Internet of Things

Testing the Internet of Things: Can smart devices be united into an integrated whole?

We try out the Revolv hub to see if it can really make independent smart devices work together intelligently. The results? Mixed.

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 Insteon LampLinc dimmer ($50)

insteon lamplinc Insteon

Insteon LampLinc dimmer

Originally, Revolv supplied me with a WeMo Insight Switch; however, it failed to connect to the Wi-Fi routers in both locations. After some back and forth with Revolv tech support, we replaced it with an Insteon LampLinc. This dimmer outlet and app installed and worked without incident. Revolv supported on/off and light intensity for this device.

 Yale YRD220 Touchscreen Deadbolt ($200)

Yale YRD220 Touchscreen Dealbolt Yale

Yale YRD220 Touchscreen Deadbolt

The test lock came on a stand so that I didn't have to actually install it in my front door. The rather beefy-looking unit was automatically recognized by Revolv and required following a series of steps, including entering the lock code, to set it up. Using Revolv, I was able use the deadbolt to trigger different sets of actions when the door unlocked (lights on, radio on) and locked (pause radio, all lights but one off).

Some warnings

One thing to think about is that the Revolv app does not offer any security controls, so if anybody steals your phone and it doesn't have any kind of device-level protection (such as a PIN code), your devices (possibly including the lock on your door) are vulnerable.

Another consideration: The requirement on the part of Sonos, Philips and some other smart devices for a dedicated hard-wired bridge adds to the e-clutter in the home. My cable modem is located in my office and during testing I filled up the remaining Ethernet ports on my router. My office desktop suddenly needed to accommodate not just a cable modem and Wi-Fi router, but the two bridges required by the Phillips Hue and Sonos systems in addition to a Vonage V-Portal voice over IP hub for my work phone and the Ooma VoIP unit that supports my home phone system.

I also ran out of power strip space. Revolv cofounder Mike Soucie says Revolv is working to eliminate the need for a bridge by convincing other vendors to support direct communication with the Revolv hub, which communicates wirelessly to your Wi-Fi router, and so can be placed anywhere that's within range of your wireless signal.

Bottom line

In a nascent market that has yet to settle on even the most basic communication protocols for the smart home, technical issues can crop up getting individual devices to work, period, let alone getting them all to work together.

And individual smart devices themselves, with embedded communications chips, can be expensive when compared to their 'dumb' counterparts. A Philips Hue light bulb, for example, sells for about $60. Expect those prices to come down in 2015 as manufacturers start producing in volume, Soucie says. "You'll see $15 and $20 bulbs," he predicts. But you still must be willing to pay a premium for convenience: You can buy a standard LED bulb for about ten bucks, while incandescent bulbs sell for less than $2.

Revolv does a good job at automating simple strings of events and actions. But life is messy and unpredictable, and the recipes for how an automated smart home should respond to the needs of its inhabitants can be very complicated.

For example, Revolv doesn't run an action when you're not in the house if it detects that there is an active Revolv app still in the house. For example, if someone is listening to the Rolling Stones Pandora channel on the Sonos unit and your arrival action calls for the Sonos to play the Beyonce channel, the current user's preferences rule.

What happens if users in the house have device-specific apps running and you're triggering actions that change how those devices operate? The answer, according to Revolv: Whichever app most recently performed an action on the object takes precedence.

And what if your partner is home in bed at 12:30 a.m. with her smartphone off and your arrival action calls for lights on and stereo turned up? By the end of this month, Revolv plans to add an "exception conditions" feature that lets you set rules that would let you limit that arrival action to certain hours.

But you really have to think about how to construct actions to fit everyone's lifestyle. Today's simple scripts will eventually have to give way to adaptive systems and predictive algorithms that learn and take actions based on how you interact with all of the devices in your home over time. (That's a challenge that startup Neura is working to solve.

But right now, says Soucie, companies like Revolv are dealing with more fundamental challenges, like ensuring basic connectivity to all devices and accommodating a wide range of products, each with its own individual feature sets and APIs, to let the user perform a few basic actions.

Ultimately, Soucie says, Revolv's goal is to create a "conscious home" that adapts seamlessly to your lifestyle. But today the focus is on not taking too much for granted. "The worst thing you can do," he says, "is get in the way."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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