One tablet to rule them all: the pressing need for a ‘smart’ home control center

Feb 7, 2015

The success of the do-it-yourself smart home is in large part due to the existence of the smartphone.

Look! You can control your lights from the comfort of your couch. Look! You can turn your heating up from the car on your drive home — all from a device you already own.

This is very cool and eminently practical — if you live alone in a nice apartment in San Francisco. For the rest of America to embrace the smart home, however, we need to ditch the smartphone as its primary controller.

The promise of the smart home is one of simplicity. Your lights turn on when you wake up, your music plays as you enter the kitchen to the smell of freshly brewed coffee, all without having to touch a button. Unlocking the phone, searching for an app and rummaging around for the “brew” setting is not part of this promising picture.

Ultimately, as the connected home evolves into the smart home — moving from pre-programming devices to the devices being able to compute the user’s needs on their own and respond intelligently — our homes will literally run themselves.

We won’t need to launch an app just to turn our lights on. This shift is happening, and while my Philips Hue color-changing bulbs might not talk to my smart lock today, tomorrow they probably will. That’s the beauty of connected devices. A product you buy that can do one thing when you install it may well have doubled its abilities by the next time you turn it on.

In the meantime, you need a central way to control all the different devices you install in your home. I discovered this following the installation of about $1,000 worth of home automation gadgets during a large remodeling project. It’s great that I can turn on all the lights from the comfort of my couch, but I’m hesitant to give my 4-year-old daughter free rein of my iPhone 6 so she can do the same.

And what about my babysitter with her iPhone 4 that’s not upgradable to iOS 8? Or my 70-year-old next-door neighbor who still uses a landline? Or anyone else who comes into the home at my behest without access to my Nest controller or Hue OnSwitch app—how do they “manage” my smart home?

I needed a solution. Since there was no viable DIY smart home controller available at the time of my remodel, I decided to create my own. This concept is nothing new in the “traditional” home automation industry, but the custom command centers used to run these self-contained systems cost thousands of dollars, and the beauty of the DIY smart home is its accessible price point.

I designed my control center factoring in the following needs and use-cases:

A: Primary Use — We needed one central place to access the apps that control the smart devices in the home without entering passcodes.

B: Accessibility — It had to be positioned in a central location, easily accessible to little people, but not easily removable (see C).

C: Protected — Mounted in the wall, to prevent accidental damage and so it can’t be picked up and moved around, thereby defeating its primary purpose.

D: Always On — It had to be permanently powered, but I didn’t want to see any dangling wires. I had an electrician install an-up-to code USB outlet inside the wall, behind the wall mount.

In the end, my control center cost just over $500, easily the most expensive part of my smart home setup (and that was with a sweet Black Friday deal on a first-generation iPad mini).

Custom smart home controller components

  • Leviton USB outlet charger ($20)
  • CE Tech 3ft Apple Lightning USB Cable ($18)
  • 1st gen, 16gb, Wi-Fi only iPad Mini ($180), but any tablet would work
  • In-wall tablet mount ($95)
  • Electrician/drywall guru ($200)

I’m the first to admit that I’m a bit ahead of the curve on all this smart technology, but I write about it for a living, so it’s part of my job. I had a feeling while I was creating this setup that there would be a solution available for the consumer right around the corner. And I was right.

Just about the time we finished cutting the drywall, Wink debuted its Android-powered Relay. The Wink hub is the smart home hub I use to control my array of smart lighting, two Nests, numerous WeMo switches and a swathe of Kidde Wireless Smoke Alarms. Wink’s Relay augments the Wink hub and acts as an entire smart home on your wall, letting you manage all your smart products from one central location. Which is exactly what I needed my control panel to do.

The Relay is also smart, which my iPad is not. Its touchscreen tablet has built-in proximity, temperature and humidity sensors and sits next to two smart switches that can act as light switches or turn the connected product of your choice on and off manually. Plus, you don’t necessarily need an electrician and you definitely don’t need a drywaller for installation — it simply replaces most single or double light switches.

What excites me most about the Relay, however, is its potential; it’s clearly been built with expansion in mind. A device like the Relay is the smart home’s hive mind: the central unit that can compute all the data the home’s smart devices disseminate and then digest and act on that data, turning the remote-controlled home into the smart home.

For example, I have programmed my smart lights (GE Links, Philips Hues and a Casetta Wireless Dimmer Switch connected to 10 LEDS) to turn off automatically when I leave the house. But, that means I sometimes drive away and leave my still-at-home husband in the dark. What the Relay, or a similar “hive mind” device, will be able to do is use the information it receives from every device in the house to respond to the user.

So when the Nest senses the house is empty and turns to Auto Away, the Relay should be able to communicate this to the smart lights and tell them to shut down. This would work equally well for an empty section of a home. For example, a smart home Nest Protect on a home’s third floor could tell Relay the floor is empty and Relay could shut down just the lights on that floor to save on electricity — something geo-fencing can’t do.

Today, we need a smart home controller like the Relay to help us manage our connected devices. Tomorrow, however, that same smart controller sitting on your wall will be even smarter, learning from your routines and habits until it can do it all for you (if you want it to).

Tech like the Relay is quickly becoming ‘future proof’ by updating itself and becoming more attuned to our preferences, rather than becoming obsolete. That’s the promise of the smart home, and it’s already amazing.