Home Automation Takes FlightFive years ago, smart technology transformed the way we communicate with the widespread use of smartphones and tablets across the globe. Now it’s slowly creeping into our homes in Hong Kong. Smart homes, also known as networked homes, are homes that are highly automated. Imagine: the air-conditioning is on 10 minutes before you return home from a sweat-drenched workout. One touch on your tablet, Chopin’s Nocturne starts to play and the lights dim for your candlelight dinner.

Automation for the People
It wasn’t long ago that smart homes were perceived to be exclusively for the rich. “Over the last five to 10 years, smart homes were considered as a luxury component and limited to the small group of [the] affluent. The price concern and unfamiliarity with the products deterred people from using them,” observes Icy Cheung, assistant marketing manager at HKT Smart Living, a new service launched by Hong Kong Telecommunications in 2012.

Today, the smart home is not just for computer geeks and IT pros. “Expats, businessmen, village house and apartment owners are our clients,” says Myron Lam, a technical consultant at Hong Kong-based AMPC ITSolution Company, a smart home solutions provider. More ambitious is HKT Smart Living, which is eager to reach out to the mass market. “[We target] newlyweds and small families who want to maximise their comfort level … Landlords and developers who aspire to create a unique and impressive property,” says Cheung.

Among those attracted by the concept of smart living is Ringo Ng, who works in the consumer business. Ng and his family lived like typical Hongkongers for years in a run-of-the-mill 1,470-square foot apartment at Fly Dragon Terrace in Tin Hau. It wasn’t until recently that he decided to give his home a facelift. “I especially like the preset scene function, which allows me to sit back and relax comfortably in my preferred home ambience, simply by pressing a button,” says Ng.

The old days were the ones when you had to dim the lights, draw the curtains manually and juggle with five to six remote controls just to play a DVD at home. The latest trend involves connecting your home appliances and lighting with a smartphone, tablet or other smart devices. In Ng’s case, the “movie mode” has been tailored to his preference to control everything — compatible lighting, curtains, television and hi-fi system at the push of a single button on his smart phone.

In the morning, lights in Ng’s bedroom illuminate by 1 percent every second from 8 am, curtains open slowly to let sunlight in and the stereo system starts to play some soothing music and tune into his favourite radio channel. “This affordable luxury enhances my everyday living experience,” adds Ng.

High quality living does come at a price though. The home automation system in Ng’s three-bedroom apartment cost him around $115,000, which includes an audiovisual management system, basic home network, and control over air-conditioning, curtains and lighting. “Smart living costs about an extra 5 to 10 percent of your renovation project,” explains HKT’s Cheung.

As for smaller-sized flats, a full system runs about $20,000 to $30,000, depending on the exact functions required, says AMPC’s Lam. “It works well in apartments of all sizes,” Lam adds. For instance, a smart-home system in a typical 400 to 500-square foot apartment in Hong Kong can offer homeowners remote-controlled air-conditioning, door locks and security cameras.

Smart living doesn’t stop there. For those without a renovation plan in the near future, adorning your home with smart gadgets is an alternative. Window cleaning has long been regarded as a dangerous and arduous task. Now Ecovacs Winbot 7 ($3,288) will do your dirty work. “This window-cleaning robot automates what used to be a tiresome household chore,” says HKT’s Cheung. Wondering how it works? Winbot gets its job done by using a vacuum seal to stick to the glass surface. It works well on glass doors, mirrors and thermopane (double-paned) windows too.

Meanwhile, if you are a poor gardener trying to save your mum’s or girlfriend’s dying orchid, Parrot’s Flower Power ($498) might offer a helping hand. This wireless plant monitor equipped with Bluetooth technology connects to your smartphone to monitor soil moisture, fertiliser, light intensity and ambient temperature for your plants. You will get an alert on your smartphone if any action is needed.

Also joining the smart-home revolution are global tech giants. In June, Apple unveiled its plan to roll out an initiative called HomeKit. The new platform will allow users to use their iPhones to control locks, lights, thermostats and doors via a single app supported by iOS 8, which is expected to launch this coming autumn.

Google, too, is eyeing the home automation market. Three weeks after Apple’s announcement, US-based Nest Labs, which Google acquired for US$3.2 billion in January, opens up its smart thermostats and smoke detectors for developers to make them compatible with other smart household items, including washing machines, lights and cars. According to Mashable, Google’s launch partners will include Whirlpool and Mercedes-Benz.

Here in Hong Kong AMPC’s Lam is optimistic about the future and expects smart homes to gain real traction in two to three years’ time. His forecast is not far from reality as more homeowners are beginning to see smart homes as a long-term investment. “[You do this] for the good of the environment and personal convenience,” he says. “It may not be money-saving, but it saves you time and gives you the kind of lifestyle you desire.”