2017 may be the “Year of the Smart Home” but it sure doesn’t feel like it to many consumers. There are still important issues the industry needs to work through before it figures out the right way for consumers to interact with their homes. Amazon’s Alexa seems to be a step in the right direction with intelligent, voice-based control that seems to speak to consumers more than other ways of interaction. When many (non-smart) devices in your home are controlled by a single button or switch already, opening your phone and choosing the right app seems daunting in comparison.
Consumers want the features of a smart home but they want to skip the app, that is why it is no surprise that a recent report from McKinsey lists “Ease of use” and “Geo-fencing capabilities” as key drivers toward a purchase. But what can we really do with geo-fencing? Many companies offer this solution because, much like voice command, it allows your home to be automated based on something more passive than app-based interaction- in this case it is the user’s presence.
It seems simple, when a phone’s GPS system sees that it has gone out of a certain area: lights go off, AC turns down, alarm system turns on, etc. . . The functionality of this is fantastic but geo-fencing still leaves a lot to be desired. For one, the user must have a smartphone with GPS, this leaves out some important members of the family like small children and dogs . If you want to get a notification about your child coming home from school you are out of luck. Another problem: who gets control? In many cases, a smart home device’s app only gives GPS permission to the admin, and even many of the best services are not able to give temporary GPS access to friends and home workers without revealing your credentials. Even giving credentials to family members to use geo-fencing means relinquishing control and risking a smart home power struggle.
The real problem is that GPS itself it can be unreliable and privacy invasive when left on. Lack of reliability creates a situation in which many companies have to use a minimum of 500 meters or even “Neighborhood” fencing to determine when you get home. A geo-fence too small might cause a device to trigger even when the user is asleep because their GPS thinks they have moved. The situation is amplified for those of us living in apartment buildings and cities where the size of our living spaces means precision is even more important, yet GPS’ “Urban Canyon” problem only decreases accuracy. Privacy implications and high battery consumption create a situation where people often turn off their GPS, negating the benefits of geo-fencing and causing frustration.
My current location reading is across the street while I write this in our office (WeWork).
I co-authored a blog post at my last company titled “In the Age of IoT, Proximity is Location” which speaks to some of these issues and gets at the reason I decided to build Range. Your home should be able to sense your devices and know who is there and who is not. With GPS, your phone asks a satellite for your location on a map which corresponds to the location of your home, Range lets a single hub detect your devices as they come in and out based on their existing WiFi and Bluetooth signals. This means that instead of tracking the location of your family member’s phones at all times, your home is simply aware of each one's presence when they are home. It can be aware of your dogs smart collar, it can be aware of a Range Tag or Tile that you put in your child's backpack, it can be aware of the fitness tracker you take on runs when you leave your phone behind- and it can automate your home based on all of these things individually, giving each device, each family member their own custom smart home experience.