If there’s one thing we all know the tech world does consistently well, it’s come up with new words, phrases, and acronyms to classify and describe the latest developments.
When it comes to the world of smart home automation, there’s no exception to this rule and to the uninitiated, knowing where to start can feel like a challenge.
We’ve demystified the essential terminology in smart home connectivity and automation to help you get to grips with the latest technological terms and to arm you with the knowledge to distinguish your Z-Wave from your ZigBee.
This is the term generally used for any mechanism which is triggered into action by a sensor.
Think smart cameras triggered by motion or light switches triggered by your voice – in these cases this cameras and switches are the actuators that respond to signals from external sensors or input devices such as motion detectors, microphones, or good old remote controls or apps.
AirPlay is the name of Apple’s wireless protocol used to enable audio and video streaming over a wireless network between compatible devices.
An example of this in use is connecting your iPhone or iPad to a compatible wireless sound system and then interfacing and controlling the playback from the device .
Alexa is also the ‘wake word’ for these voice controlled devices and will trigger the system to begin ‘listening’ for the next command or question you have for the system. eg:
“Alexa, what is the temperature today”
“Alexa, turn on the kitchen lights”
The IFTTT Applet is the latest successor to the traditional ‘Recipe’ which would trigger an action or response using the IFTTT web service whenever an event occurred.
Whereas recipes were single-stage affairs however (If this happens, do that), Applets now allow for multiple actions to be triggered after the first event has taken place (If this happens, do this, and then this, and then this).
In practice, this might look like your smart lights turning on and your thermostat turning up the heating if the weather is forecast to be cold tomorrow afternoon.
The holy grail of the interconnected home is full automation.
Automation refers to using electronic devices to complete various tasks with the minimal level of human interaction. Most smart home devices will either be fully automated (set and forget), semi-automated (minimal input required) or a mixture of both.
Home automation systems will often look to include systems of devices that react to each other as well as to factors such as the time of day, geofencing triggers and external stimuli like sound, motion, light levels and temperature which are detected by built-in sensors within a device.
For those devices which are semi-autonomous, an interface in the form of an app on a smartphone or tablet or voice control through a system such as Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri enable you to ‘tell’ your smart devices what they need to do without manually activating the device yourself – for example turning the downstairs lights off from your bedroom at night.
Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) is a term used to describe a wireless protocol for connecting devices in the same room and that requires very little power to function.
The Digital Living Network Alliance was set up as a standard by tech giants Intel and Sony to ensure compatible wireless products can recognize each other and share data without issues over a wireless network.
Including components such as a weather sensor, smart door lock and plug, the Eve system of smart devices is effectively a family of sensors and actuators that are designed to work with Apple’s HomeKit standard.
The Elgato Eve products utilize Bluetooth LE as opposed to standard WiFi and are able to operate without the need for a standalone hub.
Think of geofencing as an invisible perimeter around your home (or any other real-world location for that matter) that allows for a true home automation detection system to be setup.
By utilizing WiFi, Bluetooth or GPS in your smartphone, watch or other portable device, geofencing enables you trigger actions from other connected devices within your home as soon as you enter the geofenced ‘boundary’.
A good example of a geofencing setup in action would be for your garage door to automatically open, your lights to turn on and the thermostat to change to your preferred temperature as soon as your connected devices ‘detect’ that you’ve arrived home from work in the evening.
Geofencing operates in reverse of this as well, ensuring that when you leave the house (and exit the geofence boundary), lights turn off, heating turns down and doors lock behind you, without you having to worry about it
A wireless hub is the most efficient way to orchestrate an army of smart devices in your home.
Allowing your smart devices to wirelessly communicate with a central device allows the hub to collate all of the data and for you to then control the devices directly from your smartphone, tablet, remote, and even with your voice.
The best smart home hubs are designed to balance everything in your smart home, with the top devices providing the ability to control it all with your voice as well as harmonizing every bulb, alarm, camera, and speaker into a single, coherent smart home ecosystem.
The family of smart bulbs and lighting products from electronics giant Philips.Hue products are typically connected to the home network from where they can be controlled using the Hue app on your smart device – for example controlling the colour or intensity of the lights in a room from your phone.
IFTTT (If This Then That)
The idea behind IFTTT is that through a simple interface, you can create “recipes” that perform simple functions on your devices. You can use your own recipes, or download recipes from other experimenters, allowing you to let your smart devices do even more intelligent (and awesome stuff) like having your smart light bulbs change to blue when it starts raining.
The technology utilized by Insteon products enables a host of devices controlling heat, light, visual and motion sensors to communicate through mains power sockets as well as radio frequencies.
IoT (Internet of Things)
This is the term increasingly given to the number of interconnected devices that are able to communicate both with each other and with the wider world via the web.
The explosive growth of the use of smartphones and apps has seen the Internet of Things rocket into the mainstream as people become increasingly able to connect to their smart devices, wherever they are in the world.
Applications in use regularly include the ability to stream high definition live security camera footage to a smartphone as well as remotely controlling aspects of your home such as lighting and heating from anywhere.
Smart locks are devices which connect to your existing door or dead-bolt locking system and are operated via a wireless signal. Controllable through an interface on a smartphone, watch or tablet, the best smart locks allow you to control the locks on your doors wherever you are in the world (subject to an internet connection).
Many of the top smart locks such as the August Smart Lock, Kwikset Kevo and Schlage Sense offer a variety of intelligent automation technology such as keyless entry upon approach, timed guest passes and voice controlled activation when paired with systems like Alexa.
Natural Language Processing (NLP)
The ability for a computer or device to understand a spoken command or question given by a human is known as Natural Language Processing and is one of the fundamental cornerstones of AI, smart home technology, and the quest for truly intelligent machines.
NLP can be thought of as the ability for a system to take in an audio input in the form of a voice command, and output an action, trigger, or audio response based upon the instruction given or question asked.
With the underlying technology behind NLP getting more advanced by the day, the major leaps forward in smart, listening machines is now more prevalent than ever in the range of smart speakers and smart home voice controllers from giants such as Google, Apple, and Amazon’s Alexa, as well as from smaller companies beginning to break into the market.
Smart Outlets – also known as ‘Smart Plugs‘ – are effectively an adaptor that sits between your traditional ‘non-smart’ devices and the power outlet in your wall.
Once connected, the smart outlet works as a wireless switch, allowing you to remotely control (either by voice or app) your electronic devices as well as introducing other smart features to previously not automated devices.
Some smart outlets such as the WeMo Mini also allow you to schedule when your devices activate, control with your voice using Amazon’s Alexa and even randomize when your lights switch on and off when you’re away from home.
The best way to think of protocols is as the ‘language’ that various smart devices communicate in.
Some of the most common and popular protocols currently include Bluetooth LE, WiFi, Z-Wave and ZigBee.
If you’re kitting out your home with a diverse system of smart devices and want everything speaking the same language, multiple protocols can be problematic.
This is where smart hubs and controllers come into play, effectively ‘translating’ the different languages in a unified format that can be understood and controlled from a single point of contact such as an app interface, remote or using your voice.
The sensors in your smart home network are the devices (or components of other devices) that detect changes and allow a reaction to be triggered from other components or devices known as actuators.
Sensors can detect anything from sound and temperature to motion and light meaning they can for part of a fully automated smart home environment when combined with other intelligent sensing devices.
Probably the most common wireless protocol out there, WiFi is also the standard you may be most familiar with.
One of the main advantages of WiFi enabled devices is that they communicate through a standard home network router meaning they don’t require a dedicated smart home hub to operate.
A key drawback of this protocol, however, is that in a smart home environment with many WiFi enabled devices operating together, bandwidth issues can become a problem.
Works with Nest
Anywhere you see the ‘Works with Nest‘ label, you’re looking at a device that’s been designed to connect to, and seamlessly work alongside a Nest product such as the Nest Learning Thermostat, providing out of the box connectivity and automation between a whole load of smart products ranging from fans to lights.
Known for its excellent range, low energy usage, and relatively fast speed when communicating between devices, ZigBee is a protocol that is becoming ever more commonplace among smart home devices.
Another increasingly familiar wireless protocol across home automation and smart home devices, Z-Wave uses a ‘mesh network’ where each individual device using the protocol acts as a signal booster for the next one in the relay.
The number of Z-Wave devices out there now numbers over 1000 and growing making this an excellent choice for a reliable and future-proof smart home protocol when starting out.