When he was just 12 years old, Kai Kreuzer put sensors on the doors of his bedroom and began a lifelong fascination with home automation.
Years later, in 2008, Kreuzer had cables, sensors, and actuators built into his new home near Darmstadt, Germany. That new house turned out to be another beginning for Kreuzer: Lacking software to integrate all of his devices, he began creating openHAB, an open source home automation software platform. Because of his work on openHAB, Kreuzer was hired in 2012 by Deutsche Telekom’s Connected Home department and serves as a Developer Evangelist. When the core openHAB codebase became the Eclipse SmartHome project in 2013, Kreuzer continued as project lead (for both projects), and he was subsequently elected co-lead for the Eclipse IoT top-level project in 2014.
Developers like home automation, Kreuzer says, because it directly relates to the physical world. “It is not abstract software that runs on some enterprise servers, but it operates on real things,” he says. But that’s also part of the challenge, because the developer’s toolbox must include hardware, communications, and security knowledge. Indeed, Kreuzer thinks understanding these fundamental challenges is more important for home automation success than any specific programming language or platform.
We asked Kreuzer about his favorite topics: home automation, open source, and IoT.
With openHAB, you’re working at the intersection of open source and home automation. Why are open source and home automation a good fit for each other?
Kreuzer: The home automation market is very fragmented and many solutions are designed as walled gardens. Manufacturers either believe that they can sell more of their devices if they force their customers to use only theirs, or they are afraid of the complexity that it can bring if they offer integration possibilities. This leads to siloed applications, and is one reason why home automation has not penetrated the mass market yet. Actually, use cases are so manifold and individual that it is hard to offer solutions out-of-the-box. There is no way around integrating devices and systems of different vendors.
So why is open-source the best fit for such an integration? Simply because it is open and not driven by commercial interests of a single company. For the user this openness means that he has a good chance that “his” system or device can be integrated as well. For device manufacturers this model is attractive as they are free to participate and their success is not linked to the commercial success of another company.
Longevity is another important aspect. If you do serious home automation, you expect your solution to still work in 10 years’ time and that you can extend or replace things in it. With the current fragmentation and the large number of startup companies, how many of them will exist in the next decade? An open-source solution will still be available and cannot simply disappear.
How do you use open source home automation personally? What do you want to do that you can’t do (yet)?
Kreuzer: Having started openHAB for my personal use, I of course still run it to integrate all different kinds of devices throughout my home from the KNX system and Zigbee LED bulbs to the garden sprinklers and the loudspeakers throughout the house. In general, I try to realize home automation as it should be: Acting invisibly in the background, but increasing comfort, energy efficiency and security. So it is not about remote control, but about automation and notification. The power of openHAB is in the advanced and more complex use cases: Callers are announced in the garden if the terrace door is open, or the washing machine is tracked by an energy meter to detect when it finishes and lets a light turn green, or the garden sprinklers are activated if it has not rained for a while and nobody is in the garden.
The part that is still tricky to realize is user-specific automation. Although you often hear in marketing that your smart home adapts the lights and the music to your current mood, this is something that only works in practice for a single person. There is simply no good way to identify and locate people reliably.
What role does analytics – including dashboards, data visualizations and reporting – play in home automation?
Kreuzer: Analytics can serve different purposes. First of all, it helps users to realize and understand certain details about their home (e.g., what is my average daily energy consumption?). Secondly, it provides useful information that lets you check whether everything works as expected or if there are any unforeseen situations (e.g., the energy consumption has increased by 20 percent in one week). Thirdly, it can help with the optimization of automation logic (e.g., having noticed that you often leave lights on in unoccupied rooms, you could automatically switch them off instead). Even though usable self-learning algorithms are an ongoing topic of research, this is a very effective way of making your environment smarter today.