There are a few areas of technology that get me most excited (no sniggering at the back). Home automation is very much one of them. The ability to monitor and control aspects of your home – security, lighting, power consumption etc – really appeals to me. Add to this the intuitive management of multi-room audio/video playback and ideally a few robots for cleaning purposes and you start to get to something like the home of the future we all (OK I) have always dreamed of.
Until recently this has been something of a hobbyist’s hack or the realm of the super rich. You either cobbled together your own system out of open source software and discount hardware (sorry X10 fans but this never cut it for me as a consumer-quality product) or you spent thousands on high end kit and got a professional installer to make it all work for you.
But as with all technologies, prices fall and innovation progressively brings even the most advanced hardware and software to the masses. Enter the AlertMe system. Today this doesn’t do the whole ‘home of the future’ piece but it goes a long way towards delivering on the dream at a sensible price and in an incredibly consumer-friendly manner.
Today AlertMe is promoted as a system to reduce your energy bills and secure your home. The most basic pack provides you with a home ‘hub’ that connects to your broadband, and a monitor that clips around your main power supply to the house. These devices send information to AlertMe’s secure website where you can log in and see how your house is performing: how much power is being used at any one time; how this compares to previous usage; and what it is likely to cost you each month.
Compared to the basic black and white displays of most energy monitors, the colourful graphics are very easy to interpret and actually go some way towards making it fun to be a bit of a miser. More importantly though they put the important information in a place you can access easily: I’m usually at the office when I’m sorting out bills and energy contracts (the joys of self-employment). Even if I were at home I would want the data at my fingertips rather than having to go and check out my monitor.
Spend a little more (the basic pack starts at £49.99 including six months subscription – after six months there is a monthly charge of £1.99) and you can add features. At £25 you can buy a SmartPlug to allow you to monitor individual devices and turn them on and off remotely. You can do this via the free iPhone app, which also shows all of your energy data, or via the web interface. You can also add a lamp that gives a visual indication of energy usage.
Moving up the price range (not a straight upgrade as it requires a different, more feature-rich hub) is the security system, which I will review in full down the line but includes car-style remote arm and disarm, and monitoring of your other alarms (e.g. smoke and carbon monoxide).
A Platform for Home Automation
AlertMe today only tackles a subset of the home automation market. But with the products that it has developed it has the opportunity to do something special: to move home automation from the realm of the geeks and put it in the hands of the average consumer. To make remote monitoring and control appealing to the late majority.
This is a difficult trick at which Apple excels: neither iPod nor iPhone were the first to market in their space but they made the use of a new technology appealing to consumers through great design. AlertMe offers similarly brilliant levels of design: from the minute you open the box everything is easy: guides, notes and tabs mean you can’t go wrong, even with the daunting task of clipping the sensor around your primary power supply cable. Assuming you’ve plugged the hub in properly, the slick web interface will then tell you clearly if anything isn’t working properly. The energy monitoring is fascinating and addictive, and the SmartPlugs respond unbelievably quickly to commands entered online.
AlertMe’s Corporate Communications Director Jody Haskayne told me about plenty of developments coming down the pipeline that will make what already feels like a polished product even more appealing. Heating controls will be one of the next additions, allowing you to monitor and control the thermostat on your central heating from work: genuinely useful. There will also be an intermediate hub with some of the features of the more expensive security unit, and monitoring for solar PV systems and electric vehicle charging.
Ultimately though, the company doesn’t want to be in the hardware game: having created a platform for home automation they want other partners to come in to provide every flavour of hardware gadget you can conceive – including the ‘automatic curtains’ that Jody Haskayne rightly nails as one of the more frivolous aspects of home automation.
In summary then, the AlertMe Home Monitoring system is a great taster of the home of the future. It brings quite sophisticated monitoring control and capabilities to your home at a very sensible price and with design that means anyone can get their head around it. But more importantly, it addresses a real life problem. It’s one of the few gadgets out there that might actually pay for itself through savings in energy – a pressing concern for many, especially given the recent hikes in gas prices.