Ever smarter homes

4 mins read

Not so long ago, “smart home” meant an assortment of individual connected gadgets, from smart LED lights to HVAC controls to security cameras, that users could control from their smartphones.

Today, we’re now seeing the growth of more interconnected ecosystems with smart home devices capable of listening to, instructing one another and even anticipating user preferences. Much of this consumer adoption is driven by the user-friendly voice interfaces of popular new smart speakers.

Consumers often buy Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Home smart speakers to play music and check weather forecasts and then incrementally add other connected devices to their home network such as smart lights and door locks, which can be controlled through voice commands.

According to a recent report by Navigant Research, global annual revenue from smart home platforms is forecast to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $14.3 billion in 2028, achieving a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.1 percent.

A growing number of electronics companies are now involved in the burgeoning smart home market, delivering silicon and software solutions and working closely with a variety of equipment makers, communication protocol specialist interest groups (SIGs) and smart home technology alliances helping to shape today’s smart home marketplace.

As 2020 progresses, it is possible to identify six key trends that are becoming increasingly important when it comes to the smart home.

Trend 1: The shift from “smart” to “intelligent”
“Smart” has traditionally meant being able to adjust your lights with a voice command or switch on your heating from your smartphone as you start your commute home. This level of ‘smartness’ was considered impressive, and people engaged with it easily. But it was only the first step on a bigger and far more exciting journey.

IoT devices are becoming more powerful, and intelligent. Form factors are shrinking. Communication protocol enhancements are delivering increased range and energy-efficiency. And consumers are adding more connected devices to their homes. All of this means there’s a growing possibility – and indeed expectation – of greater sophistication, with multiple devices working together seamlessly and intelligently.

A simple example would be when you sit down with family or friends to watch a film. A single voice command would see the television and set-top-box switch on with the film poised to play, with window blinds coming down and lights dimming to create the cinema-like ambience you want. Expect more of these integrated experiences to become the norm.

Trend 2: Multiprotocol connectivity becomes more pervasive
When it comes to smart home connectivity, no one protocol dominates. There’s good reason for this: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Thread and proprietary networks all have different characteristics – and each has a role to play in IoT connectivity.

Device makers will continue to choose communication technology based on factors such as range, the number of devices they’re connecting, power constraints, and indeed the protocols used by the smart home ecosystem(s) they want to integrate with.

This approach of using best-of-breed wireless technology is driving the need for multiprotocol connectivity. For example, Silicon Labs has developed wireless IoT solutions with dynamic multiprotocol connectivity capable of supporting Zigbee, Bluetooth and other protocol options.
Each protocol has its own requirements for latency and bandwidth, and the effective scheduling of communication is a key element to successfully making use of dynamic multiprotocol connectivity.
By designing with a single multiprotocol SoC, for example, the wireless subsystem bill of materials (BOM) can be reduced by up to 40 percent, the printed circuit board (PCB) design can be simplified, and potential interference between multiple radios is eliminated through using RF co-existence methods.

The resulting multiprotocol smart home products are more attractive to consumers, who’ll no longer have to spend as long pouring over specs to make sure something will work with their setup. Going forward, we will see end products for the smart home begin to support multiprotocol connectivity, making it easier for consumers who don’t have to worry about which protocol logo is on the box when purchasing new products. It will just work

And this dovetails nicely with our next smart home trend…

Trend 3: Improving user experiences

Even if your device is the most capable piece of smart home product on the market, if the experience of installing and using it is poor, it’s unlikely to succeed. We’re seeing players in the market doing a lot to make the setup and operation of smart home devices as easy as possible. An example is the Z-Wave SmartStart commissioning system, which enables consumers to add new devices to their network simply by scanning a QR code.

Trend 4: Increased use of artificial intelligence
Ever-greater compute power is enabling smart home equipment makers to leverage the capabilities of machine learning closer to the device rather than solely in the cloud.

This migration of intelligence to the edge will have the benefit of reducing latency, thereby enabling the creation of more responsive and intelligent systems. It will also provide opportunities to enhance security and privacy by limiting the amount and type of data shared outside of the home.

Trend 5: Manufacturers helping device makers focus more on differentiation
Manufacturers of smart home devices have a vision of how they can use cutting-edge technologies to transform the way we live. Achieving this vision should be their number one focus, so that’s why they’re looking to spend more time innovating and differentiating, rather than getting into the nuts and bolts of component integration, wireless certification and the like.

As a result, smart home device makers increasingly are looking for silicon and software suppliers that offer development tools to standardize the design process across multiple communications protocols. These utilities make device designers’ lives easier by taking care of the heavy lifting around energy profiling, configuration and connectivity optimization. As a consequence, it leaves more time for innovation, while also facilitating faster time-to-market.

Trend 6: The need for ever-more-robust but low-impact security
No discussion of smart tech trends and the IoT is complete without delving into security. The need for security – from the device to the cloud – increases by the day as more connected devices collect more data, bad actors launch ever-more-sophisticated attacks, and tech-savvy consumers become more aware of these attacks and what’s at risk in the connected home.

The challenge, of course, is to implement security without unacceptable impact on battery life, bandwidth, CPU usage and system cost. Securing the IoT requires a comprehensive, collaborative approach involving the entire ecosystem of silicon and software suppliers, wireless protocol SIGs, device manufacturers, IoT service providers and cloud companies.

For example, Silicon Labs’ Z-Wave Security S2 technology redesigns the way Z-Wave security works, with the aim of creating a gold standard for smart home networks. It uses Elliptic-curve Diffie-Hellman cryptography and asymmetric key exchange. Crucially, its code footprint on the device is small, leaving space for manufacturers to add the features they want. S2 complements other optimised mechanisms for IP domains that enable Z-Wave services to implement end-to-end security.

It’s an exciting time in the smart home marketplace. For those designing and manufacturing smart home products, the growing ease of network protocol interoperability and new tools to streamline development and improve user experiences mean they’ll be able to create more compelling products more quickly.

And by extension, this is great news for consumers who’ll benefit from the quicker pace of innovation, a broader choice of easier-to-use products and the beginning of true ecosystem interoperability that will make their ever-more-intelligent smart homes a reality in 2020 and beyond.

Author details:
Johan Pedersen is smart home product marketing manager at Silicon Labs