Our residences are long overdue for a technological makeover. More and more electronics have, over the years, found their way into houses and apartments: Everything from thermostats to ovens and washing machines are, for all intents and purposes, run by small computers. To boot, many dwellings are now completely covered by wireless networks that can carry very significant amounts of data, without requiring expensive wiring.
It stands to reason, then, that all the pieces are finally in place for home automation to go from an ill-fitting luxury that only few can afford to a commonplace aspect of every home. What’s missing is a “unifying technology” that can bring every appliance under a common umbrella where they can communicate with each other.
While Apple hasn’t announced any specific plans in this space, it has been quietly busy putting into place technologies that could well turn iOS into the hub around which our homes will revolve in the not-so-distant future.
I know where you are
Home automation is not, of course, a new concept. Systems that allow you to remotely manage your lighting and heating have been around for years, and simpler technologies—such as light switches that activate when you walk into a room—have been commonplace for many decades now.
Many of these systems, however, rely on too much active participation on the user’s behalf. A motion sensor will only be able to “see” you if you move, which means that you can’t rely on it to, say, illuminate the living room while you try to quietly read a book in your armchair. Even the smartest of smart thermostats currently on the market is still only as effective as where you put it, and many families keep theirs in locations—such as by a dwelling’s main door—far away from where people spend most of their time.
Apple’s technologies have been slowly building up to a point where they can intelligently determine where people are in the house. In my family, for example, it’s rare that someone will be in a room without being accompanied by an iOS device that they are actively using. Add a temperature sensor to an iPhone or an iPad, and you end up with a thermostat that follows you around the house and can provide your central heating system with precious information on exactly which rooms need to be climate-controlled.
This “presence awareness” can be complemented by the kind of hyper-locality that Apple has been engineering into its Bluetooth initiatives. The company’s iBeacon technology allows tiny, inexpensive devices to pinpoint your precise location with a high degree of accuracy inside any building. As long as you are in possession of (or maybe even wearing) a compatible device, iBeacons will work whether you are moving or standing still, in blazing sunlight or in the dark, and whether the device itself is in plain sight or buried under a pile of books.
With these technologies in place, it’s not hard to imagine a compatible heating system that can determine which rooms in the house are occupied and focus its climate controlling abilities on them, or lights that can automatically turn themselves on and off as you walk from room to room.
Conquering the living room
Apple’s efforts in the home media automation space have, so far, met with results that can, at best, be described as “mixed.” At $100, the Apple TV is less expensive than competition like Microsoft’s and Sony’s consoles, but it doesn’t offer any interactive features like games or apps. And, compared to the Chromecast, the Apple TV comes at a steeper price point and takes up more space, although Google’s product cannot function as a standalone device.
But given how uncharacteristically chatty company executives have been on its status as a “hobby,” it’s likely that the set-top box is due for a major overhaul, through which it will probably gain some significant new features.
One area where Apple could really set its media center apart from the competition is the user interface. Remotes are about as futuristic as typewriters, and replacing them with a smartphone—something you can already do today—only marginally reduces the complexity of interacting with your television.
There are several signs that the company may have an ace up its corporate sleeve here. For one thing, it acquired 3D vidion pioneer PrimeSense at the end of last year; this could mean that the next Apple TV might be able to see you walk into your living room and allow you to control your viewing experience through a series of simple gestures. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because PrimeSense technology was also behind the original version of Microsoft’s Kinect.)
In addition, recent versions of the Apple TV support Bluetooth LE, which is exactly the kind of technology you are likely to find in wearable devices—itself a market that Apple seems to be eyeing with increasing interest. Who knows: In the near future we may finally be able to stop looking for our remotes under the sofa’s cushions and instead control our TV sets directly from our wrists.
Siri, Siri everywhere
Since its introduction in 2010, Siri has been a bit of a hit-and-miss affair; even after shedding its “beta” moniker, Apple’s virtual assistant often fails to complete fairly basic tasks, and I, for one, still can’t get over the strangeness of speaking to a phone instead of on one.
Still, Siri’s goofy voice and sassy demeanour are, in a sense, a bit of a red herring; voice is just an interface that we use to interact with what is likely a massive web of artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms—think of it as a means for Siri to receive commands and send back responses. As iOS's ability to interact with the real world increases, data collected from the environment around us can be automatically fed into Apple's digital brain to supplement the information that we provide it by speaking into a microphone, and its output, rather than come out of a speaker, can be directed to connected appliances throughout your house.
For example, low-power sensors spread through a house or apartment could collect realtime information about temperature and humidity, and use Siri’s power to apply the latest climate management techniques to both keep you warm and help you use less electricty and natural gas.
Or, perhaps, health data collected in real time—even while we sleep or are otherwise occupied—by wearable devices and other household appliances like scales can be used alongside medical models that can alert us when it’s time to take a visit to the family doctor.
In both these cases, Siri’s artificial intelligence doesn’t just automate our home: It augments our abilities by incorporating expert knowledge in a variety of fields that we wouldn’t normally have access to.
A darker side
Of course, many of the innovations that make home automation interesting are double-edged swords that could herald an unprecedented level of invasion into our privacy. Do we really want big corporations to know how much time we spend in our living room, or our resting blood pressure, or whether we like to keep our house at a balmy temperature in the middle of winter?
These questions are hard to answer, but Apple has already made an open commitment to security in a whitepaper that goes to great pains to show that it treats its customers’ data with as much care as it can. As iOS makes its way into more and more aspects of our lives, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company positioned itself as a devotee of strict privacy principles—even more so than it already has. Especially in comparison to its main competitor, Google, that could go a great length towards helping these kinds of technologies gain more mainstream acceptance.