What Is a Smart House? What is Domotics?

When Your Robot Becomes a Smarty Pants

a robot vacuuming a living room
Domotics, like a robot vacuuming a living room, is very smart. Photo by Javier Pierini/The Image Bank Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

A smart house is a home that has highly advanced, automated systems to control and monitor any function of a house—lighting, temperature control, multi-media, security, window and door operations, air quality, or any other task of necessity or comfort performed by a home's resident. With the rise of wireless computerization, remote-controlled devices are becoming smart just-in-time. Today, it's possible to pin a programmed chip onto any occupant and have systems adjust as a person passes by and through a smart house.

Is it really smart?

A smart home appears "intelligent" because its computer systems can monitor so many aspects of daily living. For example, the refrigerator may be able to inventory its contents, suggest menus and shopping lists, recommend healthy alternatives, and even routinely order groceries. The smart home systems might even ensure a continuously cleaned cat litter box or a house plant that is forever watered.

The idea of a smart home may sound like something out of Hollywood. In fact, a 1999 Disney movie titled Smart House presents the comical antics of an American family that wins a "house of the future" with an android maid who causes havoc. Other films show science fiction visions of smart home technology that seems improbable.

However, smart home technology is real, and it's becoming increasingly sophisticated. Coded signals are sent through the home's wiring (or sent wirelessly) to switches and outlets that are programmed to operate appliances and electronic devices in every part of the house.

Home automation can be especially useful for the elderly, people with physical or cognitive impairments, and disabled persons who wish to live independently. Home technology is the toy of the super-wealthy, like Bill and Melinda Gates' home in Washington State. Called Xanadu 2.0, the Gates' house is so high-tech that it allows visitors to choose the mood music for each room they visit.

Open Standards:

Think of your house like it's one, big computer. If you ever opened up the "box" or CPU of your home computer, you'll find tiny wires and connectors, switches and whirling discs. To make it all work, you have to have an input device (like a mouse or a keyboard), but even more importantly, each of the components has to be able to work with each other.

Smart technologies will evolve more quickly if people didn't have to buy entire systems, because let's face it—some of us aren't as wealthy as Bill Gates. We also don't want to have 15 remote control devices for 15 different devices—we've been there and done that with televisions and recorders. What consumers want are add-on systems that are easy-to-use. What small manufacturers want are to be able to compete in this new marketplace.

:Two things are needed to make homes truly “smart,” writes research journalist Ira Brodsky in Computerworld. "First are sensors, actuators and appliances that obey commands and provide status information." These digital devices are already omnipresent in our appliances. "Second are protocols and tools that enable all of these devices, regardless of vendor, to communicate with each other," says Brodsky.

This is the problem, but Brodsky believes that "smartphone apps, communication hubs and cloud-based services are enabling practical solutions that can be implemented right now."

Home energy management systems (HEMS) have been the first wave of smart home devices, with hardware and software that monitors and controls a homes heating, ventilation, and air conditioning  (HVAC) systems. As standards and protocols are being developed, the devices in our homes are making them appear smart—very smart!

Prototype Houses:

The U.S. Department of Energy encourages new smart designs by sponsoring a Solar Decathlon, held every other year. Architecture and engineering college student teams compete in a number of categories, including intuitive control of devices and appliances. In 2013 a team from Canada described their engineering as an "integrated mechanical system" controlled by mobile devices.

This is a student prototype of a smart home. Learn more about Team Ontario's design for their house called ECHO.

Interior of prototype Smart House built by Team Ontario for Solar Decathlon, 2013, Photo by Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, 2013 (view image)

Domotics and Home Automation:

As the smart house evolves, so, too, do the words we use to describe it. Most generally, home automation and home technology have been the early descriptors. Smart home automation has derived from those terms.

The word domotics literally means home robotics. In Latin, the word domus means home. The field of domotics encompasses all phases of smart home technology, including the highly sophisticated sensors and controls that monitor and automate temperature, lighting, security systems, and many other functions.

No need for those pesky robots, however. These days most mobile devices, like "smart" phones and tablets, are digitally connected and control many home systems. And what will your smart home look like? It should look just like what you're living in now, if that's what you want.

Learn More:

Sources: 19 Crazy Facts About Bill Gates' $123 Million Washington Mansion by Madeline Stone, Business Insider, Nov. 7, 2014; The race to create smart homes is on by Ira Brodsky, Computerworld, May 3, 2016 [accessed July 29, 2016]