Chances are, in the next five years, some part of your home will be automated.
Not like Rosie from “The Jetsons,” a robot that wheels around your living room serving meals, sweeping the floors with a broom. Rather, it’s expected, based on market trends and product availability, that by 2020 most homeowners will have some sort of home automation adding to their lives.
By 2018, home automation systems are expected to grow into a $14.1 billion industry — most of that in the United States — according to market experts Allied Business Intelligence Research, an industry group that watches technology integration. That would be double-digit growth in all of its sectors including security, energy consumption and appliances.
And with recent acquisitions by Google to move further into home-based services, it appears that prediction might be relatively modest.
“It’s definitely going to grow,” says home automation expert and owner of iWave Denver, Kevin Ziska.
“In the 10 years I’ve been working, it’s grown exponentially. A system that cost $100,000, 10 years ago, now would only cost $10,000.”
Home automation isn’t anything new. In fact, the industry has been around longer than most people realize. As early as the 1950s, home builders offered some sort of home automation systems for homeowners purchasing newly constructed homes in the suburbs.
Those early systems were often clunky, expensive and difficult to maintain. Like the “House of Tomorrow” didn’t really want to work today. In fact, most of those systems looked nothing like what appeared in the World Fairs.
In 1966, Westinghouse engineer Jim Sutherland created the first home automation system, dubbed the Electronic Computing Home Operator, or “ECHO IV.”
Sutherland’s computer consisted of four, 6-foot tall computer cabinets that weighed more than 800 lbs. each. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo showed Jim, his wife, two daughters and one son crowding around the hulking computer, with father plunking away at a keyboard connected to a reel-to-reel machine.
The computer was never sold to the public, and according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, it rarely did anything at all.
According to a journal published by the IEEE in 1994, the home computer’s use was limited to just a few tasks like setting the home’s clock’s routinely (which it did), tracking groceries and food supplies (which it did fairly well), moving the TV antennae for optimal reception (which it mostly did) and predicting the weather (which it did not do at all).
Jim Sutherland’s son, Jay, writes: “On television astronauts walked upon the moon, while in my basement I imagined the collection of glowing blue lights and whirring fans to be my own personal lunar module. Panels of buttons and switches, a forest of hanging cables, and Teletype clatter blended to form a mixture of the interesting and ordinary, similar to the way kids regard microwaves and Nintendo. … I also learned that computers behave kind of like people — they get cold in winter, hot in summer, and are sometimes uncooperative and hard to understand. It seems that some things haven’t changed in 25 years.”
The computer was retired in 1976 along with dreams of pneumatic blenders that turn themselves on, home appliances that can predict the weather, and one-and-a-half ton computers in every home.
But beginning in the 1990s, and especially with the proliferation of broadband Internet and wireless-connected devices becoming cheaper and smaller, home automation began having a brighter future.
Perhaps the most visible to date is Nest Labs’ Nest Learning Thermostat, an Internet-connected thermostat. According to the company, their thermostat can learn heating and cooling patterns and help save homeowners, on average, 10 percent of their HVAC costs every year. That amounts to $110 to $170 each year for the average homeowner.
Launched in 2010 by Tony Fadell, who also helped create the iPod for Apple, in five years Nest Labs has become a tour de force in the home automation business. Now offered in more than 5,000 retailers nationwide ranging from Home Depot to the Apple Store, Nest is the most recognizable face of home automation.
Starting with the company’s $249 smart thermostat, Nest has built a small empire selling people small automation systems, one piece at a time. In 2013, the company announced a carbon monoxide detector, called Nest Protect. In 2014, the company announced it was buying Boulder-based Revolv, which produced a controller for multiple home products, and then promptly ending its production to fold it under the larger Nest Developer Program moniker. That program, already famous for its research and development secrecy — akin to Apple’s — is responsible for a handful of acquisitions ranging from home controller Revolv, to home security systems such as Dropcam to real-time cloud computing app developer Firebase. The company rarely gives interviews and was recently tabbed by the LA Times as one of the most secretive tech startups. Its CEO, Fadell, reports only to Google CEO Larry Page.
“The Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect alarm are already helping people save energy, stay comfortable, and improve home safety – but that’s only the beginning,” Matt Rogers, founder and vice president of engineering for Nest, said in a statement. “Our goal has always been to bring this kind of thoughtfulness to the rest of your home and life – and that’s what the Nest Developer Program is all about. To kick off the program, we’ve worked with iconic brands like Mercedes-Benz and Whirlpool, as well as new industry leaders like Jawbone and LIFX, to build seamless, secure and practical Works with Nest experiences for the home.”
Nest itself was acquired by Google early last year for $3.2 billion, a fraction of what Cisco CEO John Chambers said the company could be worth in just a few years.
To home automation installers such as Ziska, Nest’s thermostat is just a small piece in the growing market for home automation. His company focuses heavily on home audio and video systems using the ControlIV home automation controller.
That controller is most often a homeowner’s smartphone, which uses the Internet to connect and control devices within the home. That could be as simple as turning on the TV, or as complex as opening the garage door, unlocking the front door deadbolt, monitoring security cameras and turning off lights in the kitchen when it’s time to go to bed.
Like the ECHO IV, Ziska says most home automation systems are dedicated to a single room in the house to clear clutter — although the machines are nowhere near 3,200 lbs.
“No, no. Nowadays these things are mostly personal computers that have been dedicated and integrated for the task of home automation,” he says. That allows the machines to be smaller and easily upgraded.
“Years ago systems weren’t computer driven, like this system would only be designed for one purpose and that’s it,” he says. “Now it’s about updating the system — like any computer — rather than updating the hardware.”
In fact, more and more traditional home companies are getting into the automation fold now that parts and technologies are cheaper to produce. Traditional lock-maker Qwikset now sells a Bluetooth-enabled deadbolt that can open when the user’s phone is nearby (in addition to opening with a traditional key). And appliance-giant LG announced a line of Internet-enabled appliances, such as oven ranges and refrigerators that could automatically turn on and off, send and receive recipes and transmit grocery lists to users’ smartphones.
The future, famously, is hard to predict.
But for people like Ziska, whose business it is to watch home automation systems more closely, the tumultuous last few years are an indication that the market is on a precipice.
Industry watchdogs say the home automation business could grow in the next few years to include many more devices and many more connections that were previously unrelated. Although it was released onto the market years ago, iRobot’s Roomba, the automated vacuum cleaner, has enjoyed a second life as a development tool for home automators using the robot to complete a multitude of tasks completely unrelated. Adaptive assistance, inventory control and agricultural robots have all been created using iRobot’s development kit.
Cisco’s head Chambers said at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that the “Internet of things,” a loosely defined term to describe the ecosystem of products connected to the Internet — including home automation systems — will grow into a $19 trillion business within a few years.
Ziska has seen the market explode as well.
“The capabilities have grown tremendously since I started,” he says. “I think you’ll see cable and satellite TV go the way of the Internet, so you’ll have one fewer box in each room. From there, it’ll be systems that’ll unlock your doors and turn on and off your lights from your phone.”
And even though many of the homes that he works on currently are new-home constructions, Ziska says that half of his business is bringing older homes up to date or replacing aging systems.
“The biggest thing is people don’t think they have to wire their homes anymore, but that’s not true — you do. … If you run a CAT-5 cable to every room in your house, I could make your house do anything.”