Smart Home

Exclusive Interview: ‘Home On’ Host Richard Gunther on The DIY Smart Home

This time we talk to Richard Gunther (@richardgunther), host of the HOME: ON Podcast, a show about DIY home control and automation.

Hi Richard. Can you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to the wonderful world of smart home tech and presenting the Home: On Podcast?

I’ve been pretty much of a tech geek since I was young. I remember when I was a kid my grandparents had an old X10 system from Sears to set up timers for some lights around the house. While most kids saved up for bikes and sports equipment, I spent my money on things like stereo equipment and slide and movie projectors. I remember spending all my book money for my first year of college on a first-generation CD player! As I got older, I became more interested in consumer entertainment, smart home, and kitchen tech. When blogs became a thing, I wrote about DVRs and such to an audience of…maybe dozens. A decade or so later, when I started Home: On, I’d been writing and podcasting at The Digital Media Zone for a few years, and I always looked for ways to talk about home automation in one of our other shows – where it didn’t really fit. Eventually I decided to break it out into its own show.

After 5 years and over 100 episodes in the archives, whats been the secret of your success and what keeps you motivated?

I think our roster of guest co-hosts is what keeps the show fresh, interesting, and growing. I feel like I hit the smart home market and podcasting at just the right time. Guests were curious and eager to join me at the beginning, and now the momentum of the show helps pave access to even more interesting guests. We just had Jamie Siminoff, the founder of Ring, on the show. He was on over four years ago when they were a promising start-up with one product. Now they’re huge! And that just completely jazzes me – getting to talk with and share my conversations with interesting people and companies like that. Our audience is worldwide, with the largest segments from the US, UK, Canada, Germany, and Australia. Hearing from our listeners, particularly stories about how they’ve tried products we’ve discussed or learned something that helped them, is more motivating for me than anything else, though.

Can you tell us a bit about your own smart home setup?

As a blogger and reviewer in this space, you can imagine my place is a bit of a Frankenstein house. It kinda drives my partner nuts. The bulk of my home runs on Insteon. I’ve used Insteon products since their introduction over a decade ago. But over the past few years, I’ve added many products, including Nest thermostats, a Ring doorbell and cameras, Lutron shades, Philips hue lighting, Amazon Echo devices, and Sonos speakers. There’s a little area in my attic I affectionately refer to as Hubland, housing all of the different hubs and bridges, along with an array of network switches, to make it all work.

While the choice for DIY smart home owners is bigger than ever, integration still remains a huge issue. Do you see this improving any time soon?

It’s a mess, isn’t it? And with the GAFA players involved now, it’s getting worse, I think. Easier, perhaps, but more fractured. I was thinking of a joke the other day. Alexa, Siri, and Google’s Assistant walk into a bar where Cortana and Bixby are already sitting. Cortana asks, “hey, can we talk?” “NO!” they all yell. I’m still working on that one, but my point is that we went from multiple “standards” (protocols, more accurately) to that plus these newer fiefdoms, all vying to be “the one system.” The same thing is now happening in the smart kitchen, too.

So if you had to bet your house on Insteon, Z-Wave, Zigbee, HomeKit or any of the other standards or frameworks emerging as a market leader, who would you back?

Since you didn’t explicitly stipulate “one,” I’m going to say Insteon and HomeKit. HomeKit, of course, is a bit of a cheat, though, because between WiFi, Bluetooth, and various bridges to other protocols, they cover the gamut. Z-Wave and Zigbee are also great, and they’ll definitely continue to grow, but the bulk of my home is already built on Insteon, and I’m not turning away from that.

What’s your opinion of Cloud based home automation services like IFTTT?

The cloud offers immense opportunity to consumers to bridge between otherwise disconnected devices and ecosystems. Services like IFTTT, Stringify, and Yonomi have essentially taken the place of the hub for many people. But I’m still a proponent of local control, where possible, so I don’t ever imagine going hubless. Cloud systems can still be slow and less reliable.

Will manufacturers get to grips with IoT security or is it going to remain a threat for the foreseeable future?

Security is a cat-and-mouse game with dire consequences. We’ve dealt with security issues before in databases, sales systems, and customer records. The problem is that each new type of IoT device establishes new vectors that can be exploited and need to be secured. That takes time and resources that many companies just don’t have. I’d argue that some IoT security scares have been overblown, often requiring site access to the supposedly vulnerable device. But others, like those that can exploit manufacturers’, installers’, or homeowners’ laziness or naivety can be quite serious, as we saw with Mirai. Properly securing the IoT will require action from everyone in the chain—from designers to users.

What’s the one product that we should all have in our smart home setup?

I’m a big proponent of the smart thermostat. Depending on your home and lifestyle, its value can range from a nice convenience or a huge money saver. Sure, programmable thermostats have existed for years, but most of those never actually get programmed – they’re clunky and confusing. Something about their learning capability or even the ability to program them from a phone or tablet makes today’s smart thermostats much more useful. I have friends and listeners who report cutting their energy bills by as much as $ 50/month just by moving to a smart thermostat.

What mosts excites you about the next 5 years for the home automation industry? What sort of new product categories might we see?

Two things: First, I never thought we’d be as far along as we are on voice control. Thanks to Amazon’s pioneering efforts to bring voice to the masses (whatever their motivations might have been), home voice control is moving from science fiction to daily life. The opportunity to harness voice will likely improve significantly over the next few years.

Second, I’m a big believer in “the conscious home.” We already have a lot of the technology that can make this possible with bluetooth phones, cams, and sensors. The missing piece is affordable software that can deliver the necessary algorithms and compatible hardware to make it all possible. But we’re not too far from that day when lighting or music can follow you around as you move through your day, tuned to the appropriate color temperature, brightness, and genre, depending on where you are, what you’re doing, and what time it is. Leaving for work? No problem. That station you’re listening to follows you into your car, and the house secures itself as you drive away since you’re the last one out. We’re so close to making scenes like this a reality, but there are still too many variables, too many disparate components, and too much manual intervention required for it to work. You have to be a serious geek to benefit from stuff like this today, but this will come to more consumers as companies like Google push the envelope on AI in the home.

Finally where’s the best place for people to follow your work and listen to the podcast?

I publish Home: On and occasional smart home and digital entertainment articles at The Digital Media Zone, which I help manage. Home: On is also in all the usual podcast places. If you’re at all interested in Smart Kitchen tech, I also contribute occasionally to The Spoon.

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