What Is a Smart Home? How to Create One Even If You’re Not a Nerd

By Cathie Ericson
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David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ever since “The Jetsons” aired on TV in the early 1960s, we’ve been dreaming of the day our own homes would be “smart” enough to pretty much run themselves. (We kinda had a thing for Rosie the Robot, too.) And now that the term “smart home” seems to be everywhere, that day has apparently arrived! But what exactly is a smart home?

A smart home is equipped with technology that operates with minimal human input: You can lock your doors from miles away by pressing a button on your smartphone; or your heating/AC adjusts all on its own based on your preferences. There are homes that are completely tricked out, and others that make use of a clever gadget or two.

“Smart products utilize machine learning and can adapt to the environment, or the behavior of the users in their surroundings,” explains Tom Flanagan, founder of Real Estate Things, a blog that explores the intersection of technology and real estate.

Here’s how smart homes have evolved since their inception, and what it takes to have a smart home of your own.

A brief history of smart homes

While the idea of a “smart home” has been bandied about since the dawn of science fiction, Bill Gates turbocharged the concept in 1995 when he wrote “The Road Ahead,” which included his vision of the home of the future, encompassing technology like touchpads that control lighting, temperature, music, and even art. He wrote about an electronic wearable pin that “will tell the house who and where you are, and the house will use this information to try to meet and even anticipate your needs—all as unobtrusively as possible.”

Gates’ predictions turned out to be surprisingly (or, perhaps not surprisingly) on target. Starting after 2000, devices like security systems could be hooked up to a homeowner’s Wi-Fi, and smart home “hubs” grew from there, enabling more and more gadgets to be controlled from one central device. Some can even “talk” to each other (i.e., your clock can tell your coffee maker to brew a cup of joe once you’re up).

In 2013, the Consumer Electronics Show, a trade show showcasing all things tech, introduced the term “smart home,” and by 2016, the show was devoting two entire floors to smart home technology. Homeowners today are wooed by an assortment of smart home systems, including Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, Apple HomeKit, Samsung’s Smart Things, and more.

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Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple HomeKit are some of the leading smart home technologies

Many smart home products have already come and gone, but it’s clear that smart home technology is here to stay and of growing interest to homeowners. One survey found that almost half of all Americans either already own smart home technology or plan to invest in it soon.

According to Flanagan, almost 2 billion smart home devices will be shipped by 2019, generating an estimated $490 billion in revenue.

Steps to create a smart home: Where to start

If you’re curious about incorporating some smart home features into your house but aren’t all that tech-savvy, you’ll probably want to hold off on the cutting-edge stuff for starters. Sure, it may be cute if your toaster starts making breakfast as soon as your Jawbone registers that you’re awake, but how useful is that, really?

A more sensible place to start is smart home tech that’s simple and will save you money. Some of the most popular smart home devices include the following:

  • Smart thermostats like Google’s Nest that will automatically lower your home’s temperature at night, cutting your electricity bills.
  • Smart home smoke detectors: Installing one (which will alert you to smoke by phone even if you’re not at home) can save about 5% on your insurance premiums.
  • Smart locks: These handy locks can be programmed with special codes so you know who’s entering your house. For example, when your kids arrive home from school, you’ll get an alert so you can call and start nagging them about their homework. You can also program guest codes that work at certain times, such as for when a housecleaner or dog walker is expected. Codes can be canceled, if you decide that you don’t want the window washer inside after all, or changed remotely at any time. No more wondering who has one of your house keys, or whether your kids are going to be locked out.
  • Smart video cameras: These connected cameras allow you to check your home when you’re away. They can also be programmed to send alerts when there is activity. For example, they can start recording and send you a video clip when your kids come home from school or if they detect motion in a certain room.
  • Smart lighting: Some lighting systems allow you to set timers that you can override with an app if you’re going to be home later than expected. Other systems have sensors that recognize when dusk is approaching and turn on automatically.

 

While no one can predict for sure what smart homes of the future might look like, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg—who built a rather imperfect artificial-intelligence assistant modeled “kind of like Jarvis in ‘Iron Man’”—cautions, “AI is both closer and farther off than we imagine.” In other words, don’t get too caught up in any sci-fi fantasies of martini-mixing robotic butlers just yet.

 

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