SmartBuildings 101: The Hub
At the foundation of every SmartBuilding is the smart building hub. The hub controls all of the building's smart devices and provides the user interface to you let you monitor and control those devices. And to automate your building. Until recently these hubs were expensive, complex and proprietary. Over the past 2 - 3 years there has been a proliferation of inexpensive, easy to use hubs and this is what's driving the explosion in smart buildings now.
There are dozens of good hub products on the market, but our favourite by far is the Samsung SmartThings Hub, so we're going to use this as our example today. (We're not paid to like the Samsung hub, by the way - it will only be our favourite until something better comes along!)
The hub needs to communicate with your smart devices wirelessly, so it needs to be installed centrally, but otherwise it can be hidden from view.
Powered smart devices (i.e. those that are plugged in, rather than those that run on batteries) act as 'repeaters'. These relay signals from the hub to other, further away, devices. With a bit of careful planning you can cover a building of any size.
The SmartThings hub is compatible with hundreds of smart devices from Samsung and dozens of other manufacturers. We'll take a look at many of these devices in future columns. One of the best features of the SmartThings hub, however, is it's support for third party services such as IFTTT and Amazon Echo (see below) that let you make buildings really smart. Let's take a closer look.
Like most hubs, SmartThings comes with its own smartphone app. This is the app that you use to configure SmartThings, to configure and monitor your devices and to perform simple automations. The SmartThings app, which is available for Android and iOS, provides a dashboard that provides an overview of the status of your home or office and you can configure this status to change automatically based on criteria you define. If a door is opened in 'Unoccupied' mode, for example, you could configure SmartThings to consider this to be an exception (i.e. an intrusion may have occurred) and to take predefined actions (e.g. turn on all of the lights and send you an alert).
Using the smartphone app you can also configure modes for each room. For example, if you switch to 'Night' mode you could configure lights and heating to come on and the curtains to close. Modes can change automatically. We use presence sensors, which our clients attach to their key rings. SmartThings recognises these as the client arrives and changes the mode from 'Away' to 'Present' (for example). The doors unlock, alarms are disabled, lights come on and other actions are taken automatically.
SmartTiles is a brilliant, touch-screen interface for the SmartThings hub. Developed by Alex Malikov and Terry Gauchat, SmartTiles is one of the most compelling reasons to choose the SmartThings hub - and it isn't even made by Samsung.
With SmartTiles you can have as many touch-screens as you like around your building and they let you monitor and control just about anything. Want to see who's at the door and let them in? No problem - just jab a couple of buttons on the touch screen and it's done. Even better, SmartTiles can be used from just about anywhere, so you can monitor and control your building from the next room or from the other side of the world.
The Echo is the voice-controlled assistant that you never knew you needed. And you thought Amazonjust sold books!
The Echo provides amazingly accurate voice recognition and can perform hundreds of tasks from the whimsical (singing you happy birthday) to theuseful (making calendar entries, providing the weather forecast, telling you what the time is in Timbuktu). For a full description of the Echo's many powers, check out Amazon's web site. The Echo Dot (pictured right) is a smaller version designed to give you Echo coverage throughout your smart building.
Combined with the SmartThings hub and IFTTT the Echo becomes a powerful, extendable, voice recognition system for monitoring and controlling our smart buildings. This is not only really cool, it's completely transformative.
As much as we love our smartphones, it can be a drag to have to find your phone, unlock it and fire up an app just to turn on the lights. With the Echo we can create 'recipes' that allow us to do just about anything just by saying so. Instead of fumbling in the dark for your phone, for example, we just say 'Alexa, lounge lights on' and hey presto! Truly amazing stuff. ('Alexa' is the 'wake word' for Amazon Echo).
If This Then That (IFTTT) is the magic sauce that allows us to integrate your smart home or office with just about anything. IFTTT can be a bit hard to describe, but it makes perfect sense when you see it in action. It's a web-based service that allows us to write 'recipes' that can interact with a dizzying array of physical and virtual things. Within reason, if you can imagine it, we can do it with IFTTT. Here just a few of the IFTTT recipes that we've written and implemented for clients:
Office door unlocks, the air conditioning and lighting turn on and security systems turn off when staff members arrive at the office (carrying a presence sensor on their key ring).
Office switches to 'Night Mode' at a specified time. The doors lock, lights go into 'motion sensor' mode (i.e. so they're off when no one's there) and the company owner is alerted if any motion is detected.
When the client presses a button we've installed at their reception it sends a coffee order to the cafe next door. When the button is double-pressed it signals all office staff that the receptionist is in trouble and needs assistance.
One we're implementing now - at predefined times the client's underfloor heating, lights and even coffee machine are activated, curtains open and alarm (wakey wakey!) comes on.
We'll devote a future column to this excellent service and how to use it to do just about anything.