Smart Home Part II – Are We Smarter Now Than 25 Years Ago?

By Jonathan Spira on 26 June 2014
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Over 20 years ago, my father, tired of various members of our family opening the door and letting in either cold weather or insects in an attempt to determine whether the mail had come, added yet another feature to our late twentieth century smart home.

That feature was a Mail Alert, and it used a switch actuated by the momentary opening of the mailbox lid to turn on an LED indicator, which was installed in a panel near the front door of the house.  The LED remained illuminated until manually reset via a pushbutton on the same panel.

While the sensor had to be replaced several times over a 20-plus year life span, the Mail Alert saved energy in a small way and kept the house somewhat insect free, which made my mother very happy.

My parents’ home was already quite advanced in the area of home automation for that period.  It had control panels that turned on, off, and dimmed myriad lights, and electronic art built into the wall, and the vision that some had of the future back then – a Jetsons-like scenario with robotic butlers and maids – was predicted for the turn of the century.

While today we have robotic vacuum cleaners, we still don’t have anything resembling Rosie the maid, the Jetson’s omnipresent humanoid housekeeper.

What we do have is task-specific home automation technologies that will turn specific devices on and off based on pre-set criteria.

I’m slowly making my way through the various home-automation (aka Internet of things) technologies, and trying to see what adds value – or at least what adds a certain amount.

Much of what technologies can do today – make coffee, turn lights on, etc. – were configurable several decades ago, albeit with far less finesse.  I rigged a mechanical Copal alarm clock to turn on my stereo system instead of triggering the built-in alarm buzzer when it was time to wake up for school.  I had a BSR controller that allowed me to turn on a drip coffee maker remotely and to turn any number of lights on and off based on various requirements.

Today, we can fine tune this somewhat – using a Jawbone Up to monitor for movement and have it send a message to a smartphone that will then relay yet another message via the Internet of things to start the coffee brewing.  Yes, it’s a more elegant solution, but it really doesn’t do much more than I achieved at the age of 15.  I did have to press a button then, but somehow made it through life despite this obstacle.

Then there’s the fun factor.  Nothing I had in high school or college could compete with the Philips Hue system for fun.  I can tell my Hue system to turn a specific light on in a specific color depending on whether it is going to rain or snow.  The system greets me with light when I come home and can adjust lights throughout the house for mood.  Not a necessity – but fun.

I see great promise in many of these technologies and devices – my Roomba vacuum does a decent job all on its own of keeping things reasonably dust free – but I have the feeling that Rosie the maid is just over the horizon and arriving soon, saying “Everything must be clean.  Very clean.”  Until then, we’re on our own.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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