home maestro
HomeMaestro is a prototype of a home automation system that I built as part of my research to address the numerous issues plaguing current home automation systems. It consists of two main features: 1) a tangible, appliance-scripting interface, and 2) an "app store" for quickly and easily downloading functionality to the home. Or, as I like to pitch it, HomeMaestro is a platform for intuitively defining home appliance behavior.

(In case you're confused as to what a "light shelf" is, watch this.)

What follows is a pseudo-academic write up of my research and design process leading to the prototype.

Background and Current Industry Landscape

As part of my research with the Changing Places group at the Media Lab, I spent a good portion of my first semester looking into home automation systems. Home automation, for those who aren't familiar with it (and many, surprisingly, aren't), can encapsulate many disparate technologies; it can refer to systems that allow home owners to remotely control appliances such as lights and locks, systems that allow the creation of scripted "scenes" for appliances, systems that can seamlessly move media from device to device in the home, or even systems that allow for remote access to video feeds from security cameras.

The concept of home automation has been around for a long time and products have been on the market for decades, though no one solution has broken through to the mainstream yet. [5] Home automation technology generally consists of two parts: the communication protocols to get data to and from home appliances, and the user interfaces for controlling them.

There are dozens of existing home automation standards and protocols, the oldest of which surprisingly date back to 1975. Some are based on in-powerline communication such as X10, INSTEON, and KNX, some are wireless such as Z-Wave and ZigBee, and some are internet-connected and utilize RESTful web-based API's like ioBridge. Many of the organizations behind these protocols have industry partners that at one point or another have pledged to build products using those standards.

There are over 50 companies in the home automation industry in North America, yet the entire industry earns less than $1 billion in revenue annually, with the high-end market accounting for 82.2% of that in 2010. 32.6% of the market share is controlled by three main home automation companies: Crestron Electronics, Inc., AMX Corporation, and Control4 [11].

Many of these companies tend to have niche focus areas. Some are focused on the power monitoring and energy efficiency angle, such as Zerofootprint's TalkingPlug, and some specialize in one specific appliance type, such as Lutron's very extensive lighting control systems. Others focus solely on the DIY market and instead of selling an integrated, productized solution, they sell computer chips and let customers hack away at their own control and monitoring projects. These include ioBridge and XBee.

Two somewhat more interesting companies to recently enter the home automation foray are Google and Microsoft. At its 2011 I/O conference, Google announced Android@Home, an ambitious project in which it aims to install the android operating system on third party appliances. Google hasn't released too much to the market yet, but a big announcement is expected soon. Microsoft is similarly working on a project called HomeOS, an operating system for the home.

Problems with Existing Home Automation Solutions

Despite over 30 years of activity in the industry, none of the solutions in existence today have gone mainstream, leading me to conclude that home automation has essentially failed as a technology. By way of reading papers, talking to home automation users, and playing around with home automation products myself, I've discovered that there are a few superficial reasons for this as well as a few deeper reasons. The superficial reasons seem to be the following:

When taken as a whole, these superficial problems create a very poor user experience with home automation systems, while at the same time preventing users from truly understanding the full range of capabilities that home automation has to offer.

The deeper reasons for home automation's failure are even more troublesome:

The Whole HomeMaestro System

The system I prototyped is only a small subset of the entire home automation system that I envision as a solution to most of these problems. I will first describe how the whole system would function, and then explain how the prototype fits within that vision.

There are four main products/features that make up the proposed system:

The computer chips for appliance manufacturers are small, wireless, devices that get included into the internal structure of a given appliance. The chips are powered from the same power source that the appliances use (usually mains power), and are as simple for manufacturers to use as the popular Arduino micro-controller platform.

The chips work in the following way:

The box is a small, wireless hub that communicates with all of the chips in the home's appliances. It contains the software that serves up the user interface and also contains the storage space needed to remember user-defined settings and rules. It is the only thing home owners need to use the HomeMaestro system. Setting it up is cheap and easy: Step 1: Buy the box. Step 2: Plug it into an outlet and ethernet port. Step 3: That's it. Really. No further configuration needed.

While nothing besides the box is required upon installation, users can add more automation functionality to their homes by purchasing and plugging in HomeMaestro-compatible appliances, which automatically register themselves with the box when they power up for the first time. Appliances (and thus richer home automation functionality) can be added to the home gradually over time as budgets allow. In this way, users do not need to purchase a large home automation solution in one go. They can pick and choose what they want to add to the system and when they want to add it.

The box works with any appliance that has the chip. Manufacturing of these appliances is distributed so customers are not forced to buy all from the same company, or to only have one type of compatible appliance.

The box also has an ethernet connection so it has the capability to do interesting things over the network. For example, it could allow users to create rules that upload home activity data to an online database for long term storage and data analytics, as well as monitor, control, and create rules for appliances in a remote home.

The interface to the system has the following features:

As one can see, this entire system aims to solve all of the superficial problems, and at least begins to address most of the deeper problems.

The Prototype

The prototype in the video above is an implementation of the "Record" and "Rule Marketplace" features previously mentioned. The reason I chose these features is because together they address the main usability problems with home automation systems today. I strongly believe that once home automation becomes accessible to everyone (not just the extremely rich or extremely nerdy), people will quickly find the value in it and even begin to discover and invent interesting new use cases for it that no one has yet envisioned. Just as the Apple app store revolutionized the concept of the phone, I believe HomeMaestro could revolutionize the concept of the home.

At the moment, the prototype has three main features:
  1. Users can hit the "Record" button to record simple "When/Then" style rules. Any number of events can be added to the "When" section (not just one as in the demo video), and they are related to each other with an AND conjunction. That is, only when ALL of those events in the "When" section happen at about the same time will the rule fire. Also, any number of events can be added to the "Then" section (again, not just one), and they will all be fired at the same time when the rule is triggered.
  2. Users can swipe over to the "My Rules" sections to see all the rules they currently have running. They can select an individual rule to view a human readable description of how it behaves, and they can also enable or disable any particular rule.
  3. Users can swipe over to the "Market" section where they can view pre-made rules and install whichever ones they want.

Potential Use Cases

The most compelling potential use cases seem to occur in a few genres: convenience and time-saving [1][3][5], money-saving and energy-saving [3][7], healthcare [4], communication, peace of mind [1][5] and quality of life [5], and entertainment. The following are hypothetical scenarios depicting how a HomeMaestro user might use the system.

Future Work

Eventually, I intend to do a user study that will evaluate the effectiveness of this sort of "role-playing" interface. I would also like to add the following features to prototype to make it more versatile and general purpose: