What would it mean to be able to control every electrical device in your home from your phone? Wireless home automation is nothing new, but Google hopes to bring it to the masses with its latest project. Andy Pearson glimpses the future

Is Google set to take control of our lives? The company is in our offices with its eponymous internet search engine; it’s in our private lives with its Android mobile phone operating system; now it has announced plans to enter our homes with the launch of Android@Home.

Google’s big idea is to bring home automation to the masses. It wants your Android-powered mobile phone or tablet PC to wirelessly talk to, and control, every electrical device in your home. That means you’ll be able to dim the lights, turn up the stereo or switch on the heating all from your mobile. In fact, your smart phone could be the only switch you’ll ever need.

What’s more, because your phone is linked to a global positioning system (GPS), devices will know where you are. Which means that when you return home after a night out, as you turn into your street your house lights could switch on, your heating will come on, and your favourite music will start to play on the stereo to make your homecoming a very pleasant experience. And, because everything will be perfectly timed for your arrival, it could even save energy too.

How it works

Google demonstrated the technology at its annual I/O developers’ conference in San Francisco earlier this year. An LED lamp, manufactured by Lighting Science Group, used low-power radio waves to pass commands between a phone and the lamp’s wireless transponder. A software programme, or app, on the phone worked as a virtual switch; the lamp could be turned on and off and dimmed wirelessly from the phone.

“What we are seeing is the roll-out of internet technologies for application in the built environment,” says Mike Perry, principal consultant at BRE and author of the book Smart Home Systems and the Code for Sustainable Homes. According to Perry, the primary difference between the internet of computers and the internet of buildings is the presence of sensors and actuators. “Sensors and actuators close the communications loop about the use of resources, such as energy, in the built environment,” he says.

Your fridge app could send an alarm to your phone to tell you its power consumption has suddenly rocketed because you’ve left the door open

Sensors and actuators should enable every appliance and electronic device in a home to provide information to your phone. However, getting your phone to talk to, say, your fridge is not as straightforward as it might first appear. At the moment most appliance manufacturers write their own control software, so different devices talk different languages.

To help resolve this problem, industry group The Application Home Initiative (TAHI) was founded over 10 years ago to develop an interoperability framework to provide a common set of rules to enable products that use different standards to talk to each other in an installation. “Thinking about things holistically is a radical shift in supply chain culture,” says Perry. Google, however, is not a member of TAHI and it is not yet clear whether Android@Home will be a stand-alone offering or whether it will be compatible with other operating systems.Likewise details of the wireless protocol that will allow low-cost connectivity are still to be announced.

No market leader

Wireless-based control networks are not new. Zigbee, Z-Wave and KNX, for example, perform a similar role. However, there is no clear market leader. “The home networking market is not mature,” says Perry.

So will Android@Home have the potential to shake up the home-automation sector by becoming the cheapest, most widely adopted networking standard with the backing of internet giant Google? Certainly the figures behind Android are mind-blowing: there are 100 million Android devices, with 400,000 new devices activated every day, and there are more than 250,000 apps available for Android phones, even before Android@Home is released. However, when it does launch, because Android is open-source software, anybody will be able to develop home automation apps for every type of appliance simply by downloading Android’s software development kit.

Despite the numbers, Android@Home’s success is not guaranteed. The initiative can only take off if there are enough appliances and devices to talk Android. However, manufacturers may not want to commit until they are sure that Android@Home will be a success. And since Google doesn’t (yet) manufacture fridges or washing machines, it will be down to manufacturers to buy into the Android@Home concept in order for them to drop in the necessary hardware and software to talk to your phone. It is also unclear how easy it will be to retro-fit the technology to existing appliances. “The challenge is not in developing the technology and applications; the issue is in implementing the technology in the built environment,” says Perry.

Wait and see

A launch date for Android@Home has yet to be announced, although the expectation is that it will be rolled out early next year. Lighting Science Group has announced that it plans to launch the Android-compatible lamp at the end of the year and at a cost comparable with other LED lamps.

If Android@Home succeeds, homeowners will be able to gather all sorts of information about their home’s performance. It will be useful, for example, if your fridge app sends an alarm to your phone to tell you that its power consumption has suddenly rocketed because you’ve left the door open. Or a light switch app could also tell you how much electricity a lamp is using and the total number of hours it has run, to ensure it is performing in line with the manufacturer’s claims.

All of that information could be be commercially useful to Google too - how long after a light bulb has failed before your lighting app starts to sell you a replacement bulb? So before you start to search the internet for an app that turns your kettle on when your alarm clock rings, bear in mind that some commentators have already raised concerns about privacy and security following the recent outcry over mobile phones tracking your every move and storing this information. What if the system was to tell Google what time you got home at night or, worse, how often you wash your socks?