The smart home device and home automation market is exploding. According to a 2013 report from Nextmarket Insights, the current home automation systems and services market is about 3.6 billion, and by 2017, is expected to grow to around 15 billion. Other analysts have forecast the possibility of 80 billion connected devices in use by the year 2020.
Clearly, this is a big market that is opening up for gateway, device and sentroller developers. Sentrollers, i.e. the sensors, actuators and controllers, are the various components of the Smart Home and of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Sentrollers can be split in several categories. First there are the simple sensors, such as a motion or temperature sensor. A security camera also can be considered a sensor. Then there are the actuators that make things happen; for instance, a heater or a light can be called an actuator. Actuators “act;" they try to change the environment. And then there is a third category, the controllers, which usually combine a sensor and an actuator, and add some “intelligence”. A thermostat is a good example of a controller measuring the temperature, or “knowing” the desired temperature, and taking action. Therefore, a sentroller is a simple term that can mean a sensor, actuator or controller. Typically these sentrollers are wirelessly connected via a gateway to the Internet, the Internet of Things. According to current forecasts, sentrollers will be the most common and most numerous devices comprising the IoT.
So, after years of hype and promises about the smart home, why is it finally happening now?
The world’s leading cable MSOs, broadband service providers and telcos have recognized the potential of the home services market and are starting to offer a wide variety of new home automation and connected home services. These include smart appliances, home security, home health monitoring, temperature monitoring and control, remote locking and unlocking of doors and windows, water and gas leak monitoring, smoke and fire detection, etc. These technologies have essentially existed for many years, but until recently, their use has mostly been restricted to those “early innovators” who were willing to go the extra distance to make the various disparate services, hardware and components function together. Simply put, there was no way to integrate all the various components from different applications in the same communication and intelligence platform.
However, with the emergence and global acceptance of the ZigBee communication standard, there is finally a standardized wireless communication technology that enables easy installation and communication between the various devices and applications.
In many ways, this process is repeating the path that WiFi took be to become accepted. At first, there were a variety of incompatible technologies that were battling to be the accepted technology for wireless networking, but eventually a single worldwide standard emerged, 802.11, that enabled various industries to start developing and manufacturing products that not only could talk to each other, but would also operate worldwide. This is what is happening now with ZigBee for the Smart Home.
ZigBee can be considered as the low power version of WiFi. ZigBee uses a similar radio technology, operates in the same 2.4 GHz range, transmits through walls, floors and furniture and can cover a good sized home. The big difference is data rate and power requirements.
However, while WiFi is optimized for high data rates, ZigBee is optimized for small bits of information. WiFi is very effective for transmitting video, music, and voice throughout the home, while ZigBee is optimized for carrying very small on and off messages from sensors. So even though ZigBee has the same basic range and performance as WiFi, because it carries so much less information, it requires much less power to operate.
Like WiFi, setting up a ZigBee network should be easy. With a battery embedded inside, all the consumer has to do is to turn it on and let the network find the new device for pairing. Of course, depending on the device and its function, there might be some kind of configuration process or online web dashboard to facilitate programming and setting up the device to work the way the user wants. The point is that the communication process with the existing home ZigBee network will be seamless and almost automatic, in the same way that hooking up a new WiFi device to your home network is today.
Because of ZigBee’s low power requirement, there are many devices that will not require any power source at all. Light switches, already on the market, are a good example. By flicking the on/off button on the switch, a tiny amount of power is produced. This small amount of power is enough to send a simple on/off signal from the switch across the room to a lamp with a ZigBee receiver, turning the light on or off. Of course, the switch signal could also transmit to the home’s central set top box or home control unit, controlling multiple lights and even other devices, as programmed by the homeowner.
With Comcast and other cable operators leading the way, almost all operators have decided to embrace ZigBee and are starting to roll out set top boxes with ZigBee radio chips inside. Even though many of the first generation boxes are primarily using ZigBee to provide a reliable and robust connection for local remote controls, the ZigBee connection also serves as the means for adding many other smart home and connected devices. Once the ZigBee network is firmly established in homes worldwide, the next stage will occur when device makers begin to embed ZigBee into a diverse spectrum of edge devices, appliances and sentrollers.
Cees Links is the founder and CEO of GreenPeak. Under his responsibility, the first wireless LANs were developed, ultimately becoming household technology integrated into PCs and notebooks. He also pioneered the development of access points, home networking routers and hotspot basestations. He was involved in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the WiFi Alliance, and he was instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee to become the basis for ZigBee's sense and control networking.
For more, visit www.greenpeak.com.