Testing the Internet of Things: Can smart devices be united into an integrated whole?

An important part of the Internet of Things, Revolv's hub tries to make a group of independent smart devices work together intelligently.

The Revolv hub (center) works with a variety of smart devices. Clockwise, from bottom center: Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting bridge; Sonos Play:1 streaming music system; Cisco LInksys router; Vonage V-Portal VoIP hub

The Revolv hub (center) works with a variety of smart devices. Clockwise, from bottom center: Philips Hue Personal Wireless Lighting bridge; Sonos Play:1 streaming music system; Cisco LInksys router; Vonage V-Portal VoIP hub

I have had a smart thermostat and Wi-Fi security cameras in my home for about a year. While using these (and researching my article The Internet of Things at home: Why we should pay attention), I started to wonder if the task of managing smart devices could quickly get out of hand.

Each device you buy, from the Nest thermostat to your smart crockpot, comes with its own app that lets you configure and program it, set up alerts and remotely monitor and control the device. As you go beyond two or three smart things, however, app clutter can take hold. There are simply too many apps, with too many alerts, to manage everything separately. What's more, each of these devices exists in its own silo, completely unaware of other smart devices in the home.

That's where a universal smart home integration and automation system like Revolv comes in. Revolv's eponymously named product, which is priced at $299, includes a hub that can communicate with smart devices that speak Wi-Fi, Insteon or Z-wave, and a mobile app that you can program to automate how you use the smart devices in your home and how they interact with one other.

There's a key benefit to managing everything from a single control point: You can program groups of smart devices to operate together in response to an event, such as the time of day, your departure from or arrival home or when you unlock the front door. For example, when you approach your home, the porch and hall lights turn on, motion sensors turn off, the garage door opens, the smart lock prompts you to remotely unlock the door with a single press and your favorite music is already playing as you walk in the door.

To find out whether Revolv could really simplify the process of living with smart devices, I decided to try it out myself.

Which products does Revolv support?

The Revolv hub's radios can support seven different smart-device communication protocols, although Revolv has turned on just three: Insteon, Z-wave and Wi-Fi. Four others -- Zigbee and three inactive radios, which Revolv declined to name -- are there to future-proof the product; the company says it can automatically activate those on users' hubs by way of online updates.

Revolv has a list of about 75 products it can manage, organized into categories, such as smart locks, motion sensors and thermostats. Only a few devices are supported in each category, and several other categories aren't yet supported at all, including security cameras, fitness bands and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Check the compatibility list before you buy.

In my case, the Dropcam video security cameras and Honeywell thermostat already installed in my home aren't compatible with the Revolv hub.

In fact, the situation with Honeywell, which sells home thermostats that use three different protocols, illustrates just how fragmented the current market is. I have a Wi-Fi model, but Honeywell also offers models that use its proprietary Redlink technology, which requires a dedicated hardware gateway, and one model that uses Z-wave. Revolv doesn't support Redlink but does support the Honeywell Z-wave Enabled Programmable Thermostat and says it recently added support for the manufacturer's Wi-Fi thermostats. However, my unit, purchased about a year ago, isn't compatible. While Revolv was able to discover it and display the current temperature and set point, I could not control it via the Revolv hub.

Getting started with Revolv

The Revolv hub is a plastic, teardrop-shaped device, about five inches in diameter, with a red base and opaque cover that looks somewhat like a piece of high-tech Tupperware. The unit connects wirelessly to your Wi-Fi router, which means you can place it anywhere in the home, regardless of the location of the router. It has a range of up to 65 feet.

You initialize it using the free Revolv app, available for Android and iOS mobile devices (no Web-based interface is available). You can then invite an unlimited number of people with additional smart phones to download the Revolv app and share access to your Revolv system. Each user can also add or remove items from an inventory of devices and edit or create new pre-programmed actions.

The setup process involves entering your router's ID and passcode into the app and then placing your phone screen-down on top of the hub so that the app can transmit your credentials to a light sensor on the hub by way of a pattern of flashing light -- a Morse code-like process Revolv calls "Flashlink."

When the yellow status light on the top of the unit turns white you're ready to go. In my case it didn't sync right away -- after two attempts, however, the unit was ready.

Revolv has kept the user interface fairly simple, both in content and design. The main dashboard screen includes status information and a summary list of objects and actions, which appear as icons. An object is a device that Revolv can control. An action is a script you create that tells discovered objects in your inventory how to respond to an event, such as when you arrive home or turn the key in your front door's smart lock.

From the dashboard you can drop down into the Inventory screen, which has two tabs: One for devices and one for actions. From the former you can search for, discover and inventory devices; from the latter you create an inventory of actions. Once you've added an action or device you can have it appear on the dashboard by pressing a star above the icon.

Controls are simple: Double-tap an icon from the dashboard or inventory screen to turn a device on or execute an action, or tap once to change the settings. On the dashboard screen, you can also rearrange device or action icons by pressing and holding your finger on any object. The Revolv interface also lets you control color with awkward up-and-down arrow keys that require you to cycle through 100 color levels. (I much preferred the Philips Hue's native lighting app, which offered a slider to control brightness and color.)

A status line on the dashboard shows whether the hub is operational, the number of devices it's discovered and the number of people currently running the app who are at home. However, during testing the headcount was inaccurate. A Revolv spokesperson said that was a known bug associated with the GPS-based Geosense geofencing feature. At press time they were still working on a fix.

Orchestrating your life

Getting all of your devices to work together is where the fun begins. Revolv supports four types of actions with any number of supported devices.

One oddity with Geosense is that the default radius units for distance are described as "4 minutes biking." That can be changed to walking or driving time, but not meters or other units of distance.

(If, like me, you have only marginal cellular service at your home, you may have trouble getting the Geosense feature to work reliably. I could not get Geosense actions to trigger consistently at one location, but it worked fine at another, where I have strong 4G service.)

Revolv walks you through the process of creating new actions from the Inventory screen's Actions tab. You begin by selecting the devices and go on to determine what actions should be taken for each object. It's simple: You press an "Add Action" button, choose one of the four action types and follow the prompts to control the supported attributes for each device.

I created many different actions, including manual actions to turn groups of lights on and off, Geosense actions that turned off groups of devices when I left home and turned them back on when I arrived, and device-to-device actions that performed similar functions when triggered by the unlocking or locking of a Yale smart deadbolt. Still another action turned off all the lights in the house when I turned off the bedroom light.

(Note that there are some security-related limitations. For example, you can create an action telling the Yale deadbolt to unlock when you approach your home, but you still must take action on your smart phone before it actually unlocks the door. This feature is designed to prevent you from accidentally unlocking the doors if you're driving or walking by, the company says.)

So how well does it work?

Since I wanted to make sure I gave the hub a thorough trial, Revolv provided me with several smart devices in addition to its $299 hub.

I tested the equipment in two buildings: A rambling New England farmhouse with a Cisco Linksys E4200 Wi-Fi router and marginal cellular service, and a small vacation home with a Cisco Linksys E2500 wireless router and excellent mobile connectivity. The vacation home also included a Honeywell TotalConnect Comfort Wi-Fi Thermostat and two Dropcam Wi-Fi security cameras.

I used the Revolv Android app on a Moto X phone running Android 4.4.4, and the iOS app on an iPhone 4 running iOS 7.1.2.

Interestingly, although Revolv provided these products, installation didn't always go smoothly.

Sonos Play:1 streaming music system speaker ($199) and Bridge ($49)

I was able to set up the Sonos Play:1 and its required bridge quickly and easily; the Sonos app connected to my Pandora account in no time.

Revolv recognized the Sonos automatically, quickly connected with my Pandora streaming music account and let me set the music to pause/play, set the volume and choose a Pandora music channel. But at first it only presented those channels I'd played using the Sonos system since adding it to Revolv. To view and select other Pandora channels, I needed to go into the Sonos app and play those channels I wanted to access before I could see them in the Revolv app.

I also experienced some initial frustration with saving actions involving the Sonos in the Revolv Android app. Every time I saved an action with a setting to play music, for example, the setting didn't save and the action would not respond correctly.

After some fiddling around, I finally realized that, because the setting wasn't visible on the screen without scrolling down, I had missed it. When I didn't pick a channel the app didn't complain, nor did it default to the last channel selected in Pandora -- it simply changed the setting back to "Pause." This is a known bug in the Android app, according to Revolv. In the iOS app it will use the default channel setting when the action is saved.

On the whole, the Sonos speaker offered great sound quality. However, when placed in the front bedroom, the speaker was out of range of its bridge (which was located at the rear of the house) and didn't work. In addition, the Sonos speaker would occasionally lose connectivity with the bridge -- even when they were both in the same room -- and would need to be resynchronized.

Insteon Mini Remote 4 Scene control keypad ($45)

If you want to pause the music when you're using the Sonos, you need to use your phone app, desktop app or the buttons on the speaker. That can be awkward when you have an incoming call, so Revolv recommends using an Insteon RemoteLinc keypad and programming two of the buttons with Revolv to remotely control the Sonos pause and play modes.

It was very easy to configure. I also used the RemoteLinc to turn lights off and on.

Philips Hue personal wireless lighting starter pack ($200)

Using an app, you can control different color "scenes" as well as light intensity, with support for geofencing (creating different "zones" within the house) and time-based control. For each action, Revolv lets you set the color and brightness for individual Hue lamps or groups of them.

Philips Hue requires its own bridge -- a small, round device about the size of a hockey puck that connects directly to your wireless router using an Ethernet cable. After that, to initially connect it wirelessly to your smart bulbs you push a button on the bridge. Then you download and run the Hue app to view and control the bulbs.

My starter package included three Philips A19 LED light bulbs. I accidentally dropped one while taking it out of the package -- an expensive fumble. A second bulb did not respond properly to some commands and appeared to be defective. The third bulb worked fine. Revolv sent a second set, which also worked fine.

 Insteon LampLinc dimmer ($50)

Originally, Revolv supplied me with a WeMo Insight Switch; however, it failed to connect to the Wi-Fi routers in both locations. After some back and forth with Revolv tech support, we replaced it with an Insteon LampLinc. This dimmer outlet and app installed and worked without incident. Revolv supported on/off and light intensity for this device.

 Yale YRD220 Touchscreen Deadbolt ($200)

The test lock came on a stand so that I didn't have to actually install it in my front door. The rather beefy-looking unit was automatically recognized by Revolv and required following a series of steps, including entering the lock code, to set it up. Using Revolv, I was able use the deadbolt to trigger different sets of actions when the door unlocked (lights on, radio on) and locked (pause radio, all lights but one off).

Some warnings

One thing to think about is that the Revolv app does not offer any security controls, so if anybody steals your phone and it doesn't have any kind of device-level protection (such as a PIN code), your devices (possibly including the lock on your door) are vulnerable.

Another consideration: The requirement on the part of Sonos, Philips and some other smart devices for a dedicated hard-wired bridge adds to the e-clutter in the home. My cable modem is located in my office and during testing I filled up the remaining Ethernet ports on my router. My office desktop suddenly needed to accommodate not just a cable modem and Wi-Fi router, but the two bridges required by the Phillips Hue and Sonos systems in addition to a Vonage V-Portal voice over IP hub for my work phone and the Ooma VoIP unit that supports my home phone system.

I also ran out of power strip space. Revolv cofounder Mike Soucie says Revolv is working to eliminate the need for a bridge by convincing other vendors to support direct communication with the Revolv hub, which communicates wirelessly to your Wi-Fi router, and so can be placed anywhere that's within range of your wireless signal.

Bottom line

In a nascent market that has yet to settle on even the most basic communication protocols for the smart home, technical issues can crop up getting individual devices to work, period, let alone getting them all to work together.

And individual smart devices themselves, with embedded communications chips, can be expensive when compared to their 'dumb' counterparts. A Philips Hue light bulb, for example, sells for about $60. Expect those prices to come down in 2015 as manufacturers start producing in volume, Soucie says. "You'll see $15 and $20 bulbs," he predicts. But you still must be willing to pay a premium for convenience: You can buy a standard LED bulb for about ten bucks, while incandescent bulbs sell for less than $2.

Revolv does a good job at automating simple strings of events and actions. But life is messy and unpredictable, and the recipes for how an automated smart home should respond to the needs of its inhabitants can be very complicated.

For example, Revolv doesn't run an action when you're not in the house if it detects that there is an active Revolv app still in the house. For example, if someone is listening to the Rolling Stones Pandora channel on the Sonos unit and your arrival action calls for the Sonos to play the Beyonce channel, the current user's preferences rule.

What happens if users in the house have device-specific apps running and you're triggering actions that change how those devices operate? The answer, according to Revolv: Whichever app most recently performed an action on the object takes precedence.

And what if your partner is home in bed at 12:30 a.m. with her smartphone off and your arrival action calls for lights on and stereo turned up? By the end of this month, Revolv plans to add an "exception conditions" feature that lets you set rules that would let you limit that arrival action to certain hours.

But you really have to think about how to construct actions to fit everyone's lifestyle. Today's simple scripts will eventually have to give way to adaptive systems and predictive algorithms that learn and take actions based on how you interact with all of the devices in your home over time. (That's a challenge that startup Neura is working to solve.

But right now, says Soucie, companies like Revolv are dealing with more fundamental challenges, like ensuring basic connectivity to all devices and accommodating a wide range of products, each with its own individual feature sets and APIs, to let the user perform a few basic actions.

Ultimately, Soucie says, Revolv's goal is to create a "conscious home" that adapts seamlessly to your lifestyle. But today the focus is on not taking too much for granted. "The worst thing you can do," he says, "is get in the way."

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