Madhavan, or Maddy as his friends call him, has been in Rome on a two week holiday. The day before he is to come back, his house, located in a leafy suburb outside Chennai, wakes up and gets ready for his return. Actually, it never slept those two weeks. Once, it had to wake up Maddy in the middle of the night when one of the sensors on the western perimeter set off an alarm. Even as it woke Maddy up, it sent a portion of the CCTV footage from the western side to Maddy’s e-mail. It turned out to be just a cat. Another time, when a tap in the main toilet started leaking water, it had to call up Maddy again. When the plumber that Maddy called up turned up at his doorstep, Maddy tapped into the live CCTV stream from his home on his tablet, opened the door for the plumber and made sure that the leak was fixed, all the while sitting in the beautiful Italian capital.
When Maddy landed in Chennai, he pressed a button on his smartphone, to get his house ready for his return in an hour. On came the air conditioners. Since the air conditioners knew the outside temperature and the temperature that Maddy preferred at home, they adjusted themselves so the house would be evenly cooled. The curtains and blinds opened on all windows except those on the sunny side. Lights switched on to required brightness so that Maddy’s eyes could get used to the indoors easily.
When Maddy’s car neared his home, the garage detected the RFID chip in the vehicle and opened the door so Maddy could drive in directly. As Maddy got out, the NFC chip in his phone was detected by the front door even as it looked at him to make sure that it was indeed Maddy, not some intruder with his phone. Since Maddy had grown a beard in the last few weeks, the door got a little confused and wouldn’t open at which point Maddy had to intervene and swipe his finger on the finger recognition sensor on the knob. Tired from his long flight, Maddy went straight to bed after setting the alarm for 6am Monday.
As the clock struck six, the curtains in his room opened to let in sunlight, and the speakers in the house started playing distant rooster wake up sounds. As Maddy got out of bed, the accelerometers in his bed sensed that he was up and sent out messages so that the toilet seat was heated to the right temperature, and so the coffee machine started brewing. Maddy made his way to the toilet mirror to brush his teeth, which sensing his presence started displaying his Twitter timeline and the day’s latest news. With a quick swiping gesture, they were replaced by his work email and his calendar schedule for the next week. After the shower, Maddy got dressed, drank the coffee, threw the cup in the dishwasher and made his way to the door. As he stepped out and closed it, he selected the hibernate mode on his phone which sent the house into hibernation. It will wake up again the moment Maddy leaves his office, and prepare for his arrival home.
If you thought this description of a single day in Maddy’s life is straight out of a futuristic science fiction novel, you would be wrong. The setting is not futuristic. And the technology is not fiction. Thousands of homes around India are being fitted with technologies very similar to Maddy’s. The future that we have always dreamed about is here. Now. In 2013.
Welcome to the world of Home Automation. A world where the place that we spend most of our lives in, and the place that has more or less remained the same in the last 100 years finally steps into the 21st century. A world where our homes become more intelligent and more helpful thanks to technology. A world where the intelligent home gives us time to do what we do best, and what we want to do. A world which makes our homes safe, comfortable and fun places.
Wikipedia describes home automation as the process of ‘automation of the home, housework or household activity.... to provide improved convenience, comfort, energy efficiency and security’. Even though many view home automation as a quintessentially modern technology, the idea of automating tasks in a home has been with us for decades. Porch lights that come on when they detect motion, refrigerators that start beeping if left open for too long, or air-conditioners that come to life at a pre-defined time are all examples of primitive automation technologies. Alternately if you are a geek and are extremely wealthy you could get an automated house built, just like Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, did on the shore of Lake Washington in late 90s. Every guest that enters his house reportedly has to wear a pin that contains the guest’s information and which automatically adjusts room temperature, music, lightings and even art on the high definition screens. Even if you are not Bill Gates and wealthy, you could still get your home automated, but you have to be a bit of a geek as navigating the bewildering set of controls that accompany automated systems are not for the faint hearted.
It is only in the last few years that the idea of turning our homes into digitally automated comfort zones has picked up, and become economical and easier to implement. Like almost all other aspects of our lives, this proliferation and growth of home automation technologies can be attributed to three modern technologies. The Internet, wireless technologies and most important of all, the ubiquitous availability of smart phones, tablet computers and devices with touchscreens. Bring all these technologies together and you can perform mundane tasks like closing your curtains while lounging on your sofa at the touch of a button on your phone.
As Maddy would say, today’s home automation technologies go way beyond controlling lights and curtains. Often deployed as complete home packages, these technologies deal with three major aspects of our lives. Comfort, Entertainment and Security. Total Environment, a Bangalore-based architect-led development firm that offers custom-designed residential spaces in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune makes sure that its upmarket clientele who pay anything from `15 lakh to `20 lakh to automate apartments that cost upwards of `4 crore base all their technology around iOS or Android based tablet computers. The custom-designed app that a user will get access to on their everyday tablet shows a complete map for the whole apartment and will have a host of icons to manage everything from air-conditioning to doors. From the comfort of the app, lighting in every room of the house can be controlled. This lets the users set mood lighting, and lets them operate lights at 20, 40, 60, 80 or 100 per cent of brightness. The easy-to-use interface also lets users control curtains, sprinkler systems and the air-conditioning sitting anywhere in the world. Besides giving the users never-before levels of control over their homes, this system also lets them save valuable resources like energy and water. The entertainment aspects of the system allow users to play music and video, all stored on a central server, in individual rooms. But it is the security aspect of the system which the company says “makes sure the owner feels safe when at home and assured of safety of his home while away” that the affluent users find really useful. A visitor management system allows the home owner to identify visitors both ‘visually and aurally” and allows them to open or close the door from anywhere in the world. Features like fingerprint scanners and keypads for pass-codes for opening the main door offer extra security and baffle any would-be amateur burglars. While leaving the house, pressing a single icon in the app will ‘arm’ the house by locking all doors and activating motion sensors, glass break detectors and magnetic sensors on all doors. Setting off any of these alarms will alert the home owner, wherever he is in the world, with exact details of which doors have been opened and which glass has been broken. A fire alarm will alert him to the possibility of a fire accident. In the event of any of these breaches, along with setting off local alarms, the system is also designed to send pre-recorded messages to up to eight phone numbers. The home owner can access the IP cameras strewn throughout his home and can watch the presence or lack of a burglar in his home, again from anywhere in the world. Since the firm gets involved from the beginning in the construction of an automated home, Total Environment offers customisable software solutions.
Total Environment, and many such high-end developers, gets involved from the planning phase and depending on the depth of their customer’s pockets, go as far as offering packages where maids and drivers are offered proximity ID cards with which the domestic staff can be tracked throughout a house or an apartment complex and where cars are fitted with RFID chips to operate boom barriers. But it is when an already existing home is to be automated that new wireless technologies come in handy which allow for deploying light controllers and entertainment consoles without having to re-wire entire houses.
The last few years have been good for home automation industry and the home users in terms not only of ease of installation and use, but also pricing. To get a decent home automation system installed, you need not be mega rich. Eloka Enterprises, is a Chennai-based home automation company that is competing in the value segment of the market. Founded by Arjun Jay Ram, an IIT Bombay alumni with an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, Eloka offers projects that cost anywhere from `75,000 going up to `5 lakh not only in metros like Delhi and Mumbai but also in tier II cities like Coimbatore, Cochin and Allahabad. Even though you wouldn’t get facilities to track the movements of your domestic staff, Eloka offers a decent package that covers all the basics of security, convenience and entertainment. Since in the value segment energy management is one of the most sought-after features, Eloka works with customers to customise systems. They could range from simple energy and water saving systems that switch off water pumping motors once a tank is full to complex security systems involving sensors. Again like high-end systems, Eloka offers custom developed apps for iOS, Android and Windows mobile platforms so that customers can keep using the smartphones and tablets they already use to control various aspects of their home. A mockup of the iOS app that Eloka uses shows off different modes for different aspects of our lives. The vacation mode for example activates motion sensors once we leave the house, keeps lights in strategic points on at nights and alerts us if there is an attempt to enter the house. Bhaskar Rao, the Founder-CEO of Technosphere, an embedded consulting firm in Bangalore, says the fact that an Eloka-installed system sends an SMS to his mobile whenever there is an intrusion in his house keeps him happy when he is away.
Says Harish Ram, Head, Operations, Eloka Enterprises: “With automatic control of regularly used home devices such as security systems, temperature control, lighting and other devices, it makes life easier and sorted.”
Many home automation users find the wow factor of home automation as important as all the other features on offer. Increasingly seen as a ‘status symbol’, home automation providers boast of whole gated communities that got their homes automated not to be left out. Ravi Krishnan, the MD of Scantrans India, a printing and packaging unit, is one such user who feels one of the greatest features of home automation is the capacity to wow people. After getting main gate and main door security systems, lighting and music systems installed in his beautiful house in Chennai, Krishnan is one happy user who is really glad he got his house automated. He is so happy that he says he is on the lookout for newer technologies and would love to update his system if and when upgrades are available.
But that is a common sentiment that you hear from the early adopters of what is a burgeoning industry in India. In Chennai, Eloka works on around 200 projects a year and like other home automation providers is hoping that clients like Krishnan and Rao will give them exposure. As of 2011, it is a `4,000 crore market in India.
Avinash K Gautam, who makes automated home systems in Bangalore, sees the trend as a step towards better and safer homes. It’s been a year since Gautam, the Vice President of Silvan Innovation Labs, first installed home automation system at his residence. “It gives the house a synchrony of sorts. The advantages are many. For example, I can open and down the curtains of my house with the push of a button. Even better, I can set the house in timer mode. In this sequence, the curtains will go down by 7 pm and the lights will automatically switch on. So I don’t have to do it manually,” he says with relish.
Apart from the companies like Total Environment and Eloka, there is a growing class of do-it-yourself (DIY) home automation enthusiasts in India, who with a little technical knowhow and a little bit of money are automating their homes themselves. Jairam, an NRI who works in a London stockbroker firm, is one such enthusiast who automated his home in a small town in coastal Andhra Pradesh. He says, “With a little ingenuity you can automate your home. I spent around `30,000 to install simple lights and sensors so my mom could control them. Sometimes you may have to do a little programming, so I wouldn’t say it is for everyone”.
While the advent of companies like LG and Samsung into the automation market with products like washing machines that can be controlled with smartphones promises a more automated future, not everyone is sold. A top executive in a bank is worried that her automated home is making her children lazy. She says they will become like the characters from the film Wall-E, who control everything from the comforts of their chairs and grow obese and complacent in the process.
Even though skeptics are worried about automation’s effects on the society in terms of health, privacy and security, experts say the spread of ‘internet of things’, where household objects like coffee makers and toasters are connected combined with newer voice controlled gadgets like Google Glass and the rumored iWatch that can control those household objects will herald an age of a truly connected home.