A hive mind for home

As smart homes with voice-activated lights and virtual assistants grab eyeballs worldwide, the Indian sector chooses to focus on automated security and utilitarian solutions

February 20, 2017 07:16 pm | Updated February 21, 2017 11:05 am IST



In an episode of Friends , Monica and the gang go into her boyfriend’s house and inadvertently end up calling up his mother, because of a phone that was equipped with some form of voice recognition. In the same episode, the boyfriend controls the lights in his house through voice commands. That was the first time I saw home automation in action.

Times have changed since. From smart refrigerators that allow you to look inside your fridge remotely and see if you need some groceries, automated alarms that can be controlled on your smartphones or faucets featuring automatic water bidet and more, there is no doubt smart home solutions are already hitting the market in a big way.

Home automation is no longer restricted to devices like automatic washing machines and water heaters and has evolved to virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa — that lets you control devices at home with a mere voice command.

Smart homes

At the recently-concluded Consumer Electronics Show (CES), much of the focus was on Alexa and Apple’s HomeKit smart system. As the definition of smart homes expands, India has been working on its own solutions, mostly in security and lighting.

A foray into developing surveillance cameras for law enforcement agencies was what brought Bengaluru-based Silvan Innovation Labs into the home automation business in India in 2008. “At that juncture, home automation solutions in India were expensive, involved a lot of wiring and a host of complicated processes. This meant that most people in India were not keen on new-age automation solutions,” says Avinash Gautam, the CEO of the firm, adding, “The advent of the smartphones has made things easier and user-friendly.”

Silvan’s solutions include an alarm system that connects homes to smartphones, with unauthorised access triggering a notification, besides letting owners open the house from anywhere. The company also builds automated cupboards.

However, the developers have not ditched traditional switches. Giridhar Krishna, the chairman and managing director of the firm, points out, “It is no longer new home owners who want these solutions; even people staying in older apartments are using these products. As compared to the West, Indians adapt to new technology more easily. For instance, in the early 2000s, no one could have predicted that landlines would become redundant in India.”

While Silvan focuses mainly on providing smart solutions to security, iRobot, an American firm, is making waves in the Indian market with its automatic vacuum cleaners. Asaf Merary, who heads the company that distributes iRobot’s Roomba and Braava models in India and Sri Lanka, says that no one likes cleaning floors, and being able to automate this has sparked a lot of interest. “Since it is a relatively new concept in India, we find people watching it move about and clean the floors. It is similar to growing up when washing machines came to prominence in the 1970s. The washing machine, which was one of the first home automation devices, has now become part and parcel of our lives. As technology becomes more advanced, more home automation solutions will emerge.”

This is an assessment that IT executive Dhiram Pandey agrees with. “Unlike cooking, which is a hobby, cleaning is best left to machines. Home automation must focus on devices that aid us in day-to-day functions. I would rather have an automatic duster than a device that lets me control the lights with a voice command.”

Daily tiffs with neighbours and the housing association over the use of water prompted Vivek Shukla and his partner Kasturi Rangan to set up SmarterHomes, a firm that provides smart water metering solutions for multi-inlet apartment buildings.

According to Vivek, it was a classic case of finding a solution to a problem. “One of the main issues we faced was that the water was not being supplied in a proper manner in most high-rises. The shafts which carry these pipes don’t have any access to install the meters. So we developed a meter that works best for tough-to-install locations.” Their meter, named WaterOn, can connect with others in a network, ensuring real-time transmission of data to the cloud. This data can be accessed through smartphones and allows users to view their water consumption and detect abnormalities.

In the lighting options corner is IFIHomes, that started with basic DIY products like motion sensor-based lights, and have since moved on to smart lights, remotes, and cameras.

Rohit Khosla, one of the founders, says, “Home automation is no longer a luxury indulgence; it is now more need-based. As smartphones become available to a larger section of the populace, the penetration of these devices will grow further. Unlike in the West, where home automation often deals with air-conditioning and heating options, in India the focus has been on security products.”

Smarts over style

Vivek is bullish on the prospects of home automation in India, “In the next 3-5 years, home automation will see a paradigm shift from fancy to utility-based value. Currently, it is not only expensive but also limited to some utilities such as the ability to control lighting, air-conditioners, automated curtains and smart locks. The real utility in automation is to let houses take decisions based upon some inputs and initiate a chain of events to offer better levels of home security, energy demand reduction and engagement with the residents.”

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