Home automation can be a tricky hobby, especially for the uninitiated. Though smartphones and tablets have gone a long way towards consolidating the number of devices needed to implement a half-decent automated setup, there’s still a good amount of hardware to learn about and purchase. If you want to automate it (or at least control it from your smartphone), prepare to bust out your wallet.
Or maybe not. Several companies have released devices designed to connect all the “dumb” hardware in your house, making it easier than ever to automate without having to fork over too much dough. It’s yet another sign that the Internet of Things is already here, and as cool as the future looks, the stuff we currently have is pretty awesome on its own. Here are three of our favorite home automation hubs.
How could we skip talking about a product with a name like Ninja Sphere? No, the device won’t vanquish your foes with swords or well-placed blow darts, but it will manage a number of connected devices throughout your home via your smartphone or tablet.
If you’re familiar with Ninja Blocks, which have amassed a too-big-to-be-called-cult following since their crazy successful 2012 Kickstarter drive, you already have some idea of what to expect here. The blocks operate on a so-called If-This-Then-That (IFTTT) command protocol, connecting all sorts of devices and appliances to the Web via a proprietary cloud-based platform. For instance, the above-linked Kickstarter page says they can send you a text if someone is at your front door or message you if an Xbox Live friend comes online. The secret is in the variety of sensors, which can be connected to the devices; some detect temperature, while others note proximity or when a button is pressed.
The Ninja Sphere takes this basic, if initially confusing, idea a step further by adding another tentpole of modern devices—consolidation. Using a variety of Web-connected outlet plugs (which let you power “dumb” devices like lamps on and off remotely), waypoints and tags (which help you track things like keys or pets), and the sphere itself, you automate and control an insane number of things around the house. Some “out of the box” use cases listed on the Sphere’s Kickstarter page include figuring out who’s in your home by tracking their phones and receiving alerts when you leave a potentially hazardous appliance on, like your stove.
Even more exciting, the project is designed to be open from the onset. For home automation, a hobby-dom broken down into about a billion different sub-niches, this is huge. Since anyone can develop drivers to run different things on the device, all it takes is some creativity and a little coding knowledge to bring countless connectable devices under the Ninja Sphere’s control.
Then there are the gesture controls. The above Sphere launch trailer shows someone raising and dimming his lights by raising and lowering his arm. Shortly thereafter, it shows someone paging through data on his computer by doing a “flicking” motion. Devices like Microsoft’s Kinect show gesture-based controls aren’t the end-all-be-all of home automation, but it’s certainly a nice addition considering all the potential commands the gestures can be linked to.
For hobbyist-level automation fans, Ninja Sphere is about as perfect as it gets for now. While it might not have the level of finish other devices in this article display, it more than makes up for it in openness. For the right kind of end user, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Some home automators would rather have an easy experience over the insane level of control products like the Ninja Sphere offer. For them, we present the Revolv. Boasting a 60-second setup time (they have a site to prove it) and connectivity with a number of popular automated devices like the Nest, this product promises seamless control under the banner of a singular device.
Unlike the Sphere’s IFTTT controls, the Revolv offers what its makers simply call “actions”: A series of location, time, and manually controlled commands for the hardware around your house. Its device-to-device connectivity even allows it to tell other devices to interact with objects, making it easy to set up a sort of daisy-chain-of-command with products not initially designed to work with the control center.
Sheer connectivity is perhaps the Revolv’s biggest draw. Its compatible devices page lists a huge number of third-party products it’ll work with right out of the box, and purchasing the device (a $299 investment as of this writing) entitles you to free monthly updates covering other, newer hardware as it arrives on the market. For buyers of name-brand automation products like Phillips Hue and the above-mentioned Nest, there’s certainly a huge value proposition in instant, easy connectivity; something the Revolv’s sales pitch and feature set both seem to revolve around.
Otherwise, the fun here is in the creative stuff you can do with the brain box. The location-based sensors allow you to set your lights to dim to a certain level based on who walks in the room or configure smart locks (think the Goji) to unlock at certain times or when recognized phones come within range—a perfect solution for letting guests or repair people in your house while you’re still at work. The notification capabilities also make it easy to tell when different things happen around the house—an expensive vase being moved without your consent, for instance. While it may be a little less hacker-friendly than the Ninja Sphere, there’s certainly no shortage of stuff you can do with the Revolv hub.
Another Kickstarter darling with a cute name, Homey, plans on owning the home by offering simple voice commands to all users regardless of what devices and appliances they run. Like the Ninja Sphere and Revolv, it also sells itself under a consolidation pitch. Instead of having to load up individual smartphone apps for your lights and thermostat and television (The horror!), Homey controls everything under a single banner.
Notifications (also featured prominently with the Revolv and Ninja Sphere) are another big part of Homey’s pull. According to its Kickstarter page, the hub can remind you to take an umbrella when it knows it’s about to rain outside or tell the last person to leave the house to turn off lights/turn down the thermostat. It can also push grocery lists and other alerts from smart fridges, dictate texts and emails to the nearest set of wireless speakers, and interact with a huge number of preselected devices ranging everywhere from smart appliances to the Apple TV and beyond.
Homey also boasts serious international flair, with support for Dutch, English, French, German, and Spanish, plus a promise for more supported languages prioritized by where the project’s backers came from. Homey also appears to be somewhere between the Ninja Sphere and Revolv in terms of hacker-friendliness, with Arduino support (and code libraries) and an ongoing repository for people to post their homebrew products.
While the Homey looks to be a worthy product, its biggest enemy right now is time: The Kickstarter page promises early models to backers in early 2015, with a retail release to follow. Voice control is certainly a worthy feature in the world of home automation, and we like the general idea behind it, but with Revolv already on the market and the Ninja Sphere selling as fast as the people behind it can produce them, every person who buys a competing product is another bit of market share lost. Competition is almost always a good thing, especially in the world of consumer electronics; here’s hoping the Homey still flourishes when it sees a full, official release.
Home automation is no longer a hobby for people with ample amounts of time and money to burn. With the right hardware, a smartphone, and a hub to control it all, it’s easy to futurize your house without burning your bank account down in the process. Better yet, you don’t need much more than a basic idea of what you want to do to capture the exact results you want. Compared to the old days, when even the simplest automated tasks were an exercise in expense and customization, that’s good news indeed, and it’ll only get better as gadgets like smartwatches become more widespread. Happy shopping.
Learn more about the future of home automation by reading our Internet of Things Trend Report.