ROOM BY ROOM: The Future Is Now


    Time to choose up, folks. Who would you like to be inside your space-age home? George Jetson? Jane, his wife. Daughter Judy?

    While you won’t be getting off to work in your flying car, you’re much closer than you probably think to having a house do more than you dreamed possible just a few years ago. The house of the future is so close you can taste it, or at least the coffee it makes when you text the coffee maker from your bedroom. There’s even more of the future available to free up more for pastimes these days. Thermostats that control the lights when you’re away. Window shades that lift when you say “good morning.”

    It’s a whole new world in there.

    Although these still aren’t items most people seek out, they’re catching on. Research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that the number of U.S. households with some form of smart-home system grew 30 percent in 2015 to 27 million, or about 1 in 5.

    With the backing of big names such as Samsung, Apple and Nest, a sister company of Google’s, smart-home functionality is slowly creeping into everyday homes. Even Amazon is getting involved with its Echo speaker that can respond to voice commands. At a recent annual gadget convention in Las Vegas, the scheduled topic of a Samsung keynote was the smart home of today — not tomorrow or five years from now.

    Here are just a few items to teach your old dumb house ways to be smarter:

    Wire Not Try One?

    Drop the notion that you have to rewire your entire home and replace all your lights and appliances.

    Nest, a maker of smart-home products, says it doesn’t market its camera, smoke alarm and thermostat as smart-home products, but as products that happen to tap the Internet for increased functionality. From there, gadgets can start talking to each other, whether they’re made by the same manufacturer or by third parties.

    Andrew Brooks, co-founder of Samsung’s smart-home business, SmartThings, says households often start with security-related products, such as locks and garage doors, and evolve from there. Samsung’s new smart TVs will have built-in smart-home capabilities, negating the need to buy a hub to get started.

    What about your existing lights, TVs and coffee makers? You can buy smart plugs; with a voice command or tap of an app, you can then turn devices on or off once you’ve plugged them in.

    Here’s What’s Cool

    Out of town for business or just need a getaway from the easy life in your smart home? You can check your Nest camera through an app to confirm that the lights are off. If they weren’t, Siri can turn them off, since your lights can be connected to an iDevices smart plug synced with Apple’s HomeKit system — and thus with Siri. Motion sensors synced with a SmartThings hub can tell you whether anyone, such as your landlord or your cat sitter, has been in your house. A Mr. Coffee machine can start brewing with a tap of the phone, thanks to integration with Belkin’s WeMo system.

    When home, you can group products such that the TV and main lights turn off and a night light comes on when you say, “good night.”

    It’s relatively straightforward to add components as time and budgets permit. With smart locks, doors automatically lock when you leave. Smart appliances such as the Nest thermostat can also help save energy. Smart-home systems also can incorporate window shades and irrigation systems — perhaps the sprinklers briefly turn off as you walk by.

    Different Strokes

    Though apps try to make the setup easy, there’s still a lot to think about. To get the most out of a smart home, you need to assign lights and appliances to specific rooms on the app. Then you need to enable automation through the app — figuring out which devices do what when you say “good morning” or “good night.” It isn’t too difficult for tech enthusiasts to figure out, but it could be challenging for folks who want things that “just work.”

    Within days, you might noticed some quirks in your setup. Because the main lights can be connected to a smart plug, voice commands and the smartphone app effectively take control, meaning you actually can’t use the wall switch to turn the lights back on. It takes a few extra seconds to activate Siri and tell her what to do.

    In theory, you could just have the lights come on automatically when you open the front door, which has a motion sensor attached. But that sensor is tied to Samsung’s system, while the lights are with Apple’s. And that coffee maker? Samsung’s system works with some WeMo devices, but the coffee maker isn’t listed. You could attach a coffee maker to a Samsung smart plug, so that a bedroom motion sensor triggers coffee in the morning.

    In Some We Trust

    You’ll have to trust that these systems are secure. Apple, for instance, requires that HomeKit devices use chips it approves for security, but there might be other vulnerable points once data leave the HomeKit environment. Other companies make similar promises on security. But even with a strong password, you might want to turn the Nest camera around to face the wall when you’re home — just in case.