During late 2008, early 2009 something odd and unexpected happened. Cisco reported that there were more devices connected to the internet than people, and while the concept of “Internet of Things” wasn’t entirely new any more, it only then became a reality which for the most part sneaked up on us, taking the average consumer by surprise first, only to become an integral part of our everyday lives in less than a decade.
It was only six or so years ago that we were doing the same as we used to since the invention of electricity — toggling switches like barbarians whenever we entered or left a room. Of course, some of us wanted to be fancy and opted to get a dimmer switch, and whenever we dimmed the lights, the amount of satisfaction produced by such a trivial action made us always feel a bit like magicians who finally perfected their skills of producing just the right amount of light at any time.
But how wrong we all were… Philips, a mere five years ago showed us exactly that. Now, of course, Philips was and is no pioneer in IoT technology, but they did manage to — albeit, with Apple’s help — become the cause of widespread interest in domestic IoT projects.
What is an IoT project?
In its simplest form an IoT project is nothing more than the conscious decision of using internet and inter-connected connected devices in any given space — say a home — to solve a problem or upgrade a current solution. Calling it a project assumes there is planning, budgeting and implementation processes involved and there’s also a fairly clear goal to achieve. Generally speaking, the smallest IoT project tends to involve either smart-plugs, smart lights or both. These can of course then veer off into more enthusiast-level projects that involve connected heating, connected kitchen appliances, magic mirrors and the likes, which for brevity’s sake I am not going to cover in this article.
Planning is everything!
Planning an IoT project can quickly become a bigger nightmare than planning a wedding. Just like food, flowers, dresses and bowties have to work in unison, doing a project like this the right way is crucial. It will set the budget, and your expectations will be realistic. There are a few things to keep in mind at this stage:
- Hardware technology — try and stick to an ecosystem. You’d think that as a non-technologist it’s hard, but it’s actually quite simple. All IoT devices — at least the better brands — make it very clear what their devices work well with. As a rule of thumb, look for “Works with Alexa”, “Works with HomeKit”, “Works with Google Assistant”, “Works with SmartThings”. Say for instance if you’re looking to upgrade your lighting and decide to use the Hue system, they all work with both Alexa, HomeKit and Google Home. This will enable not only a connected system but also an interconnected system where different brands connect via some common software.
- Your phone — yes, it matters, and it actually matters more than you think. If you have an Android phone for instance, you needn’t care about “works with HomeKit”, as that’s an Apple Home relevant technology. Sure, chances are that either Alexa will still be able to control them or Google Home but don’t get hung up on details that might not matter at all.
- Your internet connection —which may or may not matter. Generally speaking IoT devices don’t need a permanent internet connection to the outside world, but they do need WiFi, so if you have none of that, you may as well crawl back under that big rock you’ve been living under for the last 30 years. Initial setup often requires internet of at least a few Mb/s. Under 3 or 4Mb/s I’d start to worry. This is something you can easily test though.
- The number of devices you need — and believe you me, there’s going to be quite a number of them. IoT is addictive and you will find use for it in every corner of your home. Every room requires at least one light-bulb and one switch. Hallways and kitchens can often benefit from motion sensors as well. In a realistic scenario, a 40 square meter one bedroom apartment requires 10 lights, 2 motion sensors and 5 dimmer-switches. That’s a total of 17 devices. If you opt to get smart plugs as well, you’ll be looking at anywhere between 4 to 8 plugs, making the total number jump easily over 20 devices.
- Your home — yes, things like having very old and unreliable electric wiring can be an issue, you need to know if the desired devices fit their designated locations and how you’ll be mounting them. Chances are you also don’t live alone, and there’s more than yourself to consider with all this technology in the house. Will grandma know how to use this and are the rugrats going to unplug your Alexa device at every chance they get?
Money does not grow on trees…
Just looking at the sheer number of devices makes you scratch your head and reconsider your project or your budget. Of course you can always scale back, and focus on just one room at a time. IoT projects are getting increasingly cheaper, which is good news, however on the other hand as mentioned before, IoT projects are addictive and can get out of hand very easily.
The moment you get a taste of home automation and connected home-ware, things as simple as checking on your phone whether you’ve turned the lights off in the kitchen or not, or telling Alexa to make the lights dim green while you’re watching Outlander can make you think that not only have you honed the magic art of controlling light, but you are the Wizard of Oz himself. In no-time you’ll be mounting connected thermostats to your radiators, smart smoke detectors and talking — yes talking — to your kettle about the temperature you’d want your tea at. In just a matter of weeks your life could look exactly like the below meme. Often these devices on their own don’t cost much more than their “dumb” counterparts, but collectively can run up a pretty hefty bill at the till…
Who doesn’t have a screwdriver?!?
You see, it’s one thing to plan it all out, have the necessary budget to purchase it, and it’s a completely different story getting it all to work, and yes, you often need tools. Make sure you have some. All of these require you to deal with electricity. Safety precautions are paramount and so is having the right tool for the job. An electricity testing screwdriver, a hammer, maybe some screws and a drill. A ladder will come in handy as well, trust me. The bottom line is, you need to know your home, what your walls and ceilings are like. If you are unsure about any of this, consult the necessary professional don’t just hack things together. No smart home is going to be smart enough in the face of sheer ignorance. Safety first!
Let there be light!
It is —by any account — a magical feeling to open your eyes up to lights that wake up with you in the morning, to have the kettle on by the time you get into the kitchen, have Alexa tell you the news while you’re brushing your teeth and generally give your home a living personality mirroring yours. But it’s important to do it right. IoT devices are not mere gadgets. With every device you are adding to the network, you are building an intelligence around your home, a brain for what used to be brainless and that’s a responsibility you cannot take lightly.
Attila Vago — writer of codes, blogs and things that live on the web. Programming polyglot, pragmatic doer, member of the “taking care of business” crowd, with a no nonsense attitude. An easily inspired inspirational individual with a strong predilection towards most things nerdy, good, carnivorous food, and Lego. Uses a Mac. Runs at 6 a.m.