The smart home

by Tracey Lindeman
Published in the Montreal Gazette on Aug. 12, 2016

Race car driver Alex Tagliani and his wife, Bronte, go over programmed one-touch settings (one of which just says 'romantic') on a touch screen that can change lighting, music, lower shades etc. in their home in Lorraine. (John Kenney/Montreal Gazette)
Race car driver Alex Tagliani and his wife, Bronte, go over programmed one-touch settings (one of which just says ‘romantic’) on a touch screen that can change lighting, music, lower shades etc. in their home in Lorraine. (John Kenney/Montreal Gazette)

How the Internet of Things is moving us toward connected homes

It’s lunchtime at race car driver Alex Tagliani’s house, and there are no fewer than a dozen people buzzing around. Landscapers are putting in a new front yard, a curtain company employee is up on a ladder, wrestling with the motorized drapes for a product photo shoot and a toddler is running around, demanding to be fed.Tagliani has made a name for himself on the Indy and NASCAR circuits. But, after years of living in Las Vegas and Indianapolis, he has returned to his native Quebec, settling down in an impressive $1.4(ish)-million home nestled in the scenic suburbs of Lorraine with his wife, Bronte, and their daughter Eva-Rose.

The house was custom built according to Tagliani’s vision of a modern smart home. He was the general contractor on the project, coordinating the architect, interior designers and a small army of independent contractors, including a home-automation team.

“I spent a year and a half messing around with the build,” Tagliani says.

From the moment he considered building a house, Tagliani knew he wanted it to be “smart” — a connected home that learns from and syncs to his family’s behaviours. He hired HomeSync, a Montreal-based home-automation installer that he’d previously worked with when customizing his last place, a condo in Laval. (HomeSync doesn’t manufacture its own hardware, but rather connects other companies’ components.)

“A smart home allows you to customize upon your needs — that’s the advantage,” Tagliani says.

Race car driver Alex Tagliani watches television in his home in Lorraine. The home, which was moved into less than a week ago, is fully decked out with smart devices. (John Kenney / Montreal Gazette)
Race car driver Alex Tagliani watches television in his home in Lorraine. The home, which was moved into less than a week ago, is fully decked out with smart devices. (John Kenney / Montreal Gazette)

HomeSync’s technicians installed custom-made motorized window shades that recede into the ceiling, as well as programmable lighting, heating and air conditioning, and Tagliani’s entire audiovisual setup, which include: Dolby’s Atmos 3D sound, a powerful Epson TV projector, a 4K video setup and high-end Bowers & Wilkins speakers that are embedded in the walls and ceiling (the company is a sponsor of Tagliani’s racing). The setup has removed the electronics clutter that punctuates so many of our homes, making his home look minimalist and streamlined.

Tagliani points to a series of switches and a screen at the front door that allows him to turn everything in his home on or off. The “goodbye” setting can turn off all the lights and TVs, adjust the house temperature and lower the blinds, all with the push of a single button. And if something unexpected happens while he’s out of the house — like a sudden drop in outdoor temperature — he can use a smartphone app to remotely control the thermostat.

“You have no idea how practical it is,” he says.

The Internet of Things drives smart homes

The Internet of Things (IoT) — that is, embedding wireless connectivity, sensors and electronics into traditionally non-smart items — is the driving force behind the connected home. Regular, seemingly mundane household items are getting a tech upgrade, such as light switches, thermostats, light bulbs, power outlets and door locks. Samsung even makes a fridge that can order groceries.

These connected devices learn users’ habits and can be trained to recognize their owners, thanks to technology like the location services on a smartphone, which can connect to beacons and other location-tracking devices. All this can, for example, be harnessed to greet you with your own customized music playlist and lighting scenarios the moment you walk through your front door, or ping your phone if someone who isn’t you walks through your front door.

Countless reports and studies project connected devices will be the next multi-billion-dollar market. This technology hasn’t made a very big splash in Canada yet, though. Only 12 per cent of us actually own a smart-home device, despite more than a third of Canadians being interested in the technology, according to an Ipsos poll. Cost is listed as the primary barrier to more widespread adoption.

It certainly isn’t cheap to set up a smart home, though it may lead to some energy and water savings down the road. Tagliani and HomeSync both remain tight-lipped on the exact pricetag of this particular home’s automation, although Rolland Dean Winters, a HomeSync integrator, estimates it’s upward of $100,000.

Winters notes that the company has automated homes worth more than $30 million, and those contracts routinely get into the six-figure range. “If you’re spending $1 million (or more) on a house, what’s another $100,000?” he says.

The price of smart home ownership

Of course, most people in Canada don’t own homes worth nearly that much, if they own homes at all. According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, one-eighth of Canadians actually live in condos, and a quarter of those condo dwellers living in Canada’s 10 biggest cities were renters.

Home automation isn’t just for million-dollar mansions, though. Canadians earning an average salary — whether they’re owners or tenants — can affordably introduce elements of automation to their homes. In Tagliani’s case, his high-end audiovisual equipment and custom blinds were the priciest parts of his home’s automation. People of lesser means (and with smaller homes) can opt for cheaper solutions.

Winters says HomeSync routinely sets up one-bedroom or studio-sized condos with fairly comprehensive systems for about $5,000. Automating a single-family house worth $300,000 or so could run $20,000-$30,000, including lighting, video and audio, shades and temperature control. Home-automation companies also partner up with developers to offer turnkey smart condos, where the new condos come with a base network and owners can upgrade as they wish according to a pricing menu.

“We’re installing a base package into every unit. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but it puts the infrastructure in place,” Winters says.

HomeSync has delivered smart-home systems to more than 1,000 condos in the Greater Montreal area over the past two years, and is on deck for many more, including the YUL development project of condos, townhouses and penthouses. “We’re twice as busy as last year,” he says.

Putting in a smart system from the outset of construction can help future-proof homes, potentially making them more appealing to future owners. And making a home smart isn’t just about nerding out over cool A/V equipment. Quebec-based startup Ubios has designed a smart water valve that turns the water off when nobody’s home.

Pierre Gourde, a member of Ubios’s founding team, says the majority of home insurance claims aredue to water damage. The smart valve is designed to connect to existing pipes and be controlled by a smart wall console and a web app. The company’s wall console can also be used to control heating (including old-fashioned baseboard heaters), cooling, lighting and home security.

The young company recently exited Montreal’s InnoCité startup accelerator program and scraped together $1.5 million through grants, angel investments, friends and family, and their own pocketbooks, as well as the first public equity crowdfunding campaign in North America. It also has a paying client with whom it’s working to test out its technology: the owner of several multi-unit buildings in Mont-Tremblant.

Gourde says its focus is currently on the B2B market — so, directly to condo building owners. “As soon as we’re profitable we’ll be able to go into smaller homes,” Gourde says.

A touch screen control near the front door allows Alex Tagliani to turn everything in his home on or off. (John Kenney / Montreal Gazette)
A touch screen control near the front door allows Alex Tagliani to turn everything in his home on or off. (John Kenney / Montreal Gazette)

Do-it-yourself smart home

Hiring an automation installation company isn’t the only path to a smarter home.

Montreal web designer, Plateau-Mont-Royal renter and smart-home hobbyist Julien Bigeault bought his first connected home device to condense all of his audiovisual remotes into a single, $150 universal remote (the Logitech Harmony Smart Control). The remote comes with a smartphone app, and can be programmed with different scenarios. “That’s where the power of this toy is,”Bigeault says.

He presses his remote’s Netflix-and-chill mode, launching a set of actions with a single push.

“It turns on the amplifier, it turns on the TV. Then, it puts the amplifier on the right HDMI input, wakes up the Apple TV and then all the buttons on the remote are dedicated to the action you’re doing right now,” he continues. After buying Philips Hue WiFi-enabled LED light bulbs (typically $15-20 each), he realized he could connect his Logitech remote to it — and so his Netflix-and-chill scene now also automatically dims the lights.

Bigeault later spent about $250 on Samsung’s SmartThings kit, which comes with motion and presence sensors, smart electrical outlets and a hub. The system can act as a home security device, logging its owners’ ins and outs and detecting if doors are open when they shouldn’t be. (HomeSync has had so many requests from do-it-yourselfers asking for help in connecting off-the-shelf smart-home products that it started a new app, HeroPin, to connect them with tech-savvy installers.)

Privacy concerns

Earlier this year, design flaws in Samsung’s SmartThings allowed people to remotely hack a front-door lock. There’s very little to stop a determined and tech-savvy criminal or mischief-maker to glean what your devices have learned about you and use it against you.

Bigeault enjoys the convenience and novelty of the technology, but he is concerned about the SmartThings hack. He’s considering switching to Apple’s recently launched HomeKit because it offers high-security encryption. “The encryption they’re asking for is really, really high. If we think more about Big Brother issues with the Internet of Things and the smart home, I would be more comfortable to use high-security devices and I’m happy that Apple is now fighting a battle for privacy,”Bigeault says.

Still, training connected devices to recognize your habits also means opting in to having an unprecedented amount of your deeply personal data compiled and kept on file by someone, somewhere, without knowing exactly if and how it’s used.

In 2016, Canada’s privacy commission published a guide on connected devices and IoT and concerns related to them, particularly as it pertains to data harvesting. “The full impact of the Internet of Things for our privacy may become more evident when its capabilities are combined with other innovations shaping our world today that track not only our activities, movements, behaviours and preferences, but our emotions and our thoughts,” the report concludes.

That’s some serious food for thought to consider as our homes, and the world, move toward greater automation. On the one hand, automation can streamline and even minimize our interactions with electronic devices, giving us more coveted off-screen time. Plus, it can give us the futuristic, Jetsons-inspired lives some have always dreamed of.

Add to the mix that the very concept of privacy is continually challenged as technology and data policies evolve. In the future, will we feel more, less or as strongly as we do now about our data being harvested and used by technology intended to simplify our lives?

For people like Bigeault and Tagliani, the potential privacy trade-offs are a small price to pay. It’s not only about convenience and vanity — it’s about the pride of being an early adopter and the act of embracing the future, rather than fearing it.

Since taking the first plunge,Bigeault expects he’ll always have some smart component to his household, wherever it may be. Before that happens, though, he’s got one item of business to take care of first.

“Buy an apartment!” he laughs.