There is a lot of discussion regarding the new smart home, also known as the connected home. For example, most of the world’s cable companies and broadband providers are upgrading their set-top boxes to include ZigBee. These first-generation ZigBee boxes are primarily using ZigBee to replace infrared (IR) in remote controls. But that’s just the beginning as the wireless standard promises a host of integrated services using the same set of sensors. 

Already, ZigBee offers many advantages for cable and broadband providers. Unlike IR-powered remote controls, ZigBee remotes do not need to be aimed at the small IR target on the TV or box. Because ZigBee can penetrate furniture and closet doors, the set-top box no longer needs to be out in the open. ZigBee offers two-way, interactive communication that enables service providers to transmit information to the remote from the set-top box, including updates for channel selection and device programming options.

One of the primary benefits of switching to ZigBee from IR is power usage. ZigBee utilizes very little power, which enables service providers to offer a remote control that never needs to be charged or have its batteries changed, as they will last for more than 10 years. (Dead batteries in the remote control are one of the top reasons that customers call service providers with complaints, generating many expensive help desk calls.)

According to a recent report from Multimedia Research Group, shipments of ZigBee remotes for set-top boxes (cable, satellite, Internet protocol) will grow from almost 12 million shipments this year to nearly 120 million by 2017.

The Three Phases Of ZigBee Implementation

Phase 1 is to get ZigBee in every set-top box. This is already being addressed as ZigBee remote controls replace IR remotes. Incorporating ZigBee in the remote and in the set-top box essentially places a ZigBee basestation (comparable to a Wi-Fi router) in every home.

This is the launching platform for phase 2: the rolling out of various smart home/connected home services such as home security, energy monitoring, home environment control, and door and window closing and locking. During this phase, these home control capabilities will be marketed as vertical (solution-based) services addressing specific needs of subscribers who would like to buy security, energy management, or home care.

The smart home will then initiate phase 3, the real smart home. Vertical services will converge into complete smart home service, where the sensors of one service will also be used for other services. For example, the same motion sensor can be tied into the security system, the home health system, the home’s environmental control, and even the entertainment system.

The real smart home consists of sentrollers—sensors, controllers, and actuators like motion sensors, temperature sensors, smoke detectors, humidity sensors, leakage detectors, and light sensors—all connected to the Internet. This is where sensors can initiate an action without direct human intervention.

Cloud-based apps receive this data and compare it with expected or desired values. Then, they transmit a signal to the home actuators, which control the various systems. If a sensor registers that the temperature is too low in a specific room and that room is occupied, the cloud-based intelligence then sends a signal to the home heating system actuator, telling it to turn on the heating in that specific room.

If the house is armed and motion is detected, an alarm will go off in the home. Neighbors will be texted, or law enforcement will be summoned. But the same motion sensor, when the house is not armed for security, can be used to turn the lights on and off as someone moves from one room to another.

If an unusual amount of electricity is being used and no one is home, an alarm is sent to the user’s smart phone identifying which device is consuming too much power and enabling the user to remotely turn it off. There are no real limits to what the smart home could be and could do. We only see glimpses of where it starts and with what applications.

Energy management is another key element of today’s smart home concept. Can a really smart home actually manage energy, or does it just monitor it like many of the current electronic message service (EMS) systems? Energy efficiency will be very important in the smart home, but in an integrated way, so it supports safety and security, as well as comfort.

Rooms can be heated or the lights can be kept on easily if there are people in the room. Turning off the heater (or air conditioner) when someone opens the window is just another example. So, several functions that can be implemented and integrated simply, going way beyond monitoring as we know it today.

New Services

Initially we expect to see three types of services that will quickly migrate to a ZigBee base: security services, energy management services, and home care services.

Security services are available today, but are relatively expensive because they use proprietary technology. New generations of home monitoring will be ZigBee-based and integrated with the set-top box and smart phone. They also will be very cost effective.

Subscribers will be able to remotely control the locks of their house with their smart phones, from any place in the world. Just like your car, press a button and all your home’s doors and windows will lock and be secure. Because of ZigBee’s built-in security and encryption protocols, ZigBee-based smart home devices can be extremely resistant to hacker attacks. 

Energy management services in particular will allow people to manage their energy consuming devices from any place in the world. Subscribers will be able to turn their lights, heating, air conditioners, and more on and off from anywhere.

Smart home services that automatically react to stimuli within the home also will become popular. For instance, systems can make sure that empty rooms do not have unnecessary lights burning or heaters on.

Home care or assisted living services that can help the aging generation to live comfortably. These services can send a warning to family or any service organization if there is a medical problem. They also can enable relatives to monitor loved ones while still respecting privacy.

In the future, our homes will show a consistent integrated behavior for all these devices. This will pave the way for a new way of living, with increased security and comfort, as well as a greater ability to manage our energy consumption.

Today we live in an integrated Internet infrastructure. We can share information anywhere. Our computers, tablets, and smart phones form a set of consistent devices that can access information straight from our homes. When we are with friends, we can pull up photos and videos from our home server and share them. But we can’t use our smart phone to change the temperature setting on our thermostat—yet. We can reach our homes, but we cannot reach into our homes. That’s what ZigBee and the real smart home is going to change.

Cees Links is the founder and CEO of GreenPeak. Under his responsibility, the first wireless LANs were developed, ultimately becoming household technology integrated into PCs and notebooks. He also pioneered the development of access points, home networking routers, and hotspot basestations. He was involved in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the WiFi Alliance. And, he was instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee to become the basis for the ZigBee sense and control networking.