I worked at a home automation firm for 5 years, and during my tenure there as R&D lead we played with all sorts of wonderful hardware and software. Much of our toys included relay-based equipment, for switching outlet-connected stuff on and off, but they were usually connected to a large piece of integration equipment that was destined for a celebrity’s home.
But for the regular joe like all of us, where are the inexpensive relays we can put in our homes and automate using our numerous computers and/or mobile devices? Read on.
DIY or Forget It
The relay at the top of this site, in the picture, is a standard Radio Shack relay and about $8 on average. It can handle line voltages (~120v AC) and current draw for most devices. I bought one and assembled it into a little device that received a signal from my computer’s serial port to set/clear a 1-bit latch, which closed the relay when set and turned my lights on.
The whole thing was controlled by my always-on desktop’s web server (reached via my phone even over 4G), and cost about $35 total – including the USB-Serial adapter.
So why can’t something this cheap, even in the $50 range, be available on the market? I’ve looked to no avail, all the solutions that are WiFi controlled cost big bucks per solution – notable Global Cache and Command Fusion, which I’ve dealt with professionally.
I’m all for building stuff for fun and convenience, but if the price were within reason then more people would employ this technology in their homes for widespread convenience.
Chips, Chips, Chips
Whether WiFi, Zigbee, USB, Infrared, timers, latches or anything along those lines short of a microprocessor or gate array chip, the silicon that would drive an integratable solution involving a relay are dirt cheap and coming down in price by the month as competition ramps up and newer technology continues ahead (solid state relays, system-on-a-chip solutions etc.)
So why aren’t hardware manufacturers taking advantage of the falling prices and implementing something every citizen can afford to install easily themselves (outlet plug on one end, outlet on the other)? It baffles me.
The system is in every home: a computer capable of transceiving automation commands to/from mobile devices for home automation. The middleware software would be easy to implement, and with the advent of the “cloud” style of software, it can be done reliably in the case of emergencies.
The hardware to simply receive a “set” or “reset” command doesn’t have to include a whole processor, as little Zigbee base stations and receivers come a dime a dozen with the driving software cheap as ever to implement.
And with mobile systems becoming more and more capable of displaying a full-blown website using even HTML5 software to back it, why isn’t this an existing solution for the everyman?
With Xfinity and AT&T moving more and more toward the home automation field with their already widespread influence, either they will develop something like this themselves before it’s over with or else buy a startup who does, even creating a new front for competition in the process.
Even Microsoft via the Xbox’s new features is edging into this developing arena.
Some company out there is going to become mega-rich by offering an affordable home automation solution to everyday “Walmart” consumers, I would bet everything on it. I’ve pushed for this to occur through the firms I’ve worked for, but none of them are willing to put forth the funds for it (despite having them) in this economy and I don’t have the money/capital to make a startup, nor the time.
However, I do have the time to read and respond to your comments on this article and any future articles you interact with after subscribing – so leave a comment about this matter below and tell us what you think.
Anthony is the Silicon News editor-in-chief. Many dedicated readers know him from his prior blog The Coffee Desk before its sale in early 2010, which was featured in everything from Yahoo! News, Slashdot.org, and countless other news agencies pulling in millions of unique visitors a month. He has ample experience with software, hardware, and networking, having been employed by numerous companies ranging from U.S. government agencies, research and development firms and Google. Though his approach is usually technical and dry, he is notorious for his subtle and witty observational humor.