Home automation sounds fantastic, but in practice it has some struggles. With the advent of HomeKit, there's a good chance Apple can bring home automation to the masses, with a one-two punch of iOS 8 and Apple TV.
Apple TV + HomeKit = Crazy Delicious
Right now the setup process for individual items is pretty straightforward, but if you want anything to work together you need a central way for those separate devices to communicate.That home automation "hub" needs to be easy to set up and use, and right now it's not the greatest experience in either category.
Last year when we moved into our new house, we found a few opportunities for home automation, and discovered very quickly the need for a "hub" of some sort to manage all of the communication. We did some research and found the Vera we could hook all sorts of things to for monitoring and automating purposes.
Vera is a box about the size of an Apple TV that communicates with outlets/switches, security systems, and climate control (among other things) and allows you to create "scenes." For example, I built scenes where my porch light and backyard lights come on when the sun goes down, but the backyard lights turn off after a couple of hours while the porch light stays on until sunrise. And Vera has a network connection so it can check the time for sunrise and sunset each day instead of relying on a sensor outside.
As soon as we started setting things up we ran into hurdles really quickly. Documentation is sparse and written by non-English speakers, so usually it takes thorough forum searching to find any sort of solution. Sorting out errors is a dark art that is equal parts luck and search-fu. It works pretty well if you can get set up, but that setup can be a long painful process of trial and error. We finally got most of it working, but it certainly wasn't an experience I would recommend to others, particularly those who don't think troubleshooting is a fabulous way to spend an evening.
Since then, I've watched the home automation/Internet of Things movement with interest. I wanted something better, and since the bar was set so low I figured it wouldn't take long. So hearing about HomeKit during the WWDC keynote this year was music to my ears. For a second. Then I realized all this software and hardware that utilizes HomeKit will still need a central hub; my iPhone might be where the command starts but not where it's processed.
Image made with help from Shutterstock.
Next: That's Where Apple TV Comes In
That's Where Apple TV Comes In
It makes sense to have the Apple TV be the hub. Something needs to be, since there's communication and monitoring that needs to happen even if my iPhone isn't on the network. If I am gone when the sun goes down, my lights still need to turn on. There have been rumors of Apple working on HomeKit products. Since HomeKit is an iOS-centric product and Apple TV runs its own version of iOS, I hope this means a nice Apple TV update is on the way.
Start with the physical: Apple TV is a small black box. It's unobtrusive and inexpensive, and easy to set up. It hangs out quietly on a network, not generating a lot of traffic, and controlling it via an iPhone app or the hardware remote is pretty straightforward. Also, Apple TVs tend to be stationary, they don't generally leave the house in someone's pocket or purse.
Now let's consider the history of the device. According to the MacRumors Buying Guide, the last update to the hardware was March 2012, well over two years ago. Since it's a lower-priced device than, say, an iMac or even an iPad, it not as big a deal if you buy one now and an update comes out soon after.
Looking at the specs for the Apple TV compared to other boxes, it certainly looks as though Apple's hardware is lagging. As I said in that piece, having used most of the other hardware I get the snappiest responses from Apple TV. So for current Apple TV use it's completely fine, but if I wanted to add some home automation to the mix, there's a good chance storage and memory will need to get bumped up.
And I Mean Ideal
To review: Apple has created an environment in iOS 8 where home automation is integrated systemwide thanks to HomeKit APIs, allowing developers to do things like add widgets to Notification center for controlling devices. And one of the devices that runs iOS is the Apple TV, a box ripe for updating with a known history of associating with other iOS devices. It also tends to hang around the house most of the time.
This means the Apple TV can sit around waiting to kick off scenes whether based on a set of conditions or a remote command from a user. Plus, when you tell Siri it's time for bed (as shown in the WWDC Keynote), those commands for adjusting the lights and the thermostat have to be parsed somewhere and handed out to the individual devices separately. Since something has to be handling those requests, why not make it the box I already control with my iPhone?
It's a piece of cake for me to set up my parents with an Apple TV now. Imagine the new model: set it up and have my parents tell Siri it's time to wake up so the lights and the coffeemaker come on, or it's time for bed so the fans and thermostat adjust automatically. It's like getting a universal remote control; it's a lot easier to add A/V equipment when you control everything from a single device.
This could make Apple a huge name in home automation, and make home automation far more common than it is now. Everybody wins! I'm pretty sure it's winning, because I always feel like I lost a bet when I have to troubleshoot mysterious errors on the system I have now.
I know that even with the new trend toward transparency, Apple isn't tipping its hand on Apple TV updates, and even if it were to try, likely nobody would notice amongst the iPhone 6 cases and totally accurate* reports of ribbon cables. A lot of people are looking forward to September 9th for the new wearable tech from Apple, but I'm holding out for an Apple TV update. And now you know why.
* Not even a little bit accurate.