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Lights, Camera, Thermostat

Products for the Indian connected home are trickling in but infrastructure and service must be in place first

Not long ago, the term ‘Smart Home’ would have conjured up visions of the strictly unattainable $123 million high-tech mansion of Bill Gates. It cost someone $35,000 just to tour the dream home. Over $80,000 worth of computer screens, $150,000 worth of devices — and obviously all manner of magical technology at work. You could walk into a room and the temperature would change: and it isn’t you but the pin you’re wearing housing your preferences even for things like the artwork on the walls.

While us lowly people aren’t getting the artificial stream,12 kitchens or 24 bathrooms anytime soon, some of the tech features are inching within reach. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was, as ever, the launchpad for a whole lot of smart home products. One of the most talked about was Samsung’s Family Hub fridge which was all kitted out with speakers and a giant touch screen. This was where family members could leave notes for each other, mark dates on a calendar, display artwork, besides taking pictures of what’s inside the fridge and sending alerts to top up whatever is finishing off. There were also net connected robots that did housework and security cameras that could tell the difference between animals and people and vehicles outside to alert the home owner when really needed There were also connected kitchen appliances that pretty much did the cooking on their own.

Nascent Segment
But where are these luxuries in India? Products like the Nest thermostat or Amazon’s Echo speaker, which was predominant at CES because everything is becoming connected to it, aren’t optimised for India or sold here where most people don’t use central heating or cooling but smart products including thermostats are beginning to trickle in. Honeywell, a veteran in the connected home segment, is for example, working on home security and also has connected thermostats and other products. For now, it is products that can be controlled through smartphone apps much like the Philips Hue lights that you can personalise.

“Connected home and automation technologies have been around for some time in the west. In India, they are still a niche and nascent segment,” says Yoosuf Mohamed, vice-president, Technology Practice, Cognizant.”Ever since the Indian government announced plans to build 100 smart cities, there’s been a lot of focus on connected buildings and homes to ensure greater safety, security, functionality, comfort and energy efficiency. Yet, the sector has high entry barriers to mass adoption such as integration of disparate systems, especially related to security, poor manageability, and high cost of ownership,” he says.

Young tech entrepreneur Saurav Kumar, CEO and founder of Cube26 (perhaps so named because 26 is his age) also agrees that smart home products like the ones at CES are just too expensive for India. But that doesn’t mean affordable ones aren’t possible. Accordingly, he set out to create a smart light bulb, working on Bluetooth and via an app, and demonstrated how it could be used by anyone with a smartphone and be truly useful. IOTA Lite, as the bulb is called, can react to weather alerts and other specified events acting as a notification object. “Users have been telling us some of the features they would like, such as a change in the light when an Uber cab has arrived, or when the Domino's pizza ordered has crossed the promised 30 minutes. Many such features can be built in,” says Saurav Kumar. Carrying out a survey of Indian consumers, Cube26 found 35 percent respondents were aware of the IoT concept but more so, 51 percent were aware of smart and connected devices and were willing to try them. This awareness was in the 35 to 55 years age group. Over 75 per cent didn’t realise that their smartphones could be used as an IoT enabler. Respondents were keenly interested in home automation, smart lighting, connected fridges, smart TVs, and wearables and transportation logistics. But 60 percent were worried about data security and 53 percent about the expensive.

“Applications and IoT will dominate the technology trends of 2016. As we move ahead, one will see varied usage of IoT and newer products based on IoT being launched,” said Kumar. “The products which can add utility to the daily lives of consumers will be the winners. IoT has been talked about extensively, but very few products are today available in the market which are easily accessible to the consumers, have a daily utility and are easy to use. If one can change this, it will certainly be a game changer,” he said.

Kits and Hubs
Startups and established tech giants are both busy creating for the era of IoT, bringing out devices, applications, DIY kits, hubs, and of course, working on the backend connectivity and platforms. Every large company, from Google to Apple and Honeywell to Cisco have had their own solution to connecting smart devices so they can talk to each other. Samsung, who owns SmartThings, a platform to connect everyday objects in the home, was awarded at CES because of the readiness with which it now integrates with objects. All Samsung SUHD TVs for example can now become IoT hubs that will connect to more than 200 objects including thermostats, speakers, appliances, cameras, etc, and not necessarily Samsung products. A Philips bulb connected via SmartThings could turn on when you open the door, for example.

Samsung has not yet launched SmartThings in India — it’s only in the US and UK for now. It may arrive in India soon although it will depend on many conditions being right. Anoop Mohan, SVP Product Management at SmartThings, outlines the challenges to India IoT: “While there is heavy dependability on the cloud, both operationally and for scalability, home is such a critical part of one’s life, that you cannot say, oh, your lights will not turn on now or your door locks won’t open because there’s a thunderstorm and the internet is down,” he said. “So we have to bring in what we call ‘local processing,’ so while still using the cloud, even without the internet, you will still be able to make things work -- such as lights switching on when you open the door. In India, that becomes a greater need because there is probably 30 or 40 percent probability that your internet is down or you have no power,” said Mohan, “So that would be one customization we would have to make in the software for a place like India so that critical functionality just works locally.” Similarly, battery backup would need to be customized for India so that long power outages could be tackled with resilient hardware.

The other challenge is sheer bandwidth. “Every time we talk to someone in India they mention bandwidth,” says Anoop Mohan. “For example, video is a big use case. But with video, it’s more up-link bandwidth that you need, not down-link from a server to your home. You need up-link bandwidth to be able to upload video such as when you want to monitor your home remotely and see what’s happening there. So we cannot wait for the infrastructure to change — we would need to make some changes so that video is not sent up every time but is processed and stored locally and uploaded when something happens and there is a need.”

Home monitoring is one of the primary uses of smart home solutions today. In the US, there are contracts with providers for a multitude of services. These are now being replaced by DIY kits. “We are now putting in place services into connected home solutions. For example, we have a partner called Scout, which enables managed monitoring,” says Mohan. “If something happens in your house, they will call the police. Users can get devices at a reasonable price and enable certain pay-as-you-go services like monitoring. A traditional provider, perhaps similar to Comcast or indeed the government, would be needed in India with the infrastructure to offer services,” he said. Apart from home monitoring, the type of services that could be possible are limitless such as, for example, a leak sensor that could detect water leakage and dispatch a plumber to the home.

Cisco, a company which has been involved in IoT right from the conceptual stage, sees the real meaning of a smart home as being one that also is in the context of a smart city or indeed smart village which is why Cisco has always used the term IoE or ‘Internet of Everything’. Purushottam Kaushik, Director Sales, Cisco India and SAARC says that it is in the enterprise that IoE is being implemented more easily because of the leveraging of WiFi in a controlled environment. Cisco has been working with a number of clients such as Tata Motors, Mahindra, Trident and others to implement connected solutions. “Many companies have shifted over to connecting all their machines and devices together for better efficiency,” Kaushik says.

For the connected home, innovations that can leapfrog some of India’s problems with infrastructure and services are waiting to happen.