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The many faces of Digital Transformation –Societal Scenarios III

Sensors are becoming pervasive in the home environment. The harvesting and analyses of the data generated by these sensors can generate awareness and lead to a smarter home. Image credit: Hybrid-Aware Model for Senior Wellness Service in Smart Home, Juchae Jung

Smart homes

Homes are populated by a variety of systems  like power, communications, water (plumbing), waste, heating and air-conditioning, security networks. They are also populated with many devices, some fixed like fridge, oven, fan-coil, television, others wandering around like robotic vacuum cleaner and others moving in and out, like smartphones, tablets, wearable and of course … people and pets. Now, placing these latter in the “device” category might seem wrong but from a digital transformation point of view humans and pets are data generators, just like a fridge and a vacuum cleaner, actually, they tend to generate and use many more data.

It is the availability of these data, some being generated over time, some being associated to the home, like cadastral data, construction data… and their processing that makes the home smart and has it affected by the digital transformation.

The perception of “home” is subtly changing, from a static entity to a dynamically evolving and responsive entity that can both adapt to changing situations and changing needs. More than that, a smart home is progressively more and more capable of interacting with people, be them the dwellers or the one in charge for its monitoring and operation (sometimes from remote).

Gateways and processing points like Alexa provide the interaction support locally, even though most processing and services may be residing off site, in a cloud. However, from a perceptual point of view, the home is becoming intelligent.

So far the intelligence has been attached to specific devices/systems/functionality, but the arrival of Alexa-like interfaces that provide a single point connectivity is transforming the perception into a holistic view of the home. The smartphone is also becoming a possible gateway/interface to the home using both local storage/processing and cloud based intelligence.

The creation of a real single entity as smart home is made difficult by the existence of many “old” systems and devices whose replacement time may be quite long (or that can not even be replaceable, like water and waste plumbing). Additionally, the variety of devices come from very diverse manufacturers and very little interoperability exists.

Nevertheless the trend towards more interaction and control is unstoppable and it is based on sensors and data processing.

This trend has been clear for over 20 years but the big question was how to make it happen. Basically three approaches were on the table:

  • Having a smart control center produced by a company that would also provide a variety of add ons to be placed on existing home components. These add ons would contain sensors and would be able to transmit data to the smart control centre. In some cases these add ons would also be able to interact with that specific home component through actuators to execute a command.
  • Having the telecom gateway doubling up as smart home controller. It would require, as in the previous approach, add ons to interact with various home component. The advantage of this approach was that the gateway was already in the home and it would only require some extra software to transform it into a smart control centre.
  • Having a bottom up growth of the smart home environment by leveraging on new devices/components including sensing and communication capabilities. These devices would have been designed from scratch as smart home component and could result over time in a smarter and smarter environment that could grow at the owner’s pace (interest and needs). So one could buy a smart bulb and control it from the smartphone using a dedicated app, freely downloadable. Then one could buy other bulbs ending up in a while with the possibility of controlling the whole home lighting from one or more smartphones. Similarly with heating. One could buy a smart controller (or a new heating system that came with a smart controller) and control it with the smartphone, and so on.

A somewhat parallel discussion took place over the entertainment systems, some proposing a smart media centre, other (Telcos) proposing their smart media gateway embedded in the WiFi router, other proposing to turn the television into a smart media center and controller and others looking at the smartphone as the media center orchestrator.

In the end the smartphone has prevailed at least as a common interface but the fight is still on for the data aggregation and management although it is now clear that the game is no longer seeing the participation of Telcos or third parties. The one still playing the game are the ones controlling the human interface, be it the chatbots (Alexa and the like) or the smartphone.

What is still missing is a single view of the home that can really, and smartly, orchestrate the various systems, devices, appliances and services.

The softwarization of functionality in many devices and the creation of digital twins is opening the door to a holistic view of the smart home and to its perception as a single entity (watch the clip).

This is likely to be achieved in this decade and it will be a springboard to create smart neighboroughs and smart cities making use of a collective distributed intelligence. At the same time the increased pervasiveness of sensors everywhere in the home and on wearables will lead to many more data that in turns will result in more effective data analytics and in the emergence of greater intelligence supporting ambient awareness and seamless interaction with human dwellers.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.