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Smart homes: How safe will they be?

The Consumer Technology Association brought its annual CES 2016 trade show to Las Vegas during the first week in January along with 170,000 attendees. Each year at CES, there are new companies exhibiting innovative solutions for “smart home” technologies that promise to increase the comfort, security and utility of a family dwelling place.

But if homeowners allow these devices into their private sanctuary, do they also invite additional problems and complexities from this new digital, connected world?

For the first time at CES, a panel of cybersecurity experts gathered to talk about security challenges as the consumer technology industry continues to implement an Internet of Things, where every piece of technology we own may someday have the potential to communicate to a cloud of big data computer servers and mobile phone apps, as well as to other smart electronic devices within our home, car and clothing apparel. Can these swarms of smart devices be trusted to share our intimate spaces and private environments?

Let the buyer beware. When choosing convenient solutions for smart home management, how secure and trustworthy is each piece of connected technology and how reliable are the companies behind them? In the same way that a mobile phone owner considers downloading a convenient app from an online store, evaluate the quality of a company’s business practices, along with the quality of its product engineering, before you let that next shiny new device into your home.

Access to a home’s electronic ecosystem must be secure from outside intrusion through encrypted communications and a strong firewall, yet electronic appliances should be simple to use through an intuitive human interface, like push buttons on a nearby wall panel, a touch-screen tablet by a couch, motion sensors, voice commands or by remote control from the owner’s mobile phone.

As the Internet of Things becomes bundled with an Internet of Services, many companies are now jumping into the smart home industry to couple hardware electronics and sensor peripherals together with cellular phone apps that can run on Apple iOS, Android, Microsoft Windows, or Linux operating systems. These include well-known corporate names like Lowe’s, Amazon, Bosch, Samsung, LG, Honeywell, Phillips and Nortek but also newer companies like Nest, Vivant, Arrayant, Elgato and iDevices.

Over two zettabytes of digital information are projected to be streaming through the Internet and its clouds of servers each year after 2019. That’s a 2 with 21 zeroes after it!

The challenge of processing all that Big Data securely and efficiently, in order to provide solutions for the world’s problems, is ushering in a Cognitive Era of computing, according to IBM Chairwoman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty.

“The advent of cognitive computing is an era of systems you do not program,” she said. “They understand, they reason and they learn, they have hypotheses and confidence levels. And this is what IBM Watson does, something we started working on a decade ago.”

IBM’s Watson supercomputer has come a long way since its first appearance on the game show “Jeopardy” in 2011, where it matched question-and-answer skills with human contestants and won. It now provides the underpinnings of IBM Bluemix mobile apps, which can build “thinking” and cognition into every part of a business.

During his keynote speech at CES 2016, Dr. WP Hong, president of Samsung Business Solutions, announced that Samsung’s sister companies will all be integrating communications links between each of their product lines so that they can all talk with each other.

“The future is today. The Internet of Things ecosystem is emerging. … We are weaving connectivity into all of our devices,” he said.

“The role of technology in our homes is changing. A device or appliance now has more than one purpose. Once connected to a hub, it is part of an ecosystem, part of the Internet for you.”

Here is a small sample of the many exhibitors and smart home product lines that were on display during CES 2016 at the Smart Home Marketplace in the Sands Convention Center.

• User interface: Apple Homekit, Alphabet Nest, Amazon Echo, Iris by Lowe’s, Samsung SmartThings, all have user interfaces that enable the interaction of connected hardware devices and software control systems. For most home automation systems, it will be the touchscreen of a mobile phone, tablet or smart watch paired with a downloadable app.

Corning has manufactured the Gorilla Glass touch display screens on many of these devices, and the company’s glass technologies will become more ubiquitous on the surface of future home appliances like refrigerator doors, countertops and desktop surfaces. The company has even developed anti-microbial touch screen glass technologies to keep kitchen and refrigerator door surfaces germ-free.

Families can also use voice control and voice recognition systems to communicate with the smart appliances in their home through the use of digital personal assistants like Siri with Apple Homekit, Cortana with Microsoft Windows, and Alexa with Amazon Echo to activate and monitor devices in their home.

With Samsung’s new smart television product lines, a TV’s remote control can include an electronics hub, so that it can also be used to navigate menus on the television screen to program and activate connected devices in the home, such as Samsung SmartThings devices.

Gesture recognition and eye gaze monitoring systems are also emerging from university labs as potential new products that are useful for helping people interact with digital applications more intuitively.

• Security: Companies like ADT, Homeguard, and Alarm.com are well known for their security services and systems, but as expanded hardware devices become simpler to purchase, customize and install, these companies are offering solutions that meet a family’s security requirements and the size of their pocketbooks.

Inexpensive security products include recordable video cameras, doorbell monitoring systems, remote-controlled smart locks, motion sensors, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, water leak sensors, sound monitoring systems and electromagnetic proximity switches that indicate when doors or windows are opened.

Kwikset and other companies demonstrated smart locks that can be locked and unlocked electronically through remote cellphones, special key fobs or biometric fingerprint detection.

All of these security devices can now transmit their data wirelessly through electronic signal formats like Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Bluetooth to a local hub that is both a transmitter and receiver. The hub is plugged into a power outlet so that it is always on and always connected through a cellular phone signal carrier to the Internet, where a cloud of servers provide the security monitoring service. From the online service, the data is routed back to the homeowner’s cellphone, where each device in the home can be grouped together, monitored and controlled remotely.

Entertainment: 4K Ultra-High Definition televisions are becoming larger, thinner and less expensive, with sharper resolution that ever before. While LED and OLED technologies are becoming standard, plasma TVs are fading away.

Blu-Ray video players with 4K UHD resolution are popular for binge-watching favorite shows. Home theaters and music audio systems can be integrated into the rest of the home automation system.

A Bluetooth-enabled wireless audio speaker that is normally used for music or video soundtracks might also wirelessly generate an audible alarm when a security or safety device is triggered.

Amazon Echo does two-way duty as both an audio player and an electronic hub that activates other connected devices through a voice recognition and control system called Alexa.

Download a 3D stereoscopic app from Google Play or the Apple App store. Insert your mobile phone into a virtual reality headset provided by Samsung VR Gear or Google Cardboard, to experience an immersive digital world. Use a handheld controller device from these companies to pick up virtual objects, interact with exotic travel locations, or navigate a fantasy gaming realm. Add an audio headset for surround sound and experience telepresence within each digital world.

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are more advanced VR headsets with related 3D peripherals that can be used with interactive video games and applications for an even deeper immersive experience.

Other potential applications for virtual reality and augmented reality devices have become more accessible to consumers. Google Tiltbrush is a 3D Paint app that allows a user to make multicolor drawings with different paintbrushes in three-dimensional space. The drawing art includes depth. Once a drawing is completed, the painting can continue to be suspended in air while the painter can walk around it, to view the art from all angles like a colored sculpture in three-dimensional space.

Home artists can print out finished 3D drawings through a personal 3D printer connected wirelessly to the artist’s mobile phone. The 3D printer market has exploded this year with multiple types of materials and printing processes available for the home fabricator.

Lighting: Light-emitting diodes have continued to shrink in size and form, yet are brighter, more versatile, energy-efficient and cheaper than ever before.

Indium Gallium Nitride, or InGaN, semiconductor technologies have been adapted successfully in recent years to emulate most of the frequencies of sunlight as well as other natural colors in the light spectrum. The addition of a tiny wireless electronic circuit inside the LED semiconductor chip can also connect the bulb to an electronics hub in the home that opens up new applications.

White LEDs that are used to illuminate a house can emulate color-correlated temperatures from cool white to neutral white to warm white during different times of the day, as well as morph into flashing colors of the rainbow that can be synchronized to music for an entertainment event. Connected LEDs can also be utilized by the home security system to flash or change colors to indicate an alarm event such as a carbon monoxide sensor or smoke alarm.

Temperature control: Smart temperature control systems can sense the ambient seasonal environment as well as household usage patterns to automatically adjust heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems without human intervention. This can also help reduce household energy consumption.

• Household Energy Conservation: Smart appliances that meet Energy Star standards established by the federal government can also reduce household energy consumption by using less electricity or natural gas and are also becoming more connected to home automation systems.

Many new appliances also have onboard self-diagnostic capabilities. If a machine senses it is having operational problems or a component failure, the appliance can alert the user or manufacturer’s representative directly to request maintenance service to repair its systems before they fail completely. This allows ownership and operation to continue for a longer lifecycle before replacement.

Plumbing and water conservation: Low-flow water systems coupled with localized smart water heating systems at the showerhead and sink faucets can provide instant hot water on demand while also reducing the amount of water used and the energy required to heat the water. Cumulative data acquisition by a homeowner’s app can show when and where water is being used most frequently to help detect leaks as well as overusage.

Kitchen and food management: Energy Star refrigerators consume less energy. If also equipped with a wireless chip to a home electronics hub and an internal camera, its owner can monitor the inventory of food products inside while shopping at a local grocery store. A touch-screen display on the outside of the refrigerator door can also display internal food stocks, internal temperatures and suggest possible recipes based on what’s inside.

Smart relay modules plugged into electrical wall outlets can be pre-programmed through the electronics hub to turn on appliances as needed for food preparation during different times of the day.

Cleaning: Home automation can mitigate tedious cleaning requirements for laundry, dirty dishes and dust accumulation. Clothes washers, driers and dishwashers with Energy Star labels consume less energy and water. Whirlpool demonstrated a clothes washer and dishwasher that each employ a large tank for soap or detergent so that each appliance can wash multiple cleaning loads without having to be refilled. When the tank begins to get low, the clothes washer can connect directly through the home automation system to an online purchasing app like Amazon Dash Replenishment Service. The app then alerts the appliance owner that a new supply of soap or detergent is needed. One click on the Amazon cellphone app button by the user can signal Amazon to ship the replacement cleaning products directly to the family home and bill the owner’s Amazon account.

Robotic vacuum cleaners are becoming more efficient and widely accepted because they can autonomously sweep up dirt and debris tracked in by household members, then find a battery recharging dock to plug into.

Outdoor landscape management: Automated irrigation systems with low-flow water sprinklers can precisely provide the right amount of water to outside landscapes when needed, as well as adjust for seasonal changes and even monitor signals from weather services. Real-time information about changing weather patterns can be automatically interpreted by the irrigation system to keep plants growing with minimum human intervention and water usage.

Household organization and management: Making home automation products that are manageable through a single control device is the most efficient way to enable the adoption of new plug-and-play technologies into the home. As homeowners become more comfortable assimilating sensor devices into their ecosystems with minimum installation efforts, smart home technologies could become more desirable for the general public. Most homes already have safety and security devices such as smoke detectors, proximity switches for window closures, dimmer switches for lights and thermostats. Can all these devices be made more manageable and connected?

Senior assisted living devices: One promising area for home automation systems is to support senior citizens who are challenged by developing disabilities like dementia or impaired mobility. Automated lights, temperature controls and appliances that can be turned off and on at specific times each day can help a senior remain productive and independent. For example, motion sensors can turn on low-brightness nightlights that point to the bathroom when elderly people wake up at night and swing their feet out of bed.

Green Peak envisions a home security system that can also learn and monitor the daily living patterns of a senior resident, to be able to send alerts to a caregiver when a client’s behavior starts to deviate from normal routines. Tracking gradual changes in dementia or motor skills over time can help caregivers adapt more quickly with increased service and support as needed. Yet, a senior could still live a relatively independent lifestyle in their familiar home without the need to remember to continuously wear an alarm pendant or require frequent visits by caregivers to check on their client’s progress during the day.

• Luxury: By integrating multiple smart products throughout the home, the user can choreograph all these features to serve the building’s residents rather than requiring that its residents interact and service all these existing devices on a regular basis. For not too much money, a family can wake in the morning to gradually brightening lights that mimic a sunrise, feel warm ambient air heated to a comfortable room temperature, bathe in instant hot water for shaving and showering while hot coffee brews in the kitchen and other appliances are ready and waiting to serve breakfast. Soft music tracks may begin to play in the background during breakfast while the day’s calendar and hourly reminders pop up on cellphone menus to preview upcoming events.

CES 2016 showed the potential of these smart home devices. But it is still the choice of each homeowner to creatively implement a unique home ecosystem and personal living space that works for them.

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