Kevin Taylor reports on how smart home technology will help make life more inclusive.
Imagine how useful it would be to receive an alert notification on your smartphone or smartwatch when the doorbell rings, and even see who is at the door before you answer it and communicate with them from your phone. It seems remarkable, yet this is just one example of what smart home tech can do.
It is all part of the ‘Internet of Things’ revolution, where almost any electrical device or gadget can to do smart things. What makes it all possible are Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and mobile networks that allow devices to communicate with you via your smartphone or tablet.
For example, you can switch smart lighting on or off from your phone, monitor home security cameras from anywhere – even when abroad, control your heating system, and even get an alert when a smart kettle boils.
It is also possible to get unrelated smart devices to work together to do useful things – see Ring the Bell and Flash the Light.
With smart home tech, you set the pace. You can add devices when you feel there is a need – your home can be as smart as you want it to be. Moreover, you can spread the cost and get assistance setting up smart home tech from mobile network suppliers such as EE.
A social need
Smart home tech has other applications besides making life more convenient and connected. In the telecare sector for example, monition sensors monitor the daily activity of older adults and people with care needs. Carers and family members can keep track, and if there is a problem, receive an alert through an app or by text. This is an invaluable tool for carers, provides reassurance to family members, and allows loved ones to maintain independence in their own home.
For people with hearing loss and deafness, the fact that smart home tech sends an alert notification to smartphone, which can be set to vibrate or flash a light when it receives the alert, is a key benefit, and an example of how smart home technology naturally lends itself to provide inclusive and accessible solutions. What’s more, the technology provides a way for household appliances and gadgets to link up to certain kinds of hearing aids and cochlear implants.
Ring the Bell and Flash the Light
Besides receiving an alert on your smartphone when the doorbell rings, what if you’d also like or need a bright visual alert, say from an electric lightbulb. It’s possible with smart home tech. You need three things: a smart doorbell, and smart lightbulb and an app that links the two together.
We tried this out with the popular Ring Video doorbell and Philips Hue smart lightbulbs to see how it works. Our aim was to flash the Philips Hue lightbulbs when the doorbell rings.
We used the IFTTT (If This, Then That) app to link the two devices. IFTTT is a powerful tool that can you can use to manage all your smart home devices in one place. It will let you connect (or synchronize) different devices so that they work together, and in addition, you can automate your home through personalised routines that you create in the app.
Without IFTTT, the Ring Doorbell and Philips Hue Lightbulbs work independently. The Ring doorbell gives notifications on your phone (via the Ring doorbell app) when someone is at the door. While you can switch the Hue lightbulbs on or off, dim them and even change their colour from the Philips Hue app.
IFTTT has what are called applets (mini computer programmes) that do different things. Within the app, you search an applet for a specific task. It is rather like picking from a menu in a restaurant. Each dish on the menu comes from a recipe, and like a recipe, an applet is a set of instructions. It is a question of searching for the right dish.
We searched applets for the Ring doorbell. There are many to choose from that do different things (equally, you could search for applets for the Philips Hue lightbulbs, and many other devices). We found what we were looking for – an applet entitled ‘Blink your Hue lights whenever your Ring doorbell rings’.
Once you have selected the applet, IFTTT guides you through the set up process. It works rather like this: If the Ring doorbell rings (IF THIS) – then flash the lights (THEN THAT).
It works really well. Within two to three seconds of pressing the door push button on the Ring, the Philips Hue lightbulb flashed eight times (for about eight seconds). If the bulb is already illuminated, it flashes off eight times. You can also tweak the applets. We got ours to dim the bulb when the doorbell rings.
Depending on what smart devices you have, there will likely be applets for it. Here are more examples.
To find out more, visit the IFTTT website or download the app from Google Play or Apple Store.
Send an alert to certain kinds of hearing aid when the Nest smoke alarm senses smoke.
Philips Hue Lightbulbs
Blink Hue lights when the countdown timer on Amazon Alexa hits zero – useful as a visual timer.
The Philips Hue Lightbulbs and Hub are available from various online retailers.
Play ‘someone is at your front door’ message through the Oticon Open hearing aid when someone presses the Ring doorbell.
The Ring Video Doorbell 2 is available from various online retailers.
Sensory alerting systems
Besides the doorbell, there is often a need to receive alert notifications for other sounds and events around the home, such as the smoke alarm, when the baby cries, or the telephone rings. Wireless alerting systems that provide a powerful visual and / or vibratory alert via dedicated receivers and pagers are available. Some, such as the Signolux Alerting System can send a supplementary alert notification to a smartphone (in addition to dedicated receivers) from its full range of sensory transmitters. What’s more, an unlimited number of smartphones can receive the alerts, making it ideal for family, friends and carers.
Download the free Signolux / Humantechnik app (for use with the Gateway) from Google Play or Apple Store.
Smart home systems
Although a smartphone can be set to flash a light or vibrate when it receives an alert, with hearing loss and deafness there is often still a need for a more powerful visual or vibratory alert that only a dedicated sensory (receiving) device can provide. In that respect, some smart home systems, whether for smoke alarms or smart home security systems are lacking. There is no technical limitation why dedicated accessories optimised for the needs of hearing loss and deafness could not be provided (at least as an optional accessory for those that need it), especially when one considers there are estimated to be 12 million people in the UK with hearing loss alone, there is certainly a global market.
There would be more scope for controlling dedicated receivers via an app. It could open up the possibility of easy customisation settings for sensory alerts including the pitch (frequency) and loudness of audible alerts, duration and vibration pattern of haptic alerts, and flash rate, brightness and colour of visual alerts.
As we have seen, it is possible to link smart home devices to certain types of hearing aid and cochlear implant through the IFTTT app. It is also possible with Bluetooth to adjust settings on some hearing aids from a smartphone app, and to stream audio from devices such as TV’s and smartphones to the hearing aid.
Your virtual assistant
An increasingly popular way to interact with smart home devices is through a voice controlled virtual assistant. Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Siri from Apple are the main contenders. Each offer a range of smart speakers through which you can ask the virtual assistant questions and get it to control smart devices. For example, you can ask what the weather will be like tomorrow, request a favourite music track, or ask it to dim smart lights in the living room. Hearing loss, however, can make interaction challenging if not impossible.
With Amazon Alexa, however, we are pleased to see that their Echo Show smart speaker has built-in accessibility features. ‘Tap to Alexa’ lets users type in commands on the devices touch screen or from a Bluetooth keyboard (available separately) rather than voicing them, and live captions accurately show whatever Alexa says. Tap to Alexa and captions are easy to switch on from the accessibility settings on the main menu.
Echo Show is available from Amazon and other retailers.
Things to come
Smart home technology relies on a combination of technological innovations, including cloud based storage, where data and computer programmes are stored on remote servers; various kinds of wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi; mobile networks such as 4G and 5G, Artificial intelligence (AI), increasing miniaturisation, lower power consumption of devices, and who knows, further ahead maybe even robotics.
Smart home technology is the future and over the coming years it will continue to evolve. It will lead to creative solutions, and most importantly, it will provide opportunities for mainstream consumer tech to be ever more inclusive and accessible.
How to set up your smart home tech
To have a smart home device, you need three things: a smartphone (or tablet), internet access and a Wi-Fi router.
Installing and setting up a smart home device does require some familiarity with modern day tech, such as the ability to download an app and register an account and you’ll probably need to know the password for your Wi-Fi router. This is common for most smart home devices, relatively straightforward, and accepted as a part of modern day living. Nevertheless, setting all this up can be daunting for some, particularly older adults and people with special needs. However, there are organisations that can assist.
AbilityNet offer free IT support at home through a network of volunteers for older people and people with disabilities of any age. For further information, visit the AbilityNet website.
Anything that connects to the internet be it a home computer or a smart home device has the potential to be hacked. This means someone could take control of the device remotely or even steal personal information. The good news is that newer devices are more secure, and the benefits of smart home tech far outweigh device security. Furthermore, you can minimise the risk further by following these easy tips.
Smart devices sometimes have default passwords that are easy for hackers to guess. Create your own unique password and make it as strong as possible with a mix of lower and upper case letters, numbers and special characters such as # _ *. Don’t use the same password for all devices and accounts.
Make sure your Wi-Fi is secure and only give your Wi-Fi password to those you trust (Although Wi-Fi signals travel short distances – your neighbours next door or across the street may still pick it up).
Keep software up to date so that your device has the latest security protection. You may receive a notification when a software upgrade is available.
Make sure you complete the set up process even if you don’t need all of the devices features. This is because some smart devices create their own unsecured Wi-Fi network before the set-up process is complete.
To allow certain functions to work the app for the device may need your location using GPS (Global Positioning System – a satellite radio navigational system). It is important to read the terms and conditions.
Make sure Wi-Fi devices outside your home, such as Wi-Fi doorbells are not easy to remove.