While I was still at Microsoft, I deployed a consumer grade smart home and reported on my experiences and conclusions.   In brief:

  • The home consisted of Samsung Smart things hub, numerous light switches, a Nest thermostat, Amazon Echoes, Dropcams, garage door opener, motion sensors, and security alarm.
  • Setup was painful and expensive.  Installing light switches took days of careful (and potentially hazardous) work.   Thousands of dollars went into this project.
  • With a few exceptions, smart devices provided minimal actual value.  For example, it’s nifty to have lights turn on and off as you enter and exit rooms, but if you calculate savings on the LED bulbs in my house, the investment literally never pays off.   The Nest thermostat also provided only novelty value over my older programmable thermostat, and minimal energy savings.
  • Setup was tough, but programming was tougher.   I wanted to program my house, but simple rules didn’t do a good job of automating things.   My family kept finding corner cases or insisting on not following household usage patterns.   The SmartThings hub included an admirable amount of flexiblity, but not enough to meet my family’s needs.
  • The solution was surprisingly robust and reliable.   Past experiences with X10 and other technologies made me doubt this, but in fact the equipment was very robust.
  • The solution didn’t have the data needed to really program my house.   For example, it knows when there’s motion in a hallway, but not which direction the motion is going.   Also, it didn’t know who was in the room; me, my wife, or my dog.

All in all, the deployment made me cautious about rosy predictions of the size of the consumer IoT market.

Now I’ve been living with my home for a year, and have learned more.   Here are some thoughts…

  • Reliability hasn’t lived up to my expectations.   Two motion sensors went haywire and report motion continuously, which messes up programming.   For example, I have a rule to close the garage door when there’s been no motion in the garage, but it stopped working.   After debugging I found and replace the faulty sensor.   One of the light switches stopped responding and had to be replaced.
  • The use of “smart” features has dwindled.   Over time, rules became annoying and I was asked to remove them.
  • The core value continues to be security.   Checking for intrusions when on vacation.   Closing the garage door when the kids forget.   These features are what we really use and value, but it’s worth noting they don’t require very much “smarts”.

In some ways, what I’ve learned the most about is people.   My family is much less predictable than these systems assume, and their desires depend on *many* more factors than you’d expect.    Automatic lights should flex with day/night cycles and daylight savings.   My son likes automatic lights but my wife doesn’t.   My wife is annoyed when the pets activate lighting.

A note on voice:  As we’ve added more Echoes and Google Homes to the house, there have been more opportunities to voice enable things.   *Nobody* likes this feature, because telling Alexa to turn on the living room lights is nearly always more work than just flipping a switch.

A final, personal note.   I still love this stuff.   To see things through my family’s eyes, I’ve had to overcome my geeky love of the technology and sense I can now live the life I read about in SF novels as a kid.    It just turns out that problems home automation tries to solve are (a) harder and (b) less urgent than we all expected.