The industry will not succeed if it sells what a consumer is not able to reliably install. And from my own personal experience bringing my house into the IoT era, there is a long way to go.
Let the project begin
I started my home IoT project with high hopes. As both an early technology adopter and the do-it-yourself type, the idea of having lighting, door locks, alarm systems and heating devices controllable and remotely manageable got me excited. Then there also was the extra kick from paying a locksmith 150 Euro after accidently locking myself out of the house.
On the technology front, I’ve been in the IT field for more than 25 years. At home, like many households, we have a mixed set of personal, networking and entertainment devices. Over the last 18 months, I have also been connecting myself with Apple Watch, Bragi Dash in-ear plug, a Withings scale, and a blood pressure device.
I’m used to home improvement projects, so I’m not afraid of electrical wiring and making physical changes around the house. And, I hadn’t heard complaints from wife or daughter that our home network had problems. Bringing my house into the IoT era should just have been a logical extension of the fixed, mobile, and wearable technology already present. What could possibly go wrong?
Communication that closes doors
I started my IoT list and did my research; protocols, controllers, door locks, light switches, cameras, thermostats and more. For a communication protocol, I wanted to be flexible and open, and not locked into a proprietary solution. Since our house has brick walls and concrete floors, the decision was made for a Z-Wave with its mesh network. For the controller, I picked a VeraEdge to link my devices to the WiFi and the internet.
The front door was my first project; I wanted a lock which we could open using our phones, NFC, Bluetooth, and the internet. The initial choice was for a Bluetooth and Z-Wave compatible device. Building it into the door and having it available via the gateway went very fast and easy in less than 30 minutes. Operational time was something else. Given the four security deadbolt locks on top of the standard bolt in the door, I had to set the device at highest strength to ensure the door opened. The time required for opening and closing was 30 seconds, simply too long. When I set the speed faster, the device didn’t have the power and wouldn’t open or lock the door. I sent it back and haven’t found a decent replacement yet.
Trying to make that connection
My second project was the lighting. Since most of my lighting has fixed wires, I chose to add micro controllers behind the wall switches. As the DIY type, I’m used to doing basic wiring. But in Europe, perhaps driven by the fact that power is more than double the US levels of 110 volts, this is precisely the point where many of my friends would call an electrician – and exponentially increase the costs of their IoT project.
Technically speaking, the Aeotec devices are great. They support three-way switching, monitor power consumption, allow you to continue using your physical switch in the wall, have very clear schematics, and the connector quality is tops. The challenge only came when I wanted to connect them to my Z-Wave gateway controller. Unless the devices were just inches away from each other, the initial connection didn’t work. More than half the devices I couldn’t connect at all despite hours of removing switching panels and re-wiring.
Home security cameras were already connected and they were the easiest of all devices to display in the VeraEdge dashboard. There was only one camera I couldn’t get to reverse the image, so the dashboard always showed that picture upside down. At least I had the image.
There’s no privacy at home
Then came the issue of network traffic – there was lots of it. The Samsung TV was sending information out to a 3rd party service. What it was sending out and why it was sending data this data is still to be determined. For the time being, I’ve simply blocked it on my router. I was also surprised by the high number of default passwords in my network of devices. My home had become a complete digital highway with an unbelievable amount of traffic, even when no one was at home. How many strangers are getting this data or even able to access these devices is simply not yet known.
More irritant than internet
It took more than 10 years to create a stable home network for the computing devices, but I had thought that the IoT concept would be able to quickly leverage these developments and go mainstream. I was wrong. In addition, I am also shocked about the large amount of traffic on my home network. The combination of unknown running services, weak default access controls, and configuration complexity is simply scary. After factoring in the uncomplete and frustrating installation experience, I experienced more irritation than internet.
Finding a safe and sane connection
It’s a Wild, Wild West out there in IOT. While I can see a lot of benefits to the connected home, functional reality is still far away. As the IOT sector positions itself for the mainstream, I see three primary takeaways from my experience:
- Home IoT is about skill fusion. Connecting the home is a messy mix of skill sets that require the best of the IT geek and the home mechanic. IoT devices are not as plug-and-play as commonly portrayed, partially due to the huge number of environmental variables.
- Think about the user, not the technology. Vendors need to focus more on the end-user experience and ease of use than on the latest cutting-edge technology. If the user can’t install it, they certainly can’t use it. All they can do is complain.
- Security and privacy is in the back seat. Currently privacy and security is weak by design – or lack thereof – in many IoT devices. I don’t see that changing in the near future.
This article was originally published in “IoT World Magazine‘.