If These Devices Could Talk (to Each Other)


You've installed a few smart devices, what's next?!  Having a couple of devices making life easier in your smart home can be a really good thing. Who wouldn’t want to talk to their TV instead of having to dig under the couch cushions to find the remote for the infinitieth time? Frankly, just being able to check the doorbell camera via your mobile phone so you can ignore the annoying sales guy on your front stoop should be enough to make us all grateful to be alive during these exciting times.

These devices are great on their own. But what if you could build a collection of smart devices that all become just a little bit smarter because they can learn from and talk to each other?

Harnessing the power of the collective group of devices can make life that much easier around the house. Here are a few examples of how you can train your devices to talk to one another so they can pool their resources and start pulling their weight around here.

Connect to a hub

Setting up a hub at home can help get your smart devices on the same page. Adding a hub to your network is like adding a traffic control tower to a busy airport of devices.

Most smart home devices connect to a wireless bridge which communicates multi-directionally with the Internet, as well as with its cluster of compatible devices. For example, Philips hue comprises a number of lighting options—an array of light bulb styles and form factors—all of which need their Philips wireless bridge to distribute commands and store the settings you send from your mobile phone. In clusters of devices like these, which are part of the same family of devices, the wireless bridge is the only component that needs to connect to your home network. The bridge communicates with its family of devices on a unique radio frequency. This is actually a really good thing for you because it means you don’t need to make room on your wifi network for each individual smart device.

The variety of radio frequencies that each group of smart devices uses to communicate on is what makes it necessary to use special tools to get them to talk to one another. Even though the wireless bridges may all connect to your home network, each manufacturer has developed their own methodology for sending and receiving commands within their family of smart devices. While most of these communication protocols are not yet standardized, many companies have chosen to make software development kits available so that interested software engineers can come up with creative ways to connect these smart devices with the rest of the connected world.

Some examples of smart hubs include Samsung SmartThings, Wink, and Iris. Each of these hub options have varying levels of device compatibility, as well as flexibility to work with devices that are not proprietary. These hubs are built to be a master control center, in many cases allowing for the control and configuration of smart devices from a single application—often even communicating with individual smart devices on their own radio frequencies. This eliminates the need to split your time among a whole number of controller applications, Once you get past the initial setup and pairing steps, hubs can add a healthy injection of autonomy to your smart home.

Use Amazon Echo

Not all hubs are created equal, but you might not need a conventional hub at all if you can harness the power of Amazon Echo. The Echo is still considered a smart device since it leverages the power of the Internet to perform a number of tasks. However, it does not fit into the category of conventional hubs since it does not require any proprietary devices, nor does it use any special wireless transmitters or antennas.

The Amazon Echo is unique in that it has no onboard operating system apart from the firmware required to send and receive queries via the Internet. Any high-speed Internet connection gives the Echo all the power it needs to control an ever-growing number of smart devices. By developing small bits of control software called Skills, the engineers at Amazon are able to continuously add functionality to the Echo, as well as add compatibility with more smart devices—all without ever requiring you to update software on your Echo. Additionally, all of the software that gives the Echo its power lives in the cloud and seamlessly connects directly with all of the compatible services and smart devices it can control.

With the Amazon Echo, adding a Skill that works with the Nest Thermostat, for example, means that a simple voice command (“Alexa, set the downstairs temperature to 74 degrees”) is all you need to make things just a little more comfortable around your smart home.

Set it and forget it with IFTTT

If you don’t have a hub or an Amazon Echo at home, you can still use your mobile device and a service called IFTTT (If This Then That) to serve as your de facto smart hub. IFTTT uses combinations of conditions and commands that it calls Recipes to add another level of possibilities for your collection of smart devices.

Once you authorize IFTTT to connect with your smart devices, you can formulate and save the conditions that should trigger specific actions. As an example, you can run the IFTTT app on your phone, which you can instruct to track your GPS location to trigger certain actions when you’re within a specific geographic region. This means you could create a Recipe to cool down the house, turn on the lights and open the garage door automatically once you’re within a quarter-mile radius of your home.

IFTTT is a free service, offering access to Recipes from either a web site or a number of mobile applications. Create and save your own Recipes, or choose from a vast number of them that have been created by other IFTTT users.

To hub or not to hub?

With all that said, do you need a smart hub to control your devices? Since smart devices also have controller apps, having a hub is not a requirement for building out your smart home. In fact, since the idea of a smart hub is to control all your devices with fewer apps, it will probably only become something you begin to think about once you have more than just a couple of smart devices to keep track of. You should choose the smart products that work for your household and needs, then think about adding a smart hub that will communicate with your entire family of smart devices.