Routines, scenes and automations, oh my! These are some of the advanced smart home features that our digital assistants have or recently gained, but what are they and which are making our homes smarter? Let’s start with what I think are the lowest tier: Routines and Scenes, which are basically the same but have different names.
With Google Assistant recently adding support for Routines, it has some feature parity with the Amazon Echo. Alexa has had such routines for some time, which allow you to bundle several smart home actions into a single voice command. Apple’s Home application has long had such a feature, although in the iOS world, it’s called a Scene.
There are some minor differences between the implementations taken by Amazon, Apple and Google, but over time, I’m sure all three companies will improve the ability to use one command to control multiple actions. At least I hope so. Google Assistant Routines are limited to six different presets (shown below) and for now you can only choose from a select group of smart home actions, for example.
This is good momentum for the smart home. But the reality is that routines or scenes, aren’t truly “smart”. All these do is extend a voice command from a one-to-one action to a one-to-many action. Essentially, this is still a UI, or user interface tweak.
Automations though? Those are a step above routines in my book because they make your home take actions on device-triggered or time of day events. And they don’t require any voice interaction, which is extremely useful in certain situations. They do, however, require a smart home hub or some other centralized smart home “brain”, unless you want to use a third-party application that can tie some of your devices together.
I’ve had some readers suggest that we don’t need hubs. Instead they argue that we need defined IoT standards or that we can just use the cloud as a hub.
Those are valid thoughts, but the reality is that widespread IoT standards aren’t coming anytime soon, if ever. Using the cloud is great until your home’s internet connection goes down: In that case a local copy of your smart home devices with automation rules running on a small computing device would work, but that essentially is a hub.
Hubs solve a key challenge: individual devices in the smart home typically don’t know about each other. Instead, a hub is what bridges data from smart switches, bulbs, locks, webcams and sensors that can all use different radio technologies. Put another way: The hub is the traffic cop in the intersection of data created by all of our smart devices. It knows the user-programmed rules of who should do what and when in the smart home.
Let me offer a simple example: If I want to walk through my front door at 10pm and have the inside lights automatically turn on, how can the smart door lock tell the lights to illuminate?
Currently, it can’t. The lock and lights have no relationship that they know of. Nor do they have any processing power to programmatically make some cause-effect event happen. That’s where the hub comes in. It can see from the door lock that I’m home. And using a rules based system, along with the time of day, it can tell the smart lights to turn on through automation.
This is is why I think it’s so important that Google create a hub, especially since both Amazon and Apple both have one for the home. Granted, the Amazon Echo Plus doesn’t yet support such automations but it’s a matter of time before that happens. If you have an Apple TV, HomePod, or plugged in iPad, you’ve got a hub can automate your HomeKit devices. Apple’s implementation is in the Home app, and it’s surprisingly easy to use.
In my vision of the smart home capability ladder, routines sit below automations because they make the home experience “smarter” with less user input. Currently, automations are as smart as the home gets.
Above automations though, I look to autonomy. By autonomy, I mean a central home hub that combines context, user patterns and personal information to anticipate actions and even suggest them to us. But, that’s a ways off just yet, so for now, I’ll be content to use routines and automation in my home.