This is as much a philosophical debate as it is a technological one, but solutions are in the pipeline.
The concept of home automation powered by a single remote control has been discussed for decades — at least since the first airing of the Jetsons in 1962. And the tech world has been working fervently to deliver on the concept for just as long.
In some respects, we’ve landed. But there’s still much more to explore on the path to a seamless, secure and scalable whole-house connectivity solution. Here’s a look at some of the key considerations.
Is it realistic to think we’ll ever have just one device capable of connecting and controlling all of the gadgets and appliances that power our lives at home? From a technology standpoint, the answer is yes. From a market adoption standpoint, the answer is less clear.
“It’s as much a technological debate as it is a philosophical and religious debate,” explains Gaurav Shah, vice president of marketing and strategy of the multimedia solutions business unit at Marvell. On one hand, we already have a single controller allowing multi-room distribution—our smartphones. And on the other hand, we already have a single controller connecting multiple devices, the universal remote control. Some prefer one controller, some prefer the other. And some are uber-emphatic about their preferences. What matters most, says Shah, is the virtualization of a controlled function. “What we really want to do is enable our babysitters to pick up the remote and access the content they want without knowing anything about the setup.”
Over the past several years, Logitech, Universal Electronics and other players have unveiled scores of universal remotes designed to do exactly that — with each iteration promising more than the last. But dedicated remote technology, while impressive, has consistently proven limited, difficult to use, and expensive. “It’s got 100 buttons on it, it costs you through the nose, and it’s really dedicated just for your audio equipment,” says Warren Kurisu, director of product management for the Mentor Graphics’ Embedded Systems Division. “It’s a lot of work for what really comes down to a very limited-functionality remote.”
In fact, the best way to facilitate the easy, seamless remote control of our home devices may be to shelve the idea of the remote control altogether. This is the path automakers have taken with smartphone integration, sidestepping near-constant iterations and hardware updates that would be required to keep pace with evolving technologies.
“We believe the phone is something like a remote control for the IoT,” said Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm, during a speech at CDN Live this week. “It’s computing in your pocket with many different sensors.”
Using a phone also would make it easier for consumers to upgrade devices and update device-related apps on one system.
“The home is going through a massive transformation right now with the whole notion of IoT and everything being connected,” says Kurisu. “The speed of innovation in the home is going to totally accelerate, and I don’t know that remote hardware can keep up.”
The greatest challenge we face in creating “one” remote control lies in creating something simple and elegant that will adapt to ever-changing technologies and user requirements. White goods manufacturers are putting together sensor mechanisms and IoT/IoE strategies for everything from washing machines to ovens to toilets — and it’s not far-fetched to think that the kitchen will be transformed into a completely connected environment within the next few years. The question is, what is the best way to move data through the home and across devices to make it happen in a way that will stand the test of ever-evolving tech?
Kurisu is convinced that controlled home connectivity will occur through a smart home app that uses the smartphone as a gateway — one that will function much like a Fitbit, which monitors physical activity and sends data to the cloud via a cellular or Wi-Fi connection for analytics, aggregation and controls.
Of course, once you’ve created a simple mechanism for the end user to connect with home devices via one controller box, you also have to facilitate its seamless connection with other systems and content. Creating a fully integrated system to allow a consumer to access set-top box cable content, activate a home security system, and monitor a cooking turkey from the same device, will require a lot of learning related to both the software and the SoC, says Shah. It will also require bringing ISPs and pay service providers into the vision and the cooperative ecosystem.
“Some ISPs are more amenable than others, so for this to be a truly universal solution that works worldwide is going to take time,” he says. “It will start out being selective.”
The downside to connecting all of our tech-related creature comforts to one remote system, particularly an IoT-based system, is that it puts them at equal and collective security risk. The last thing a homeowner wants is a prankster hacking into his bathroom fixtures and turning a hot shower cold — or worse, an arsonist hacking into a cooktop or toaster and starting a fire. Everything related to the IoT needs to be secured. Moreover, that security needs to extend beyond fundamental measures such as encrypted pipes and access controls to focus also on the rigorous security of data access, transfer and storage.
It’s well understood that as more things are connected to the Internet, the risk of a breach increases. What’s less obvious is how to solve that problem, because once home devices are connected, those vulnerabilities extend well beyond the home gateway, out to the cloud, and to all the devices connected to the cloud.
“There is definitely a concern about securing data as it moves,” says Steven Woo, vice president of solutions marketing at Rambus. “As it moves across a link, that becomes more observable.”
Being able to track the flow of data is a key piece in understanding where it is most vulnerable. This has been done in a number of markets, ranging from corporate networking to home downloads. Marvell’s Shah notes that the High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) scheme takes into consideration the security of data as it travels from point A to point B via HDMI. But as we really dig into transferring content from a mobile device to a controller box device to a display, security concerns must be addressed at the digital rights management and device interface handshake levels — be it through encryption or some other mechanism.
The home network is a deceptively valuable target. It is connected locally to security systems, smart meters and appliances, often accessed by weak passwords that are used to safeguard personal information. But it also is connected externally to financial institutions through online banking, online shopping, e-mail, as well as systems that handle medical records. While people tend to take this threat less seriously than many businesses, the reality is that increasingly it requires the same kinds of protection, including hardware security modules, systems with secure boot, and crypto keys to validate every loading and running binary to ensure that it hasn’t been tampered with or compromised in any way. Even memory choices within those devices can make a difference, despite the fact that most consumers have no idea what kind of memory is used in their devices.
“One of the most important IoT requirements is security,” said Jen-Tai Hsu, vice president of engineering at Kilopass. “This includes memory choices. Embedded flash is much more vulnerable than one-time programmable, which makes a physical attack much harder. OTP uses an oxide breakdown for a 1 or 0, which makes it very difficult to identify an OTP cell. You also can secure information like a personal ID inside a component and prevent tampering. If it detects a tiny voltage, it can shut down the whole memory. This is getting popular, especially with cell phones.”
Chipmakers increasingly have gotten on board with the need for security, starting at an architectural level and leveraging hardware security modules such as ARM’s TrustZone or Andes Technology’s secure core. But every device needs to be secured, from boot to storage, and from wake-up to shut-down, which often extends well beyond just the chip.
“ARM has made a big investment in security,” said Ron Moore, vice president of marketing for ARM’s Physical IP Division. “The first priority was to make sure that secure data within the system was processed securely. So if you have a network box or a phone, the processor will maintain integrity. ARM also has a team of people working on how to go node to node with that security.”
A few years ago, semiconductor companies’ focus was limited to building a certain block within a certain chip, says Shah. Then, as things started to evolve, most semiconductor companies started to function more on the platform level, taking a more holistic view. Now, systems companies need to move that paradigm one step higher — thinking in terms of a consumer hub and paying close attention to the kinds of devices and inputs a consumer will be bringing into the home for content consumption.
“Even though it seems some of the fundamental things don’t change from a design perspective,” explains Shah, “in the case of the home being the system, the knowledge really starts — and really should start — manifesting itself in some of the design and validation considerations.”
So are we close to introducing a single remote control that will allow even the babysitter to control and access all home systems and content without knowing anything about the setup? Probably. Shah says we will likely see solutions come into the mainstream in the next 24 to 36 months. But the success of these solutions — and the widespread adoption of these and future solutions — hinges largely on three factors—ease of use, an appealing price point and ISP-enabled geographic feasibility.
Smart home devices like the Amazon Echo, Samsung’s SmartThings and the Nest Thermostat are becoming increasingly popular. As the adoption of these and other emerging technologies proliferates, it’s likely that we’ll see consumer demand for a simple remote system increase — and that we’ll see a number of other content players follow suit.
“Tech will — tech has to — evolve to the point that it gets integrated into the day-to-day platforms we have for our homes for content consumption,” says Shah. “Because otherwise, with the plethora of devices that keeps increasing for content consumption, the problem is only going to get worse — and so is consumer frustration.”
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