Science Fiction in the House ?
Science fiction has given us a glimpse of how the humans and the machines together will make this planet more livable in the future. The relationship between man and machine will be based upon how well man designs the machine and on how well the machine learns about the humans through the algorithms man devises. Almost everything in the world ranging from cars, doors, lights, speakers, toasters, air-conditioner etc will generate meaningful data, data that will be visualized and analyzed both by humans and machines to take better decisions in favor of the entire collegium of earth. These ‘smart devices’ will all be on a single network, talking to each other in mutually understandable protocols, and this network of smart devices is called the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). IoT will touch the lives of humans in many different areas such as retail, agriculture, environment, home automation etc , but the most personal of them all will be ‘home automation’. Why? Because the smart homes will entirely change the way we go about our lives in our abode. Once humans enter the realm of a ‘Smart Home’, it will be difficult to understand how we ever lived without the smart devices.
Most people believe that this ‘smart’ future is still years away from becoming reality but if one looks at the data publicly available, the no of smart devices in the market have already touched 22.8 billion, as of 2015. In a few years from now this figure will touch 50 billion and our toasters will have more conversations with its cousins than we will have with ours. There is going to be enormous digital chatter between our devices and this chatter will generate humongous data about the personal habits of humans around. This is where the other half of ‘Smart Home’ comes into picture – ‘Machine Learning’ and ‘Cognitive Computing’. The ‘Smart Home’ will truly be smart when it learns to adapt based upon the unique personality of every human that inhabits it. A ‘Smart Home’ in some sense is the world’s best butler, a care taker who understands the house and its inhabitants in the best way possible and augments their lives by taking care of all mundane task that don’t really need human intervention.
Now, at this moment you may think that I am talking like a futurist but you are wrong because what I was attempting to put across is that we have already ushered into a new era of ‘connected devices’ and from here ‘things’ are only going to get smarter and better.
Welcome to the Smart Home
There is a lot happening in the home automation space, in the international arena ‘Google bought Nest’, Samsung bought ‘Smart Things’, Apple and Android are creating their own ecosystem for connected devices etc . The Indian market though is not as crowded as markets of developed countries but it has some interesting players that are changing the way we live in our homes. One such company is Delhi based ‘Cubical Labs’. ‘Cubical Labs’ provides wireless retrofit home automation products that easily integrate with existing infrastructure of the house. These devices basically act as a switch between main power line and the connected devices. These switches are also fitted with sensors that keep a track of power consumption for each node ( device). So the idea here is that, the ‘Cubical’ switches go behind the existing switchboard and sit in between your actual switch and power supply. Once the switches are installed, every device can be controlled and monitored by a mobile app that can be installed in every house member’s phone. Sounds simple, right ? There is nothing more to this from the perspective of a normal user. After the installation is done, the users will have every device’s control at their fingertips, literally. Not only that, the lights can be dimmed ( by controlling the voltage passed on to the device) , schedules can be set, multiple equipment’s can be clubbed under one group to create a ‘mood’ such as party , study, out of home etc. Through the moods the user can let the ‘Cubical Controller’ know of certain preset settings such as ‘party’ can signify – switching on all the lights in the house, including the 32 million colour LED strip which adds a embezzled texture to the homes lighting systems, similarly ‘Out of Home’ mood could mean switching off all devices except the refrigerator. The user here has the complete freedom to create any kind of symbolic mood as the human creativity allows.
Not feeling creative today? Fine, I will give you a simple example – Create a mood called “Morning” – and configure it to open the curtains of your bedroom, switch on the music system auto tuned on your favorite FM channel, turn on the geyser and turn on the coffee machine to brew your favorite coffee – at morning 7‘o clock every weekday. That’s something everyone deserves in their lives, right ?
The Tech behind the Smart Home
So to automate electrical equipments in your house you need two kind of products from ‘Cubical Labs’
- A controller hub that will communicate with all child devices and keep a health check on them : This is where the ‘Cubical Master’ comes in. The master is the brain and the central processing unit that is the core essential piece of hardware that one would need to purchase. This is a 4 inch rectangular shaped device that creates a W.A.N ( Wireless Area Network) through which information in relayed to other child devices. The master has a display indicator through which one easily figure out the status of the ‘Cubical Master’. It also has pin hole sized reset buttons on the top which facilitate password reset in case the user forgets the login credentials. Inserting a small pin in the reset hole resets the password and triggers an email to the registered email I.D .
- The Switches – Depending on the requirement of the user, Cubical offers switches of three types a) Hex ( 6 Devices) b) Tri ( 3 Devices ) and c ) Mono ( 1 Heavy device) . There is also a repeater known as ‘Tiny’ that bridges network gap by boosting the signal. The tiny can also automate 1 device.
Just to give you a clear picture, the cubical Master is a mandatory piece of hardware which needs to be coupled with any or all of the switches as per requirement.
Apart from ‘Hub’ and the ‘Switches’, Cubical Labs also provides the following additional devices , if the user wishes to enjoy end-to-end home automation.
- IP Cameras – Through these wireless IP cameras, you can have 24/7 live feed of your home on your smartphone, and even have the option of saving up a week’s surveillance.
- Curtain Motors – Through these app controlled curtains motors, you can not only close or open your curtains through a touch on your smartphone, but also schedule their opening and closing timing.
- LED Strip – A fully customizable LED strip which allows you to control the brightness and choose from among 32 million colors, fully controlled by mobile app. It can convert your home into a romantic place, a crazy party house , a calm reading nook or whatever you wish it to be.
Once the devices are installed they work on their own local wireless network and as long as the user is within the range of the W.A.N, the devices can be controlled without internet. If you wish to control and monitor your home from outside your home network, the communication happens via the internet.
The Interface between Humans and Machines
The interface is the mobile application that can be downloaded on as many as phones as required. The entry into the home’s controls is secured via credentials. Once you have the correct combination of username and password, you can interact with every connected component of your house. That’s simple. Right ? The application is basically divided into two major layouts – 1 ) Control and 2) Analyze.
Through the control layout the user can switch on/off, set schedules and create moods. The analyze layout shows the cumulative and individual power consumption by each connected device. The user can also look at historical usage using this layout. Another interface for analytics in the web portal, which works when it collects at least 1 months data.
Though the application interface is nifty there are few areas where my desires were left out in the cold.
A) No schedule for Moods – This would be a great way to schedule multiple devices at once.
B) Usage Alarms – An alert/alarm to notify the user of a long running device. The user can set the threshold for this. For eg. Send a app notification if the geyser runs for more than 2 hours or if the television remains powered on during 9:00 AM – 5 : 00 PM.
C) Notification for device failures.
So if you notice, most of my unfulfilled desires are around ‘app intuitiveness’. The application needs to have relevant conversations with the user. Is that too much to ask? I hope not.
The Outer Shell of Cubical
Most of the home automation products go behind the switchboard, into your walls, so they stay away from your sight for most part of their life cycle. The design of all the products by ‘Cubical Labs’ is done that with that perspective that is why the design is utilitarian and minimalistic.
I loved the design of the ‘Cubical Master’, which just has L.E.D notification lights on it for indicating the health of the master. The design looks simple, from the future and it does add a small aesthetic value to your house. The switches are designed to make sure they last behind the darkness of the walls, they feel sturdy.
The Integration of Hardware-Software
The app and the physical hardware work as a well oiled machine, the relay of information is almost realtime. The hardware has worked fluently ever since it was installed and the application has received minor updates also, but one cannot call the amalgamation of application and hardware perfect as of now, there are a few hiccups such as –
1) The extended control settings ( Fan speed, light intensity etc ) get reset during a power cut, this brings in quite some inconvenience,especially when the power cuts happen during the night.
2 ) Once the fan regulator is automated, the physical regulator does not work. This again causes inconvenience because, some people don’t prefer the white light of the phones display hitting the eyes during siesta hours.
For day to day usage the ‘Cubical App’ and hardware work seamlessly, though I vehemently desired for a voice recognition system also to send commands over to the Cubical Master. I hope some one at ‘Cubical Labs’ is reading this.
The World of Open Systems
Billions of devices will thrive on the network of ‘Internet of Things’ and when the network is so huge two aspects of any connected device becomes very important.
- Security – The ‘Cubical’ devices encrypt their communication with a 128 bit AES key, this is a pretty respectable standard in the industry. To put this into layman words a trillion machines, that each could test a billion keys per second would take more than two billion years to recover an AES-128 key, that means unless there is a major breakthrough in hacking algorithms, your home system is quite safe from hackers.
- Open Systems – A thriving ‘Machine-to-Machine’ network will require mutually understandable protocols. Again, in layman terms this means machines that speak and understand each others language. Though the team at ‘Cubical’ say its systems have been designed keeping this in mind, I was not able to test it because of unavailability of any other product in the Indian market. Also, one more point to note here is that ‘Cubical Labs’ has already begun the process for integrating with Apple’s hardware registration program, that means all ‘Cubical’ devices will work with ‘Apple Home’ ecosystem.
The Final Word
Any successful product becomes successful because it fills up a gap in our lives. The products from ‘Cubical Labs’ do exactly that, though you may not know that the gap exists. Once you start living in a smart home, you wonder how you ever lived without it. What makes ‘Cubical’ products more desirable in the smart pricing, a ‘Cubical’ starter kit is available on Amazon Rs 38,900. The ‘Smart Home’ segment is just taking baby steps in India and ‘Cubical Labs’ has managed to take a step in the right direction, what happens from here, is eagerly awaited.
You can view the entire product range of Cubical Labs on its website.