Man’s quest for comfort is reaching new heights, and this reality is most evident in the switches and home automation market. The Internet of Things (IoT) has transformed this segment and brought with it a level of convenience that would have been unfathomable decades ago. Two things stand out currently: the sophistication of voice control systems and its impact in the automation segment, and the influence of Smart technology on switches. Thanks to Alexa, Google Home and HomePod, more consumers are using voice-activated commands to control their surroundings. Meanwhile, smart technology has given us USB plug points, wireless solutions,… to address the modern need of switches.
This, then, is the future – despite the many privacy concerns and fear of extreme dependence on technology. Whether it is novelty or genuine need, the masses are attracted to these solutions regardless. “People are using voice control commonly to play music, organise calendars, control home appliances, etc. Consumers are finding it more efficient, as they are user friendly. Artificial intelligence is booming right now and is progressive. Gradually, they will understand, interpret and make decisions based on the consumer’s past behaviour and give a more personalised experience,” points out Jayanth Jain, MD and CEO, GM Switches and Home Automation.

ATPL provided the most comprehensive automation solution for this 9,750sq-ft apartment in Gurugram, From lighting controls to Audio Video Systems and Security systems, the house virtually responds to the owners needs.

Virtual assistants are making such a big impact in the automation industry that most new devices have inbuilt virtual assistant skills . “The most efficient virtual assistants in the market today, are mainly from very large brands who are driving the customer education process and adoption through their customer connect & communication channels. The automation devices are becoming much more easy to install, and already reaching near plug & play capabilities; and with the controls on VA, the user shifts from mobile app based controls to voice controls is imminent in times to come,” says Vivek Yadav, senior VP, Havells India Ltd.
Such high level of reliance has been possible because of developments in key technologies that support home automation. As Sameer Saxena, director – Marketing, Legrand (Group) India, shares, “Wireless technology is playing a major role in multi-dwelling units. Moreover, technologies like Radio frequency/Zigbee, Infrared, Z-wave, etc have been game changers in the automation industry.” The average consumer, or even [the average] architect, may be oblivious to the nitty-gritties of such technologies, and would judge products and solutions on usability and efficiency.
In terms of technology, the most noticeable advancement that is within the grasp of lay consumers is the advent of the iPad, smart phone and its touch screen that is now commonly used as an interface for controlling virtually every electronic device in the house. “Not that touch screens did not exist. They did, but they were expensive and the battery did not last. The iPad and, then, the iPhone and the smartphone was convenient and had the best user interface at the price that was much, much cheaper than the proprietary touch screens that control and automation companies provided,” elaborates Alok Hada, director, ATPL.
Meanwhile, the switches industry had to take note of this shift in consumer behaviour (as well as expectation). The need for transition in the product range was invariable. Ahraaz Khan, marketing leader, Connected Living Solutions, Honeywell Building Technologies, India, explains, “The switches industry has undergone great evolution starting from ‘piano’ switches to ‘modular’ switches to the ‘aesthetically designed flat’ switches. Right now, it is an era of ‘smart switches’ and the industry will see a shift towards such devices that add convenience to the lives of the users.” In fact, ‘smart’ has become the defining factor in both segments.

Seven- inch multimedia VDP from Havells.

Defining Voice
If the advent of iPads and smartphones made automation more accessible, the rise in popularity of voice-activated systems like Alexa, Google Home… is widening the landscape of this industry. “Consumers are getting more familiar with voice controls and use of these devices, which has increased accessibility to devices and helped create greater demand. Consumers are happy with the interactions and highly recommend these devices to their network. This has created subtle behavioural changes in terms of acceptability and accessibility of use, and the dependency on them is increasing.” confirms Saxena.
It is the efficiency of these systems – besides accessible prices – that makes them an alluring addition to homes. Ripu Daman Sharma, country manager Sales, India Subcontinent, Lutron Electronics, explains, “Modern voice-activated systems are efficient to a large extent. They are very helpful when your hands are occupied at home, like cooking or the control devices that are kept at a distance. Some softwares even have self-learning ability to ‘learn’ your voice and accent for enhanced accuracy.” Like every other technology, there is still room for improvement, and Sharma points out that the accuracy in terms of self-learning or environment noise isolation requires upgradation.
There is a lot that can be improved within this technology, agrees Jain. “Considering the diversity of languages, dialects and accents, there is an opportunity to configure technology to cater to this prevalent intricacy. Technology should make life easier and, therefore, to identify the region of their target audience and try to develop devices which supports local language could be an advancement.” This challenge is unique to our country. Voice-controlled devices rely on generalisation and rough approximation. Where does that leave individual variation in accent, tone of voice, pitch, etc? That is pertinent in the Indian landscape. Only time will tell…

The Crabtree home automation systems always operate at peak efficiency to provide the occupants with customised environments.

Even Hada sees voice-activated systems as “work in progress”, especially since Alexa or Google Home are still largely dependent on the internet. “If the net is down or speed is slow, so is the response of the things being controlled.” Another challenge, he notes, is the complexity of multiple commands – such as “turn my study lights on, and at the same time draw the curtains and flip the TV channel” would be multiple commands happening in progression. “Although there are companies now offering the ability to have multiple commands as well. I would say while the technology has definitely improved from the original Siri commands available 2-3 years ago to today, there is still definite scope for improvement.”
Adding his views to the discussion, Yadav shares, “Most voice-enabled systems work on specific input commands which are programmed into the app, hence they are currently not able to accept and work on generic commands. Device diagnostics/trouble shooting/device malfunction capabilities are yet to appear at both ends of the device and VA, and is limited to feedback status of on/off only as of now.”
Talking about the advantages of such systems, Khan mentions how modern voice-activated systems are highly effective in performing routine and repetitive activities. When quizzed about scope for improvement, he adds: “For the ecosystem to have voice interface and other hardware to be popular, all the devices in the value chain should be innovative and should solve the same use cases effectively and up to the consumer’s expectation. Coherent move on target segment, use cases and technology would speed up the popularity further. This should go along with the number of critical use cases the same solution can solve.” (Use case is a software/engineering term that describes how a user uses a system to accomplish a particular goal.)
In a nutshell, there is an expectation for the technology to behave less like a machine, ironically, and more like the intuitive human mind. As Dinesh Aggarwal, joint managing director, Anchor by Panasonic, points out, “The incorporation of artificial intelligence and machine learning will make the voice-activated systems become feature rich and will provide a more human-like experience.”

Vetaar Smart Home solution by Anchor by Panasonic.

Retrofit Effect
As voice-activated systems become a household staple, the need for retrofit solutions in automation is bound to increase. The advent of reliable wireless controls, with reliable being the key word, will address this need seamlessly, according to Hada. “The fact that I can take out a group of switches and replace them with a dimmer system for lights and also control these via a wireless RF or a Zigbee protocol (which do not need line of sight) has helped in a lot of retrofit applications.”
Technological advancements have developed innovative products with built-in automation capabilities that reduce the inconvenience of structural alteration. “Earlier, there were hindrances in installing home automation systems as a lot of home automation products need electrical installation that leads to alteration in the structure,” shares Jain, adding that GM i-Fi automation technology is one such retrofit solution that enables one to control home electrical devices like television, lights, kitchen appliances, curtains, security-sensing devices, security alarm systems, etc. “When selecting and installing home automation systems, you may run into few obstacles; to avoid them you need to plan carefully before you delve into actual installation or it might go against you,” advises Jain.
Wireless solutions are being offered for easy retrofit with minimal disruption to daily operation and interior décor by brands like Lutron. It not only saves a lot of cabling and labour work, but also reduces installation time significantly. “For example, it will take more than an hour to install a wired occupancy sensor, including testing. A wireless sensor will only need around 10 minutes for installation and testing,” explains Sharma. Lutron’s Quantum is ideal for retrofit applications and can easily scale from a single area to a floor, a building, or to a campus with many buildings. “We also offer battery-operated honeycomb and roller shades that are completely free of wires, thus allowing them to be installed anywhere in the existing space without any hassles.”
Similarly, Honeywell smart wiring devices are retrofittable, and do not need any structural or electrical overhaul because of their modular design. “Additionally, the dimensions of smart and non-smart SKUs are similar. Hence, consumers can just replace non-smart unit with a smart unit without any hassle. Builders also don’t need to do any additional work to implement smart wiring devices in their project. It is familiar to install and operate,” mentions Khan.
Solutions are plenty in the market – but according to Legrand’s Saxena, it is the psychology of Indian consumers that has a bearing on the implementation. The customer slowly starts to feel the pinch of maintenance of these added gizmos and the cost needed to keep all of them running in prime condition. “He is no longer interested in investing in any new add-on for the home, his hope is that all existing components continue running for as long as possible!” In many ways the home automation solutions, in their current avatar in India, can be considered as an expensive and cosmetic add-on to a home. “Hence, retro-fit HA has not been able to penetrate the market or fulfill any potential yet.”

Honeywell’s Blenze plus range of wiring accessories offer protection against microbial contamination.

Power-Packed Switches
As the most visible product, switches have gone through a definite change, becoming user friendly and modular. At Legrand, one strong differentiator in their range of modular wiring devices has been design. “Be it Arteor’s floating design for a clutter-breaking look, Myrius’s curved edge for dust-free operation or Mylinc’s LincLoc mechanism for easy maintenance, Legrand’s unique switches have kept aesthetics and user-friendliness at the centre of the product design through process,” says Saxena. Besides offering IoT based switches, the company provides exclusive finishes like Mirror Finish, Galuchat Leather and Woven Metal.
Various trends are emerging in the design language of switches – and Yadav also notes that, in the future, switches will showcase minimalist to ethnic trends, in various innovative materials. “Though the functionality of the switch would continue to remain the same, the way of operation/form factor of the switch could see some new emerging trends like touch, flat switches, etc.”
Combined with modern technology, switches are now programmable and can include humidity sensors or occupancy sensors. Programmable switches also include lighting controls such as dimmers and timers. Elaborating on their advantages, Sharma shares, “Lutron patented XCT technology, recognises the difference between fine human motion and background noise. Every Lutron dimmer (which is a type of switch) spontaneously saves 4 to 9% electricity – even at the highest lighting levels—over a standard on-off switch. When users choose to dim their lights, even more electricity is saved. Upgrading to dimmers not only improves the comfort of your space, it improves your return on investment as well.”

Legrand’s Equinox enables users to create profiles based on time of day, location, function,
or individuals.

Switches have gone through successive transitions, from touch switches to IR switches and, of late, WiFi switches. “The new-age wireless switches have succeeded their wire-based counterparts, and are far more user friendly and energy efficient,” says Jain. “The smartphone-based control applications are largely driving the home automation market. With the introduction of light-sensitive switches, the idea of how a switch can function has also changed.”
From an aesthetic as well as functional perspective, many designers are opting for keypads over switches. “A single keypad that comes in a variety of colours and finishes can replace a whole bank of switches, thus providing the interior designer the luxury of more wall space and an aesthetically matching user interface,” explains Hada. Moreover, these keypads also have custom engraving, annotating each button with a functionality – thus making it more user friendly. The fact that they can be either wired or wireless makes it a versatile solution.
It has been a remarkable shift from being a ‘dumb’ device for switching on and off any power load to the ‘smart switches’ that hold within its sleek frame multiple functionalities. The future of this industry is marked with intelligence, with switches having built-in capabilities to track use pattern, store data on energy consumption and help optimise it. “Such switches could be operated remotely as well – for example; switching on your Induction plate to warm up food, while you are still on the way,” notes Jain.

Author : By Carol Ferrao

Voice-controlled automation systems and smart switches rule the industry

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