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At CES 2016 no Clear Path to Unified Automated Home Future

Every January, mighty crowds of electronics and IT professionals descend on Las-Vegas, Nevada to attend the annual Consumer Electronics Show. CES 2016 has just wrapped up, and it turned out to be the largest yet: 160,000 attendees, 3,800 exhibitors, and nearly 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space.

One trend that continued into this year’s record-breaking CES was the increased competition in the home automation space. Companies large and small offer their visions of your automated dwelling, and these visions look increasingly promising… yet the mass adoption of smart home systems and products remain elusive and patchy at best.

One of the major obstacles to the widespread adoption of smart home systems is the painfully obvious lack of the dominant communications/interoperability standard. There is a dizzying array of established and new protocols, radio standards, consortiums and work groups. On top of this, large industry players – Apple, LG, Samsung and many others – are offering their own smart home solutions. The war is on, and no clear winner has emerged so far. This leads to market fragmentation and confusion among prospective buyers.

Recently, there are some attempts to bring disparate standards closer together. For example, Open Interconnect Consortium and AllSeen Alliance are hard at work trying to make billions of smart home devices interoperable. Still, many vendors are making forceful attempts to sway things their way.

Another obstacle is the complexity of related standards. Most specifications run entire thick books that are just unassailable for anyone but the most dedicated of “students”. As a result, some vendors resort to partial adoption of existing standards.

For example, when the ZigBee protocol was announced, many equipment manufacturers quickly adopted its radio, i.e. the hardware portion of the standard, but not the communications protocol itself. It wasn’t until one dedicated startup called Ember went through the effort of creating true ZigBee modules (supporting mesh networking, etc.) that most vendors even considered incorporating this standard into their wares. To spare its customers the pain of dealing with a complex stack one chip vendor – Microchip – even created their own alternative communications protocol called MiWi. It relies on the same radio (IEEE 802.15.4) and is billed to be the “lightweight protocol”. The term “lightweight” here is the apparent comparison to the “heaviness” of the original specification.

The Road Ahead

It is obvious that these interoperability and integration pains are making life difficult for system integrators catering to the smart home space.

One obvious way to counter the uncertainly is to base a home automation platform on a modular, extendable controller. One such line of controllers showcased at CES 2016 was the Tibbo Project System (TPS) family from Tibbo Technology. TPS utilizes I/O modules called Tibbits. It is through Tibbits that TPS is inherently ready for the challenges of the home automation market. Tibbo offers around 50 different Tibbit blocks. There are modules for sensing the environment, controlling loads, sending IR commands, and many other functions. Importantly, the company is about to release a slew of Tibbits that implement popular wireless standards, such as ZigBee and EnOcen.

This modular, ready-for-whatever-comes-next approach to building the smart home controller just may be the wisest play in the fragmented home automation market.

Not surprisingly, a modular system like TPS is also of great importance to an often overlooked group of home automation adopters – DIY enthusiasts. Contrary to what it may look like at CES, which very obviously positions home automation buyers as “pure consumers” of offered technologies, DIY efforts in home automation are widespread, and they are yielding tangible results.

Across the world, hundreds of thousands of electronics enthusiasts are spending their evenings cobbling together controllers, relays, sensors, radios and other electronic bits and pieces to automate their homes. Why wait for the big guys to finally agree with each other? On the DIY market, the future is now.