The smart home market has been seemingly poised for takeoff for decades. As we approach 2019, Avi Barel, Director of Business Development at the ULE Alliance, gives his perspective on what's working, what's not working, and what to expect in the connected home technologies of the future.
Before we get into the smart home, refresh us on ULE and DECT technology.
BAREL: ULE (Ultra Low Energy) is a low-power version of Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) technology. The DECT radio standard was developed in early 90s, in parallel with GSM, and is a highly sophisticated radio technology designed to deliver 1 Mbps voice and data transmissions over both simple and complex network architectures. From a single base up to multiple connected bases, ULE can cover very large areas of 1,000 feet outdoors and 200 feet indoors, while supporting seamless roaming and handovers.
ULE stands out for its simplicity, reliability, and, of course, the ability to deliver guaranteed, high-quality voice communications. Thanks to the dedicated frequency (1.8GHz in Europe, 1.9GHz in USA), ULE networks are very reliable. Message sent equals message delivered – there are no message loss issues.
For IoT applications in particular, ULE supports a large number of sensors per base platform, with a theoretical limit of 32,000.
The smart home market tends to generate large hype curves, only to disappoint later. Why should we expect anything different from home automation in 2019 than in years past?
BAREL: Hype is often built around new stuff, be it a new idea, a new product, new service, and so on. Very rarely do these make a strong impact on the market. Most common behavior is not the “hockey stick,” but rather steady growth – an evolution instead of a revolution. One shouldn’t expect anything different in 2019, “just” the continuation of the steady growth trend of the home automation market.
In the case of ULE technology and DECT, the wide deployment of smart speakers will add a new dimension. In these systems, the DECT radio provides guaranteed voice quality for two-way conversations, which is something that Wi-Fi cannot guarantee. The “Hallo Magenta” smart speaker, introduced by Deutsche Telekom at IFA in Berlin, Germany uses DECT & ULE. The Orange Djingo smart speaker will follow, hopefully in 2019.
This is in addition to the organic growth of ULE service deployments, products, etc.
Also, at IFA, three ULE Alliance members received Amazon Alexa Voice Services certification. This signals that Amazon has already realized the problems associated with guaranteeing high-quality voice conversation over Wi-Fi. This trend is expected to be initially followed by 2019 new product releases that use DECT & ULE for voice conversation features, and leaves the door open for ULE to take larger part in the smart home ecosystems built around smart speakers.
What are the biggest challenges facing networked consumer devices, particularly in the smart home?
In the smart home industry, sensors and actuators such as door- and window-openers, motion detectors, and others, are designed for the same simple and isolated functions as decades ago. The industry has to leverage new technologies and new capabilities to create more innovation that will shattering silos. For example:
- A motion detector could be not only for a security alarm, but also used to identify full or empty spaces in homes and adjust heating and cooling accordingly.
- Any sensor might become a satellite to a smart home speaker equipped with a microphone.
However, there are several reasons consumer home technology hasn't advanced:
- The standard wireless technologies used in the smart home products do the same thing wirelessly as old wired systems and proprietary wireless technologies. So far, the limited capabilities of these technologies hasn't stimulated any major breakthroughs. In fact, certain technologies like mesh networking, which was developed to overcome the challenges of very short range connectivity and wireless interference, introduced new complexity in terms of DIY installation and maintenance.
A good example is Z-Wave SmartStart, which many years of claiming ease of use, introduced a special tool to assist with the installation process. It still doesn't solve all of the issues a DIY user may encounter, and therefore is not enough to spark interest amongst ordinary consumers.
- The mindset that “all you need from the sensors is a few bits of information” is no longer applicable in the era of high-speed Internet.
Imagine yourself in the office, receiving an alarm signal from home on your mobile. Since there is a high probability that something is wrong, in this situation you would want to receive the most information possible through conversation, video, whatever is possible. If the sensors at home are not able to provide that information, then you’re in trouble.
Here, ULE’s versatility comes into the play. Devices can operate for years on a battery and, in case of emergency, voice – and possibly limited video – can be transmitted by using more battery power. But who cares about batteries in case of real emergency?
- That being said, power consumption is still an important factor – you want your devices to operate on batteries for years. However, versatility, or the ability to operate on low power when nothing is happening or transmit large chunks of information in case of emergency, is extremely valuable.
- Interoperability is another, very complex topic. The simple answer is – absolutely yes it is needed, but what does it mean?
The vast amount of use cases cannot be effectively covered by any single wireless technology because their blanket of "coverage" is too small. Thus, compromises must be made between power consumption, range, data bandwidth, and additional factors. The situation is especially severe for technologies that share spectrum with others, and transmission power is regulated by bodies like the FCC. This situation created fertile ground for multiple technologies to address the same application space but from different angles, which is one of the main reasons for fragmentation. Another is the practices of the market leaders who, in most cases, are reluctant to cooperate on building up a market before they start to compete.
In a perfect world, the ultimate answer of "what is interoperability?" is probably that consumers are completely unaware of various wireless protocols and can buy a device, bring it home, connect it to an existing system or network, and it will work.
Industry is not even close to this perfect world scenario, but is making a steady progress. The Open Connectivity Foundation's (OCF's) IoTivity platform brings hope for technology-agnostic interoperability at the application layer. For its part, the ULE Alliance will soon announce availability of ULE/OCF IoTivity bridge software.
However, there are many more platforms and attempts being made to connect everything. Unfortunately, these create further fragmentation rather than cooperation. All the industry needs is one good interoperability platform. Hopefully, the relevant players in the industry will realize that and act accordingly, which may have started with the integration of AllSeen Alliance into the OCF.
The ULE Alliance is an open, cooperative organization, and, as mentioned, has done bridging work so that our Home Area Network FUNctional (HAN-FUN) is compatible with IoTivity. This allows ULE networks to connect to IoTivity and then through IoTivity to other networks. The software is expected to be released in coming months, and will be demonstrated at the ULE Alliance stand at CES.
Avi Barel has over 30 years of broad high tech experience, ranging from software development, semiconductor, engineering and business management. Avi joined the ULE Alliance in April 2013 as the Director of Business Development, and now actively leads the promotion of the ULE technology worldwide.
Avi holds M.Sc. degree in Computer Science and B.Sc. degree in Mathematics and Physics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
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