Smart homes: Demystifying the futuristic gizmos making our homes hands-free

By Luke Rix-Standing. Published 2020-04-20
BOLD-Technology
Voice-activated cookers, remote controlled loos and a fridge that can tell you the weather.

If someone from 1999 spent the last 20 years in cryo-freeze, then woke up and immediately toured the smart home section of IKEA, they would probably think the robots had finally taken over.

Detailed datasheets on household ‘performance’; surveillance cameras and digital locks; artificial intelligence – with its own ‘human’ names – ruling our appliances with an iron fist.

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It almost sounds a little dystopian. But while modern smart devices are just the latest step in the ever-evolving quest for ultimate convenience and efficiency – with constant new developments and an endless stream of jargon, they can still be thoroughly confusing.

Here’s the lowdown on connected domesticity, from £2,000 smart fridges down to the humblest light bulb…

What is a smart home?

In its simplest terms, a smart home is a connected set of domestic gadgets and appliances, controlled via a central hub or smartphone.

Many of these gadgets will feed back information and performance data, some are automated and will perform their function without human intervention, and almost all are geared towards convenience.

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Take, for instance, the smart thermostat, one of the harbingers of the smart revolution. They allow you to control your central heating via your smartphone. Either set schedules remotely ahead of time, or simply turn on your heating en route and arrive to instant snugness and warmth.

A few years ago, devices like these were the headline act, and each new addition would be accompanied by an app. Now, a lot of smart homes are ruled by larger, interconnected systems, usually commanded via voice-activated AI.

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Amazon Echo is perhaps the most prominent, spearheaded by your friendly neighbourhood Alexa, with Google Assistant and Apple HomeKit in hot pursuit. Other platforms are available, and homeowners should do their research and decide which one best suits their needs.

These systems work with a wide range of other brands and gadgets, so if you do choose to build a home around an AI, be sure to check compatibility before you buy.

Go go gadget

Once your smart home is responding to your voice, you can start giving it interesting toys. Philips have cornered the market on smart lighting – often one of the first appliances to be swallowed up by smart tech.

Their range of multi-coloured LED smart bulbs can flicker between 16 million distinct shades. And with excellent compatibility, most home networks can activate the lights with a simple voice command. To really raise your guests’ eyebrows, accessorise with frills like motion sensors and dimmer switches.

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Add flexibility with dull-sounding but actually-super-convenient smart plugs. The TP-Link HS100 Kasa Smart Wi-Fi Plug works with Alexa and Google Assistant, and allows you to remotely control power flow through your sockets with a button press or voice command.

Lights and plugs can operate property-wide, but there’s a smart device (or three) for each of your main rooms. Easily the most appliance-heavy area of most homes, it’s no surprise that the kitchen might now be the smartest too.

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A quick Google search yields tens of smart, remotely-controllable coffee machines, pressure cookers, and even fully-fledged microwave ovens. The most demanding customers should try Samsung’s Family Hub Multi-Door Fridge Freezer – a multimedia entertainment and life-organising system that occasionally moonlights as a refrigerator.

The interface contains – deep breath! – a calendar, a speaker system, a touchpad, a television, a grocery list, and a search engine, and can open a video link of your fridge interior from half way around the world.

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For well-trodden floors, swap your bog-standard vacuum cleaner for a Roomba – an automated vacuum robot with sensors that help it detect and avoid walls and furniture. To see your wooden floors similarly spick and span, try the Braava, a self-propelled mini-mop with the same capabilities as its carpet-cleaning cousin.

You can even go smart while you sleep. The bedroom is not traditionally ruled by gadgets, but the Sleep Number 360 Smart Bed ensures that even your mattress is now Wi-Fi connected.

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The ‘firmness’ and ‘support’ settings can be set separately for each side of the bed, and the mattress will even lift a pillow of its own accord to alleviate mild snoring. Each morning, the bed will rank the soundness of your sleep with a data-driven ‘sleep IQ’.

All in all, there’s precious few household gadgets that can’t now be voice-activated, and those determined to out-smart their neighbours can buy smart humidifiers, smart carbon monoxide alarms, and even smart toilets.

The In-Wash Inspira uses a remote control to regulate water jets and dryer, with variable temperature and water pressure.

Smart and safe

With all this tech lying around in full view, the smart money bets on smart security. Perhaps the most developed and mainstream of all the smart fields, these defensive devices erect an impenetrable wall of technology around your home to repel would-be interlopers.

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No security system would be complete without cameras. The Nest Cam Indoor Security Camera and Nest Cam IQ Outdoor Security Cam can stream pictures live to your tablet or phone. For the cautious, concerned or frequently absent, consider the Hive Wireless Window or Door Sensor, a motion sensor that can alert you every time your door or window opens or closes.

A Nest Hello Video Doorbell sends a full-length visual to your phone every time it detects a visitor. With excellent night vision and two-way intercom to boot, you can deal with deliverymen and all manner of door-knockers whether you’re home or not.

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Round off your bulwark with that simplest of securities – the lock. The Codelocks CL5510SS Electronic Digital Lock can be reprogrammed at will by smartphone with time sensitive code changes. Forgetful souls need not worry – it does also come with two manual keys.