Ambient Sensing: The Next Step for the Smart Home

Article By : Mark Lippett, XMOS

Consumers are increasingly frustrated with smart home technology, but one built on ambient sensing at the edge can help eliminate consumer concerns.

Although the term ‘smart home’ seems to have been around for years, the industry itself is relatively nascent. While our current generation of Google Homes and Amazon Alexas have established the smart home, they also embody its limitations.

The technology behind smart devices promises levels of convenience and interoperability that were unsurpassed a few years ago; but current expectations aren’t being fulfilled. These devices are typically standalone, use unsophisticated data, and struggle without a home network.

The concept of a smart home still evokes a futuristic building straight from the movies, providing levels of comfort and autonomy beyond our current technological limitations. The mundanity of its real–world counterparts is down, largely, to our limited ability to interact with them.

Modern smart technologies rely on voice commands, limiting their autonomy. Current models represent progress in terms of voice recognition, but they can still be cumbersome and frustrating to use. Interacting with smart devices isn’t yet intuitive or ‘human’ enough to create the seamless experience we seek.

However, the smart home can’t be unlocked just by improving voice. While audio sensors are a crucial element of intuitive interaction with the smart home, they should form part of a sensor array that can provide devices with more contextual information. To make our homes genuinely smart, devices need to paint a more meaningful picture of the home, making contextualized decisions with superior personalization.

Breaking boundaries

While every device could pack a unique sensor array, some mediums stand out more than others. Imaging alone can provide vast amounts of information, and we should take the opportunity to equip smart systems with new means of perceiving the home. Acoustic sensors, gas sensing, and 3D mapping would provide the information needed to take smart environments to the next level.

Combining these inputs, our devices would be able to better understand and implement individual preferences, sensing who enters and exits a room while changing the light, sounds, temperature, and safety features to that person’s profile. It’s not just about comprehending the ambient environment but changing it for the better, with or without direct input.

Obviously, that extends beyond creature comforts. Security is one self–evident example given the introduction of motion sensing, 3D mapping and individual recognition, making our homes safer than ever before. There’s also potential to save energy, with presence, daylight, and temperature sensors able to dim lights or modulate air conditioning on hot summer days.

Sensing challenges

What is holding us back from taking this next logical step in the smart home evolution? Its implementation certainly raises technical and ethical questions.

The first issue is consumer privacy. While homeowners have started to become accustomed to smart speakers in their homes, there are already endless examples of data–hungry organizations observing our everyday interactions with those devices. In recent times, Amazon’s Astro robot has been accused of full-scale data harvesting, while Facebook’s smart glasses have been criticized by Ireland’s Data Privacy Commission.

Smarter and more ambient technology in the future will only force consumers to give over even more data than they are currently doing so. Just how much will consumers be willing to offer? How do brands convince customers that their privacy is of the utmost priority?

The second issue is energy consumption. The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference reintroduced the need to make electronics more powerful while simultaneously energy efficient into the national discourse. How can you address that issue, especially when one might assume that ambient sensing is going to require a lot of powerful and continuous processing?

On the edge

The key to resolving these issues is embedding artificial intelligence (AI) into the devices themselves; this means imbuing the edge of networks with the intelligence needed to eliminate reliance solely on cloud networks or corporations to capture and interpret data. I’ve previously written about the artificial intelligence of things (AIoT) and the potential impact that edge technology could have, especially on the smart home.

In one fell swoop, AIoT can address privacy issues and energy consumption. Allowing devices to process commands without the need for external communication, or a necessity of cloud connectivity, keeps consumers’ personal information local and secure. It also releases the handbrake in performance terms, thereby encouraging consumers to transition from established brand favorites to new high–performance devices. Where energy consumption is concerned, AIoT’s local processing means that devices can transition from ‘always listening’ to ‘always ready’. Sensors will only be in use when needed, ensuring that demand for electricity isn’t continually high.

But electronics engineers will be aware of the challenges involved embedding AI within electronics. Doing so has traditionally been expensive because AI chips tend to only address high–end AI demands. Embedding AI within electronics is also complex because it often require a significant redesign of electronics.

The good news is that a new breed of chipset technology has finally hit the market designed specifically with the smart home in mind. These chips provide simple AI capabilities at a fraction of the cost of traditional AI chips, are flexible enough to embed within any smart home device and program to almost any smart home AI use case easily.

In this way, ambient sensing technology at the edge is finally becoming the future of the smart devices industry.

A smart future

When seen through the lens of its potential, it should be no surprise that consumers are becoming increasingly frustrated with smart home technology. Increased speed, precise personalization, and more cohesive collaboration between devices are all in demand.

A smart home built on ambient sensing at the edge, taking thousands of different measurements of data into account for each decision, is how we facilitate such improvements. Using a combination of sensors to understand our smart home environment, and AIoT to process and implement the results, is the most realistic way of realizing the experience we want. Indeed, that reality may be a lot closer than we think.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Mark Lippett is the chief executive officer of XMOS

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