Science fiction seers have long prophesized a golden age of automated home nirvana.
Those who grew up watching “The Jetsons” cartoons, believed it was bound to happen, but in a someday off in the distance.
Alexa wasn’t around then to ask when it would begin.
But Amazon Echo’s iconic voice-activated assistant, whose “powers” derive from Cloud computing technology, seems to be everywhere today, announcing the future’s arrival.
Thanks to the “magic” of WiFi and the Internet of Things, that long-promised era isn’t merely on our proverbial doorsteps, it has literally crossed the threshold into our living spaces.
Now, at the touch of an app or voice command, we’re able to customize and control our residential environment with almost cinematic virtuosity, even remotely view and speak with whoever’s at our door, from anywhere around the house, or around the country.
For tech savvy savants with the financial resources, there’s almost no limit to devising the digitally enhanced home of their dreams.
But even for those with far less know-how and fewer dollars to invest, a world of possibilities awaits.
It can actually be as simple as screwing in a smart lightbulb or plugging in a smart WiFi plug to any outlet, which can render regular devices Internet controllable.
No matter the level of smart home brilliance you aspire to, the foundation remains the same: good WiFi coverage, coupled with a router able to send the WiFi with adequate reach throughout the home.
According to Michael A. Prospero, senior editor at Tom’s Guide, which tests and reviews consumer technology products, the baseline for decent WiFi is seeing at least 2 bars on your smart phone indicator.
A router needs to be strong enough to reach the far corners of the area covered.
If it’s not, extenders can be added to improve coverage.
But for really large spaces, newer so-called mesh routers are now available, although the initial cost is higher.
Paying attention to WiFi and router security from the start is also crucial.
Mike Miller, author of My Smart Home for Seniors, advises protecting your router by going to the configuration screen and actively enabling its WPA or WPA2 encryption capability, in order to prevent hacker interception from the start.
The default router password should be altered to be as long, complex, and hard to figure out as possible, he added.
Major manufacturers of lighting, locks and thermostats now offer Internet-connected product lines, but some major components of this market were pioneered by smaller companies, like Nest (eventually purchased by Google), known for its learning thermostat, with its capability of automatically attuning to a homeowner’s daily temperature habits and setting up a home climate schedule without needing to be programmed.
Nest is also known for its Protect smoke and carbon monoxide alarm which tests itself automatically and contains a light activating motion sensor. The Birdi brand smart detector provides detailed weather alerts, and can directly contact authorities in case of fire.
Ring Video Doorbell was created in 2012 as Doorbot, a brainchild of inventor Jamie Siminoff, who initially crowdfunded the project.
Rejected as a money making prospect on the TV show Shark Tank, Ring nevertheless emerged as a frontrunner in the burgeoning video doorbell market.
Last year Amazon purchased the company for over $1 billion.
Ring contains an HD video camera, microphone and speaker, plus night-vision and motion sensing capabilities, all of which enable you to respond to a smartphone alert of someone at your door, to communicate with them, and to record and store to the cloud all doorstep activities.
Author Mike Miller discovered footage from his snow shoveling efforts revealed by Ring video’s all-inclusive surveillance.
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., retiree Kristin Hayes Coker is among many satisfied Ring customers, purchasing doorbell and floodlights.
She was sold on its affordability and ease of use, starting with simple installation by her electrician using existing wiring.
“I love it, because I can be back in my office and respond to whatever. I can actually talk to the person. We did that on vacation in Arizona when a solicitor came to the door. We talked to her and we were miles away!” Coker said. “The only negative is that it depends on Internet, so if it’s down, security is down. It’s also somewhat slow if the Internet is slow,” Coker said.
Her other smart home devices include both Samsung Smart TV, Apple TV, and a Sleep Number smart bed, whose hefty price tag has proven well worth the sleep relief its provided for her husband, who has suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis for the past two years, as well as her own sleep problems.
While Coker entertains thoughts of upgrading her “semi-smart” thermostat, she’s still cautious about smart speakers and hubs like the Echo.
“I do have a Spot, the smallest Echo, and I heard a whole conversation from my daughter in another location, which freaked me out.
The Samsung TV also supposedly records my conversations,” she said.
Privacy concerns and remedies are being studied by organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Legislation directed at regulating the cyber security of smart home devices has been discussed in California.
But the author said he feels the industry will continue to grow, regardless.
“In terms of security, the smart home market is still dicey, because any single device or sensor or whatever can be the weak link in the chain, and many up-and-coming companies simply don’t take security seriously or even know that much about it,” Miller said. “On the flip side, most users don’t care, as long as they derive benefit from the technology. We have a long history of sacrificing privacy for convenience, and it will be the same in the smart home market.”