Old dreams, new players
Quo vadis, Smart Home?
Smart technology promises more comfort, security and energy efficiency. Providers of building technology are ‧expanding their systems and are working on simplifying their installation and operation. The IT giants, too, see an ‧opportunity of opening up new markets.
The story of the smart home, to quote a legendary advertising spot, is a story full of misunderstandings. Today building automation in functional buildings is a matter of course, but most private clients regard bus systems such as KNX as a dispensable luxury even after 25 years of being on the market. For new buildings, the share of such installations bumbles along at about 15 percent. At the same time, the increased popularity of the term “smart home“ makes many consumers think that such a system may also be realized simply and at low cost at a later date, for instance with the starter kit by an energy supplier, telephone provider or discount store. The catchword’s vagueness is the problem, since it can mean anything from remote-controlled LED light sources to complete KNX systems with home server. But what are the developments and products that are relevant particularly to both designers or architects and interior designers? Certainly not adapter plugs with a Bluetooth switch. But as far as the interfaces and control elements of building technology are concerned, there are new and highly interesting design opportunities. Extensive keyboards can be replaced by multi-functional touch panels – or they vanish completely in favor of apps on mobile devices or even voice control. Light management is spearheading smart applications – both from a comfort and from a design point of view. There is a big market covering building in existing contexts and renovations, demanding professional retrofit solutions without botched wiring.
Seen from the client’s point of view
It seems like the big manufacturers of installation technology are rethinking, seeing that pre-configured equipment and packages for KNX are offered in increasing numbers. They are turning their attention to individual target groups; moreover, installing and commissioning systems are to become much easier – and thus cheaper too. One good example of this trend is the miniaturized ‘Gira X1’ KNX server. It packs comprehensive programmable logic functions for building automation into one module housing with a web interface with which the whole system can be displayed and controlled on the smart phone. This works not only within the house but also via an individual encrypted “virtual private network” wherever an Internet connection is available. Other systems take a similar line: the IP/KNX Gateway, the ‘Busch-Control Touch‘, which also enables control of KNX installations via app, or the ‘HomeLYnk’ KNX element by Mertens.
While Mertens starts thinking from the client’s end with its ‘Smart Family’ concept and begins to create techno-logy packages tailored to needs and scenarios, other manufacturers try to position new proprietary bus systems beneath KNX, which are characterized by extremely simple installation but are limited with respect to functionality and flexibility. Both ‘eNet‘ by Gira and Jung and ‘free@home by Busch-Jäger are supposed to cover preconfigured core functions such as light, heating and shutter control, and also enable control via smart-phone app. While ‘free@home’ was launched with a bus cable and only recently complemented by wireless components, ‘eNet’ was conceived as a wireless system from the start, the target group being renovators wanting to avoid chiseling work.
But it is still anyone’s guess how successful these approaches will be. The problem is that in the “smart home” the installation trade encounters powerful new competitors coming from a completely different product culture – software and Internet giants like Apple, Amazon or Google. These are not so much interested in a long-lived infrastructure in the wall or electrical distribution boxes, but all the more so in sovereignty as far as user interface is concerned. Once Apple introduces a standard with HomeKit and simply integrates the relevant user interface as a home app in the current iOS operating system of iPhones and iPads, this will instantly create a potential user base a million strong – a fact that the previous top dogs of building automation can hardly ignore.
Consequently Christian Kruppa, Product Manager of Busch-Jaeger, points out that his ‘free@home‘ system is already equipped with voice control, as opposed to Apple‘s ‚Siri‘, Amazon‘s ‚Alexa‘ or ‚Okay Google‘, and without evaluation on external servers, which poses potential data protection issues. Kruppa rightly maintains that ”in all these cases of innovation it is important that we still deal with the interface between man and the smart home. A future-proof smart home will still be based on a sound house and building automation system that primarily enables control via a voice-assisted system.” Nevertheless, it is the interface with which the user has to deal day in, day out, and in this respect IT sets the pace now with its short update cycles for hardware and software.
Based on a solid infrastructure
A chat with Richard Rutschmann, Technical Manager of S. Siedle & Söhne, reveals the complex considerations that are going on within companies. In the field of door communication, he banks on the IP technology Internet standard because “in real-time communication, in video and especially in audio transmission, we have stringent extremely high bandwidths and stringent system performance requirements. Generally, smart-home platforms cannot achieve this“, Rutschmann toes on to explain: “Systems such as KNX are connected via gateways, and apps for the smart phone are a matter of course. But not all that is feasible makes sense.´” Rutschmann says: “We abandoned considerations regarding direct connections of door intercom systems via wireless for various reasons, not least because of security concerns.“
It is pecisely wireless networking that poses substantial challenges for the trade. Several different standards are competing in a close head-to-head race with an as yet open-ended result. Seen from the user’s point of view, lighting control will often be the decisive factor for an entry into smart technologies. Here, among others, the ZigBee-based systems ’Hue‘ by Philips and ’Lightify’ by Osram compete with Bluetooth-LE-based ’Casambi’, which was spread rapidly especially among design-oriented lamp manufacturers such as Occhio or Tobias Grau. And now customers are faced with the decision as to whether they are satisfied with integration at software level, for instance with Apple Home, or whether the intelligent lamps should also be coupled physically with a bus installation and their operating elements.
Dwelling as a software project
For planners, operators and users, all this leads to the central question as to who will ensure, in view of this complex conflict, that a concrete project will work as requested and be reliable and safe. System integrators estimate that about half of all KNX systems do not function properly, despite the manufacturers’ long-standing efforts to train installers accordingly. Therefore providers should be able to present reference projects that work well both technically and economically. On the other hand, the smart home should also be accepted as a software project – with all its implications such as the necessity of debugging, documenting and regular updates.
Last but not least, the security of smart homes against attacks from outside depends on this. Against this background, it is no wonder that in showcase projects of smart building technology such as the “Apartimentum” residential complex in Hamburg, comfort and networking coincide with the “flatrate living” model in the luxury segment, where continuous maintenance and supervision ensure that the complex installation works well. In this respect, alliances such as the ‧“Connected Comfort” initiative are advantageous for average consumers, too, where suppliers of quite different trades – from electrical installation to sanitary facilities or heating to kitchen appliances and multimedia – get together and promise their clients a smart living experience without disruptions.
Author Martin Krautter