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Sept./Oct. 2014: i3 It Is Innovation

Moving to the Smart Home

Consumer electronics (CE) products used to be unconnected, individual devices that did one or two simple tasks. The advent of wireless home networking changed that. Only a decade ago the idea of ubiquitous high-speed connectivity in the home was a future ambition. Today it is transforming the design of CE devices and how they connect, interact and communicate. We are at the beginning of a tech revolution where thousands of previously disparate and unrelated devices will soon connect, collect data and share information.

The connected home has become a moniker for a complex ecosystem of CE products, covering everything from home theaters, wireless Hi-Fi audio systems and radios to TVs, Blu-ray players and set-top boxes, with smartphones and tablets acting as control devices. But connectivity also is extending beyond home entertainment products to include white goods such as ovens, refrigerators and washing machines, as well as home security, lighting and temperature controls. Hundreds of potential applications will ultimately translate into billions of devices becoming connected.

It Needs to Work “Out of the Box”

Unlike the engineers that design, create and understand the complex technology involved in building these products, consumers demand a simple solution to install and manage devices at home. This is one segment where pay-TV operators, energy suppliers, telecommunications companies and broadband providers are seeing significant business opportunities to offer their customers a full end-to-end solution.

For example, pay-TV operators can offer home security via their gateways and set-top boxes while telecommunications companies can deliver home healthcare services as a package. Customers can be secure in the knowledge that the intrinsic complexities of the connected home are being managed by one or two large trusted providers: a single billing arrangement with a single point of contact for help and support.

Future products in the home must connect quickly and seamlessly into existing networks and make use of technologies such as NFC for authorization, pairing of devices and security. Likewise, interoperability between devices will become even more critical to the successful transition from connected home to smart home and will likely mandate more openness between protocols for data exchange.

Convergence at the Home Gateway

While Wi-Fi and Bluetooth could become the dominant standards for home connectivity, there’s competition for supremacy from others such as ZigBee, Z-Wave and EnOcean.

Each communication standard has distinct benefits, often balancing a trade-off between long-range or ultra-low power, and thus appropriate for specific applications. For example, ZigBee’s mesh networking topology coupled with low-power operation make it ideal for robust home control and monitoring applications with a myriad of sensors and actuators, while the ubiquity of MIMO 802.11 Wi-Fi across CE products make it a clear contender for high-bandwidth transfer of multimedia assets such as audio and video.

With devices in the connected home employing disparate communication technologies, the home gateway is becoming more proficient in handling channels of information, boasting multiple radios and software stacks to maintain connectivity across all communication standards. Meanwhile, set-top box vendors are constructing more complex products that can manage TV services across both broadcast and broadband while adding new functionality for securely monitoring and controlling appliances within the home.

Complex Engineering Challenges

Naturally the intricacies of designing and manufacturing these products mean that they are challenging to engineers. As hardware increases in complexity, so does the software engineering required as previously unrelated stacks are forced to coexist and interact. More, the quality assurance and testing regimes need to be significantly enhanced, because a change in one part of the software may have serious consequences for another unrelated feature.

Hardware virtualization within the SoC offers a potential solution to such challenges. In virtualized solutions, not only can the overall security of the product be improved, but the difficulties of engineering the product are mitigated because disparate software stacks can run in their own self-contained environment.

A prime example is a connected set-top box that must maintain all the functionality of the digital TV middleware while games are played simultaneously alongside. The security of video content delivery is maintained within the existing pay-TV middleware, while games are played concurrently in another virtualized context, perhaps even using two different operating systems.

Another example targets the home gateway, where a broadband supplier, home security provider and electronic healthcare purveyor may not be the same company. In this instance, separate software stacks can be running simultaneously, neither of which interact with each other, but together provide the functionality of broadband, security and e-healthcare on a single gateway. Here the consumer has free choice between service providers and can run several unrelated services on one piece of hardware independently. In this instance the gateway is not owned, rented or managed by one service provider, but is likely to be purchased by the consumer themselves.

Design and manufacture of innovative devices for the connected home often takes between 12 to 18 months from concept to completion, and sometimes longer for complex functionality. The feature set is massively influenced by the capabilities of the SoC at the heart of the device, and the more integrated the solution, the easier it is to build the end product. The goal of SoC vendors is to deliver a balance of functionality at the right price point for each silicon chip they create for each market segment they serve.

New SoCs typically have a two to three year design and production cycle. They are constructed around several blocks of IP (Intellectual Prop- erty) that provide dedicated functions within the final SoC. These blocks are licensed from IP companies, such as Imagination Technologies, which supplies IP cores that are combined to create the desired SoC. For example, IP cores can include CPUs, graphics engines, video processing units and communications cores that deliver a host of connectivity—from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to digital radio reception.

Complex IP cores take at least two to three years to develop, so the overall time- frame from design of the IP to consumer products being manufactured is around five to seven years.

Remarkably, the IP ven- dors must constantly make predictions on what types of products consumers will want several years in the future and invest in building the right core technologies to ensure this future becomes reality.

Toward the Smart Home

But the connected home is just the starting point. Imagine a world where your tablet
is automatically populated with the latest movies, simply because you placed a diary entry on your smartphone that you were taking a long flight. Or where your home routinely switches into an energy-saving mode after the last person departs the house, and predicts when someone is likely to return based upon GPS data from their smartphone. Or you receive a message indicating all is well with a dependent relative, triggered automatically by them following their normal morning routine of taking their medication, turning on the TV and boiling the kettle.

This type of truly smart interaction will ultimately be made possible through thousands of connected sensors, actuators and monitoring devices attached to physical objects (including ourselves in some cases), embedded within the fabric of buildings, or dispersed within the environment. Each of these devices generate relatively small amounts of data, which is then relayed through IP gateways
to servers housed in large data centers. Powerful algorithms and data analytics engines are then employed to make sense of data incoming from multiple sources and draw conclusions on what is happening in the real world. It’s called ‘Big Data’ and it’s already a reality.

As Big Data begins to take hold, we enter a new era of technological revolution where devices are truly smart, with intelligent decisions made largely autonomously through indirect communication and interactivity with the environment. Products and services in the smart home will adapt to the needs of consumers by learning patterns of behavior and applying personal preferences.

Unlike today, where we must be cognizant of which networks our devices are connected to, this future connectivity will be made seamless with devices automatically choosing the appropriate networks depending on location and proximity to other smart devices.

Migrating from today’s connected home to the smart home is inevitable. CE products are evolving into “always on, fully networked” devices, which demand SoCs with ultra-low power consumption, high compute performance, ubiquitous connectivity and security. But, above all, these devices need to be simple to connect and easy to use. They must deliver a superb user experience and offer intelligent functionality that consumers find both useful and invaluable. All these aspects will have dramatic ramifications for the development and uptake of smart technologies. The technology exists today—it’s only a matter of time before the smart home is a reality.

Simon Forrest is senior marketing manager, connected home, for Imagination Technologies/ imgtec.com.

Return to: 2014 Feature Stories