Free Software Ties the Internet of Things Together
If you buy several Internet-connected home gadgets—say, a “smart” thermostat, “smart” door lock, and “smart” window blinds—you’ll likely have to control each one with a separate app, meaning it exists in its own little silo.
That’s not how Elier Ramirez does it. In his home, an iPad app controls his lights, ceiling fans, and TV and stereo. Pressing a single button within the app can shut off all his lights and gadgets when he leaves.
Ramirez can tap a lamp in an image to turn an actual lamp off and on in his apartment, and at the same time he’ll see the picture on the tablet’s screen go dark or become illuminated. Ramirez also set up a presence-sensing feature that uses his cell phone to determine if he’s home (it checks whether or not he has connected to his home Wi-Fi network). This can automatically turn on the lights if he’s there. Ramirez runs the whole setup from a small computer in his home.
The software behind all this interconnection comes from a company called OpenRemote, which is plugging away on an open-source software platform for linking Internet-connected gadgets, making it easier to control all kinds of smart home devices, regardless of who made them. And it makes it easy to automate actions like lowering your connected window blinds if the temperature sensed in your living room goes above 75 degrees.
Co-created in 2008 by Marc Fleury, who previously came up with the open-source Java application server JBoss, and Juha Lindfors, OpenRemote offers a way to control and automate all kinds of existing lights and home electronics without worrying about the various integration protocols in different gadgets or shelling out for a customized system. That’s because it supports a slew of different products and protocols, and continues to add support for more as they emerge. Best of all, the software is available to consumers for free.
Pierre Kil, who heads up business development for OpenRemote from Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, says the company eventually hopes to establish a common platform that manufacturers use to make all kinds of home-automation products simpler to set up and use, and to allow devices from different makers to work together smoothly.
When OpenRemote got started, the so-called Internet of Things—wherein traditionally offline devices are connected to the Internet—was largely unknown, and smartphones were just beginning to gain ground among consumers. It was the early days of the iPhone and of Android smartphones, and the iPad had yet to be released. At the time, home automation was expensive, requiring lots of proprietary hardware and installation time.
Now there are relatively inexpensive devices like Twine and Belkin’s WeMo, which can connect “dumb” devices to the Web, and a growing number of Internet-connected devices, like the Nest smart thermostat, that are easy to install and use. Yet different devices still operate on a slew of different “protocols”— the rules devices abide by when transmitting data.
Though OpenRemote isn’t targeting the consumer market directly, it has a community of individual users—including Ramirez, who runs his own IT consulting business in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and has been using OpenRemote for about two years. He discovered the software when browsing for home-automation remote control apps on his iPad, and he gave it a try after realizing how much he could customize it—including building his own remote app with interactive images of the rooms of his house.
“It took a little bit of work and testing, but ultimately I got it to work just fine,” he says. “And once you get it to work, it’s simple to add new things to it.”
Ramirez says he continues to use OpenRemote even as more options emerge because new options and support for new protocols are continuously added. But as more of a hobbyist than an actual programmer, he says, he does wish it were simpler for the average non-programmer to set up in the first place.
Though there are tutorials on its site, the average person may not find OpenRemote simple to set up, and it does require you to have a server on which to run it. Users have to download an OpenRemote controller and then use the Web-based OpenRemote Designer to set up the devices the controller should connect to and determine the look of the user interface. Once you’ve done that, you can access and control your gadgets from your computer or on a smartphone or tablet with Android or iOS OpenRemote apps.
OpenRemote is currently focused on building a sustainable business, which it believes it can achieve by licensing its software to the makers of connected devices. Kil says product integrations are coming, though he won’t yet say when they will happen.
OpenRemote also sees a moneymaking opportunity beyond the home in providing its software to cities, which are becoming increasingly interested in using technology for everything from communicating with citizens to monitoring traffic. Last year, OpenRemote conducted a small test in Eindhoven, in hopes of using automation and crowdsourcing to monitor a city. This included people-tracking with cameras, sound-level tracking, social-media monitoring, and an app that people in the area could use to rate what the atmosphere was like. The company is currently working on a larger-scale project in Eindhoven, Kil says. “If you put four walls around a city, it’s a big room, if you know what I mean,” he says.
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