Comfort, Health and Convenience Are The Roles Of Sensors In The Smart Home

Tom Griffiths
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Early adopters of new technology products have often found that, with each new ‘smart’ product they bring into the home, they have had to learn a new set of control functions and find space for yet another remote control. The ‘smart’ TV, ‘smart’ set-top box and ‘smart’ multi-room audio center all provide the latest internet-connected functions, but they also add to the clutter and complexity of the smart home.

What users want is technology that really is ‘smart’ and secure: intelligent products which teach themselves about the user’s preferences and control the home with almost no input required from the user. When equipped with sensors and a connection to apps in the cloud, systems in the smart home including lighting, heating and ventilation, doors and windows, and home appliances can offer better local control of the environment and of the system’s functions and respond in a personal and automatic way to the needs and preferences of individual users.

Today’s most familiar example of learning technology in the home is the Nest Learning Thermostat device, which provides a model for the way a ‘smart’ product learns and adjusts to the user’s preferences. This is a more attractive vision for smart home technology than a continued accumulation of remote controls. And because of new developments in sensor chip (semiconductor) technology, many more aspects of a smart home’s operation can be controlled automatically and intelligently, without the need for any new boxes, controls or appliances. As a manufacturer of sensor chips for consumer products, ams has a privileged view of the future of smart home technology and the way sensors can be deployed in tomorrow’s smart home.

Improved Comfort and Health

Over the past 50 years, the semiconductor industry has performed the remarkable feat of packing more and more capabilities in less and less space, while consistently lowering the cost. This process has been experienced by anyone who has used different generations of personal computers or of mobile phones (see figure 1).

The same forces are at work in every part of the semiconductor industry – including sensor chips for the smart home. Today’s sensors are smaller and more accurate than ever before, and they also have more intelligence inside them. For instance, the ENS210 environmental sensor from ams measures both temperature and relative humidity: it is a small chip measuring just 2mm x 2mm.

Likewise, the CCS811 is a 3mm x 4mm gas sensor which measures air quality via the relative concentration of volatile organic compounds (see figure 2), while a complete color-sensor integrated smart lighting management chip measures just 4.5mm x 4.7mm.

If embedded in home products, these sensors can enable control of more aspects of a home’s operation than is commonly possible now. Today, many homes’ automatic heating/air-conditioning control in the home is limited to a temperature sensor (thermostat) in a single location. But people’s comfort is affected by more than temperature alone: other factors such as humidity and indoor air quality (including the freshness or staleness of the air) also have a strong effect. And different people have different needs or preferences, so the ability to alter settings for each of these factors independently for each room is an effective way to make the home more comfortable for all. Small, low-cost sensors will make this feasible.

In the Nest Learning Thermostat product, the control settings become more automated and personalized over time – as the name suggests, the thermostat ‘learns’ (see Figure 3). It can do this because it has an internet connection to powerful Nest® software algorithms running in the cloud. And it's equally possible for the outputs from environmental sensors dotted around the home to be fed via the broadband router to apps in the cloud, so that each room's sensor array can enable 'learning' of the preferences of each user over time.

A smart heating and ventilation system could then make the air in a child's bedroom cooler and drier, while a TV room occupied by elderly grandparents sharing the same home could be made much warmer and more humid. A combination of a smartphone carried by the user plus location-tracking beacons throughout the home can detect who is in which space. Face or voice recognition technology, which we are seeing deployed now in the newest smart phones, can also be envisioned to automatically detect the identity of the user of each space.

Home sensors can also benefit in other ways from connection to the cloud. The Google Assistant™ and Apple Siri® virtual personal assistants, for instance, execute their clever natural language capability through powerful cloud computing. Voice control through these assistants is now being used for home devices, for instance to dim the lights or to raise the temperature a degree. Reliable detection of the user's voice calls for sophisticated miniature audio sensing – a technology that manufacturers such as ams also have a hand in.

Voice is not the only convenience technology likely to be found in the home. Imagine being able to wave at lights to turn them on or off or to dim them: the same types of infrared light sensors which perform proximity sensing (to turn off a mobile phone’s display when the user brings it to their face) or the camera auto-focus function could also recognize gestures when supported by gesture-recognition software.

Where to House Advanced Sensors

New sensors, then, can make the smart home a more comfortable and convenient place which is more conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Because they are so small, they can fit in almost any existing type of home device or appliance: the thermostat is one obvious candidate.

Perhaps it is more likely, however, that a new generation of smart lights will be the 'connected sensor hub' for the new smart home. Connected lights have three important advantages in this role:

they already have a connection to continuous power, so there is no need to worry about replacing a discharged battery

they have a clear view to the air, for gas, temperature and humidity sensing, and to people for presence, gesture and voice sensing

they will have built-in connectivity and intelligence which can easily support the added sensing functions, rather than duplicating networking and microprocessor power in several discrete sensor modules

The smart light of the future, then, has a strong claim to a role as the new hub of the environment-aware digital smart home of the future, offering a vision of automated comfort and convenience settings personalized for each user of each space inside the home.

This role is enabled by intelligent sensors, such as the AS722x Smart Lighting Management family from ams. The AS7221, for instance, is a tunable white lighting system controller on a chip, which enables simple networking interfaces such as Wi-Fi®, Zigbee, Bluetooth Mesh and other networks, handles 0-10V dimming signals, and can host environmental sensors such as the ams ENS210 and CCS811 located in the same light fixture.

The network connection provides a link to the cloud, where sophisticated apps can make decisions based on multiple sensor inputs and relay those to the appropriate appliances, such as heating/ventilation and the lights. For the lighting portion, the embedded intelligence inside the AS7221 will autonomously execute the needed adjustments to meet the cloud-commanded objective.

So, the components for new networked sensing capabilities for the smart home already exist. And users, installers and contractors should expect to see manufacturers of lighting and other types of equipment soon introduce smarter versions of their products which have this new sensing capability integrated into them.

Summary

Early adopters of new technology products have often found that, with each new ‘smart’ product they bring into the home, they have had to learn a new set of control functions and find space for yet another remote control. Technology does not have to be this way: the Nest Learning Thermostat® device, for instance, provides a model for the way an intelligent product can teach itself about the user’s preferences and control the home with almost no input required from the user. When equipped with sensors and a connection to apps in the cloud, systems in the smart home including lighting, heating and ventilation, doors and windows, and home appliances can offer better local control of the environment and of the system’s functions and respond in a personal and automatic way to the needs and preferences of individual users.

This is a more attractive vision for smart home technology than a continued accumulation of re-mote controls. And because of new developments in sensor chip (semiconductor) technology, many more aspects of a smart home’s operation can be controlled automatically and intelligently, without the need for any new boxes, controls or appliances. As a manufacturer of sensor chips for consumer products, ams has a privileged view of the future of smart home technology. This article describes the way ams sees sensors being deployed in tomorrow’s smart home.

Comfort, Health and Convenience Are The Roles Of Sensors In The Smart Home
 

Fig. 1: the Osbourne Executive office computer produced in the early 1980s next to an Apple® iPhone® device. The phone has around 500 times the computing capability of the old computer, and its memory is 16,000 times larger. (Image credit: Casey Fleser under Creative Commons license.)

 

Fig. 2: the CCS811 air quality sensor (pictured on the right-hand board) has a footprint of just 12 mm2. The silver component at the far left is a standard USB connector. (Image credit: ams)

 

Fig. 3: the Nest Learning Thermostat controller. (Image credit: Robert Basic under Creative Commons license.)