Home, Smart Home

Samsung's Family Hub Refrigerator has a touchscreen, an internal camera and a host of apps.


You know the feeling: you’re driving to work only to start worrying you forgot to switch off the iron, feed the cat or lock the front door. Now imagine that rather than turning back, you simply pull out your phone and click an app to remedy the situation. Fast-forward to the end of the day and you step inside the house to find the kettle already boiling, the air-conditioning tweaked to suit the evening’s weather and the lights flickering on in a shade that complements your current mood.

It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but such technology is already an everyday reality in many households thanks to the evolution of ‘home automation’ – appliances connected to a remotely controllable network, ranging from individual devices to full systems.

Eighty million smart home devices were delivered worldwide in 2016, a 64 percent increase from 2015, according to financial analysts IHS Markit. This figure is predicted to rise to 46.2 million devices by 2020. The U.S. is currently the biggest market, with a third of homes already installed with some form of device, but many in the Cayman Islands are also waking up to the potential benefits.

“Home automation has become the standard for new build homes in the Cayman Islands,” says Dean Sinclair, business development manager at The Security Centre Limited. “With the high-end residential constructions, most people are opting for full home automation packages including the latest technologies.”

Home automation has developed beyond simple lamp timers, programmable thermostats and so on, towards networked household systems that learn your routine and automatically adjust to enhance it, controlled via an app anywhere, anytime. Think: smart beds that track your sleep patterns to ensure optimal rest, robotic vacuum cleaners you can kick-start at any moment, a front door you unlock remotely to let in a delivery, and sprinklers that analyze weather reports to decide when to water the garden.

A host of start-ups is quickly filling this space, with key players including Nest, Curb and Ecobee for energy; Sonos for music; and Kwikset and August door locks. Traditional manufacturers are getting in on the act too, such as Phillips’ Hue lightbulbs (remotely switch these on or off, and change colors or brightness to suit your mood) and LG launching its SmartThinQ® range of responsive kitchen appliances.

Cayman’s leading companies offer modular systems that mean you can start with a single utility or room and scale up from there. Dean says: “Some people might start with automated lighting, security systems, temperature controls and AV system – whereas some people want the full bells and whistles with everything automated.”

Control of audio-visual equipment, lighting, HVAC (air conditioning) and window shades are currently the most popular areas for Cayman-based customers, according to Chris Upstone of Creative Tech Ltd.

The promise of saving time and money through home automation is a powerful sell. Owners can adjust lights and thermostats “on the fly when their movements change – e.g. I’m coming home late, so let’s readjust the AC so it comes on later. These undoubtedly result in savings,” Chris says.

By using energy more efficiently, these systems also have an eco-friendly appeal. Lights and home entertainment systems connected to motion sensors can be told to shut off when no one has been in the room for a certain number of minutes. Motorized blinds and shades to work with the heat of the day rather than against, automatically closing when the sun is facing the house to keep the internal temperature cooler. Smart thermostats also track your energy usage each day, showing when and how to use less, and self-adjust based on the day’s weather.

Platforms such as URC converge smart home features onto a single app.

Enhanced security is another boon: automated home devices can alert owners to events such as water or gas leaks, electrical fires and break-ins, through their smartphone apps. The latest air quality monitors advise on interior pollen and pollution levels, while smart bulbs will mimic your usual lighting patterns when you’re on vacation to deter would-be burglars.

At the same time, however, fears about security – the risk of devices being hacked and personal data stolen – are deterring some potential customers from automating their homes.

“Security concerns are a major barrier to the growth of the connected home market,” says Hayley Ard, head of consumer lifestyle at trend-forecasting agency Stylus. “News stories exposing security vulnerabilities in IoT [Internet of Things] products have multiplied over the past year, leaving many people deeply unnerved. Developers’ top priority should be allaying these fears.”

Although no such breaches have been reported in the Cayman Islands to date, two-thirds of global consumers are very concerned about smart home data being hacked by cybercriminals, according to Intel.

Getting different devices to work seamlessly together is the other key challenge facing developers. They need to cut through the clutter of fragmented devices and apps. Tools such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home are already moving in the direction of centralized smart home control, enabling people to control a whole ecosystem of devices and utilities from one centralized platform.

The main brand offered at Creative Tech Ltd. is URC (Universal Remote Control), which integrates various brands such as Nest thermostats or Phillips light bulbs. Chris says: “One app generally controls all sub-systems. However, some customers prefer using the original app for some brands – Sonos is one example.” Control4 is the equivalent system that The Security Centre uses.

So, what does the future hold for connected home development?

Hayley predicts the next big thing will be a Star Trek-style tricorder. “One of the most exciting concepts demoed at the IFA consumer electronics show in 2017 was Bosch’s X-Spect – a handheld scanner that detects stain composition and fabric type to plan the best wash. In the future, the X-Spect will be able to scan foods to provide detail on ripeness or nutritional value, and might pair with a smart oven to determine the perfect cooking conditions. We’ll see more shortcuts to instant intelligence – or knowledge wands – in coming years.”

Voice commands are likely to become commonplace, saving us the trouble of even tapping the phone screen to control our surroundings. Another potential development will be the integration of smart homes with smart cars – for example, as you drive away the air-con knows to turn down and light bulbs switch off.

The saying goes that “a man’s home is his castle;” if developers can satisfy security concerns and master convergence, automation may well reign supreme in our living spaces in the future.