs, gestures, voice commands, and hardware triggers) from an array of sensors, and react accordingly by coordinating “action devices” to perform tasks. Integrated with localized and cloud machine learning, the “brain” could eventually anticipate actions based on personal command history.

At Gale International, we approached automation from a macro scale first, because we had the luxury of working on a massive greenfield project, Songdo IBD. We worked with Cisco on creating infrastructure for the top right side of the diagram, building out an Integrated Operating Center and some basic building-wide automation. Home automation came later.

Meanwhile back in the States, tech companies took the opposite approach because, well, they weren’t developing real estate… yet (I’m looking at you Sidewalk Labs and YCombinator). They focused on aftermarket add-ons for the home and building out the cloud infrastructure.

There were multiple approaches even within the home battlefield. While companies like Savant Systems and Control 4 integrated devices using proprietary hardware and software for a unified control experience, Silicon Valley tackled the multi-app shitty experience issue with… more apps. Companies sought to create one app to rule them all.

But of course it wasn’t so simple with different wireless signal standards like Zigbee, Z-Wave, Bluetooth, and Wifi. Qualcomm created the AllSeen/AllJoyn alliance to set IoT communication standards. And automation bridges like Revolv and SmartThings (acquired by Samsung) appeared. They created shitty single-app experiences. Even cable companies jumped in with home security offerings bundled in with internet service.

Peripheral devices also appeared with limited control functionality (after installing apps, of course). I personally experimented with Google Glass, Pebble Watch, Samsung Gear 2, and an obscure Kickstarter project, Ring. They were all kind of awful in their own unique ways, but each helped push the evolution of IoT forward.

I believed Apple was going to step in and show everyone how it was supposed to be done, since Google was taking its sweet time with creating hardware after acquiring Nest. I (incorrectly) predicted that AppleTV gen 4 would be a combined entertainment hub and home automation controller. With the announcement of HomeKit, it seemed inevitable. But AppleTV kept getting delayed, and as of this writing, HomeKit isn’t even available on it.

Instead, a year and a half ago, Amazon quietly released Echo to Prime members in a still nascent home automation market. Its wider release caught both the public and other tech heavyweights off guard because its natural language comprehension worked surprisingly well and was getting better every day. The shitty app experience was gone because you didn’t need to use your phone to interact with it. Amazon had been developing the cloud and machine learning infrastructure in plain sight for years.

A couple weeks ago, Google just released a fantastic me-too effort with Google Home, which also builds upon myriad assets including Search, Calendar, Maps, Chromecast, and YouTube.

The two are currently locked in an epic IoT battle in my apartment (aka IoT lab).