With Matter, smart-home devices will work well together and the true potential of connected tech will be realized. (Source: AndSus - stock.adobe.com)
The dream of the smart home—an automated dwelling that cossets its occupants in a warm blanket of technology—remains just that. But we might not have to wait too much longer for easily accessible, reliable, and crucially, interoperable connected-home products, which is a welcome relief because the smart home’s potential has been touted for much longer than you might think.
Science fiction aside—which nearly a century ago had robots helping with household chores and homes that continued to operate even though the occupants were long gone—American Jim Sutherland was among the first to attempt wide-scale automation. A Westinghouse power station engineer by day, Sutherland designed the Electronic Computing Home Operator (or ECHO IV) in his spare time during 1966. The machine managed the Sutherland family home accounts, calendar, air conditioning, and TV antennas, among other tasks. The phrase “smart home”—coined by the American Association of House Builders in 1984—is only a little younger than ECHO IV.
Yet, in 2022, mainstream smart-home adoption remains elusive. While the shipment numbers of connected home devices—think smart-speakers, -lights and -thermostats—number in the billions, they tend to be purchased by early tech-adopters. Analyst Statista1, for example, claims that just 14.2 percent of homes across the globe have embraced smart-home products.
The slow take-up is caused by complexity. Today, it’s almost impossible to walk into a store and walk out with a range of smart-home products that play nicely together. Even tech-savvy buyers struggle to get their smart-home products working. For example, early-adopters find a digital voice assistant from one manufacturer often falls over when trying to configure and control smart lights or an air-conditioning system built by another vendor. Without an informed choice of technology and smart-home ecosystems—such as Apple’s, Amazon’s, or Google’s—consumers seem to be forever toiling to keep finicky equipment connected. The average consumer has no chance. And neither does a realization of the fully-integrated smart home.
While around 14 different connectivity standards are vying for a share of the smart-home sector, BLUETOOTH® Low Energy (Bluetooth LE), Wi-Fi®, and Thread are forging ahead. But that’s little help to consumers because even these mainstream RF protocols are not interoperable.
Realizing that no single wireless connectivity standard is ever likely to emerge, the tech industry has come together to find an engineering solution that promises harmony. The 400-plus member group these companies have formed is called the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA). As of October 2022, the organization has announced the release of Matter 1.0, a smart-home protocol that promises to straighten out the current tangle of wireless connectivity.
Rather than introducing a competing standard, Matter complements the existing smart-home technologies of Thread and Wi-Fi (plus the Ethernet-wired protocol). Thread is a popular low-power protocol suitable for devices like thermostats and smart lights, while Wi-Fi supports higher-bandwidth products such as entry cameras. Bluetooth LE support is included primarily because of its interoperability with smartphones—thus allowing consumers to use their mobiles to commission and configure their new smart-home gadgets. For the technically minded, Matter adds a unifying application layer to the Wi-Fi, Thread, and Bluetooth LE protocol stacks that manufacturers can leverage to bring compatibility and interoperability to their products.
But perhaps more importantly, Matter promises simplicity for consumers. Instead of having to work out if a thermostat is Apple compatible, or if Google smart speaker can control a Yale smart lock, buyers can check for the Matter certification that ensures interoperability. And for manufacturers, the product development process is made easier because they can use a single standard for all their products, safe in the knowledge they’ll work with all major smart-home ecosystems.
Who’d have thought that fierce competitors like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Samsung would even sit around the same table, let alone work closely together for years on a solution to the smart home’s stultifying complexity? Cynics said it would never happen, and for a long time, it seemed they were right—for example, the Matter 1.0 standard faced several lengthy delays before it was adopted.
With some fanfare, the project was originally announced in 2019 as Project CHIP, and the standard was planned for release in late 2020. That was delayed into early 2021. Then in August 2021, following the rebrand to Matter, the standards release was pushed to mid-2022. Finally, because of problems with the Matter software development kit (SDK), Matter was released in late 2022.
The good news is that collaboration continued behind the scenes during the delays, and chip makers and end-product manufacturers worked hard on their hardware and software solutions ahead of the official launch. Because of that background work, today it’s possible to purchase Matter chips from a selection of silicon vendors mere weeks after the standard was been adopted. In addition, the certification labs are up and running, the SDK is available, and companies are lining up for Matter certification of their smart-home devices.
Now that Matter is here, manufacturers will be able to put much less effort into patches and workarounds to ensure their products work with others and focus more on innovation, security, and quality. In a decade or less, the smart home will be commonplace in the developed world, and it will be much more than a place where our voice controls the lights or a smart thermostat looks after the heating. Instead, Artificial Intelligence and machine learning will fine-tune automation so that energy bills drop, the electric car is only charged for the short journey it knows you’re taking tomorrow, the media room lights are set for movie night, and some paracetamol has been automatically ordered and delivered because your wearable has detected signs of an impending chill.
Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.
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