back to article Home wireless without the power trip

A new generation of low-power radio technologies is creeping into our homes, in the form of wireless light switches and remote-controlled plug sockets. But the next generation of home-automation kit is all going to communicate every which way, assuming a common language can be agreed upon. Zigbee, Z-Wave, and Bluetooth Low …


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  1. A J Stiles

    Proprietary, exclusionary standards = no good

    Multiple, incompatible competing proprietary standards lead to nobody getting anywhere. Those who have paid for licences end up producing overpriced products with limited appeal, and draw the conclusion that the public does not want them; and by the time the standards end up entering the public domain, nobody cares anymore.

    The best thing any government could do to encourage the adoption of a single standard, is annul any patents covering it and thus ensure its adoption by cheap manufacturers. Eventually, quality manufacturers will spot the market and join the show.

  2. dervheid

    "assuming a common language can be agreed upon"

    That'll be another *nice* idea murdered by the "my way's best" arguments.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Line of sight is a problem?

    So the remote for my TV has a problem because it only works on line of sight? Why would I need to use my TV remote when I can't see the TV?

    Seriously the line of site issue with IR is an advantage in a home with a lot of remotes and other sources of interference. Because it only works on line of site it is much less prone to interference than radio. A 2.4GHz source in my home can interfere with my wireless network, a source somewhere else on the street can be a problem. However my remote won't be influenced by an IR source in another room let alone another house.

    With the increasing use of radio on the limited bands available will lead to increased congestion and interference.

  4. Nano nano

    Long time coming ...

    Sadly, Zigbee has been "imminent" since 2002 at least ...

  5. Anonymous Coward

    It's not about the wireless band, it's about the users

    All of these competing standards should reflect on the slow adoption of "media centers" in the home, as well as the struggles Joe Homeowner has with encrypting a wifi network. The likelihood of anything architected around any kind of central "server" (that requires more administrative skill than a Tivo) succeeding is Nil, quite frankly.

    And if you think having the neighbourhood kids mooch off your broadband is bad, wait until they can remote in to your home automation... Unlike the typical El Reg reader, Joe H. does not want to be network admin and system admin in his/her own home!

    So forget about the wireless band for a moment, think about the user needs. Whatever succeeds will probably have the following characteristics:

    -- Setup at least as simple as X10; reliability at least as good as Insteon

    -- No central server. Or at least, not one more complicated than "plug'n'play"

    -- Mesh networking with signals relayed to every dark corner of your house, rather than relying on one or two broadcast access points

    -- Security established by "pairing" transmitters and receivers, a process familiar to anybody who has set up a wireless remote for a garage door, a new wireless key fob for their car, or even a Bluetooth hands-free kit. Or something equally simple and *physical*.

    As for anything that remotely resembles the current state of home networking, with servers and routers and access points and encryption keys and WEP and WPA... well, at least it promises a lucrative second career for some of us as home automation installers...

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    through their routers?

    F#ck me, a light switch that needs to go through the internet, through some Acme routers, back to the house and to the plug/socket.

    this can't be right, i thought Zigbee was a stand-alone self organising network, like peer to peer. The stack is a bit heavy for a light switch - though with silicon cost it will reduce.

    you can be sure that jokers will have great fun turning your house into a disco display once they've cracked the inevitably poor encryption/implementation.

  7. Iain


    Aren't we in the middle of an energy crisis (or something like that)?

    So, instead of switch closes circuit, allow leccy to flow to lightbulb we now have:

    Wifi lightswitch needs power source

    Wifi light wifi reciever needs power source

    Light needs power source


  8. Colin Morris

    Is line of sight really that big a problem?

    Is it not true these days that with many IR remote controls (such as the remote controller of the old Amstrad DRX400 Sky TV box) you can point the remote almost completely behind you away from the television and it will still change channels/work as intended?

    I'm sure IR remotes aren't going to disappear any time soon....

  9. Richard Brown

    And the value of this is?

    Apart from the potential use for people with disabilities the value of this technology is what ... I can now turn my lights off from my PC, what's wrong with the light switch. And how much fun will local teenage terrorists have hacking these systems and playing with your lights, cooker, fridge etc.

    Bah Humbug!

  10. Gary F
    Thumb Up

    Z-Wave is way cool...

    ...if only all of the devices promised years ago were actually available in the UK. Unlike Zigbee, Z-Wave doesn't need an Internet connection and can work with a simple, local remote control. Of course you can hook it up to your computer and then control your house via the Internet or mobile phone with the right software.

    @Iain, you are right, all these networked home devices drain current while doing absolutely nothing apart from listening out for a command. However, used creatively you can save energy. e.g. I told my computer to switch off the patio lights at 1am every night because sometime we left them on by accident. Our toilet has a motion sensor (no, no, let me finish the sentence!) so the light not only turn on automatically but switches off if it can't detect movement after 5 minutes. People were leaving the light on before which was annoying. I'm using X10 still (it's really unreliable) so I'm desperate to get my hands on UK compliant, discrete, Z-Wave modules (not the bulky plug-in-the-wall ones).

  11. Tim


    Why would anyone relinquish control of their house to their computer? ROTM? Anyone? Granted if I was a quadriplegic it might come in handy, but so would a trained monkey.

    If you want to improve light-switches, you want to improve the motion-sensors so they switch off when the room is empty and a manual over-ride for sleepers.

    TV remotes can be improved upon by improved speech recognition.

  12. Jeremy

    Line of sight...

    Can be a problem, for example, when you've got a dual-receiver satellite box split between two TVs... Try changing the satellite channel in the bedroom with an IR remote when the box is in the lounge...

    I'd reckon Bluetooth would struggle with that too, which I guess is why for the last two years or so I've been using a remote that operates over UHF radio via a little antenna plugged into the back of the digibox. Lovely. It works with no line of sight and several walls in the way, at least as far as the bottom of the garden (150ft or so). Simple, uncomplicated and it just works, no sync or anything like that needed...

    When we all have homes full of Bluetooth remotes and gizmos, I can just see it now. "Deary, change the channel will you?" "In a moment, just got to reconnect it. It's mixed up with the garage door at the moment..."

  13. dervheid

    Actually, I've just realised...

    This was all done in the eighties

    Anyone else remember "Electric Dreams"?

  14. Nano nano

    Where does it say that ?


    "Unlike Zigbee, Z-Wave doesn't need an Internet connection" - neither does Zigbee ...

  15. Bryan B

    Line of sight can be a big advantage

    as anyone who used a Palm or similar to beam contacts will know.

    Anything radio-based, such as Bluetooth, is a right PITA by comparison. Instead of a nice simple accept/reject dialogue, you get a list of all the detected devices, which in some locations can be yards long. Then you have to figure out which is the one you want to send to - by which time the receiver has probably turned itself undetectable again.

    Give me IrDA rather than Bluetooth for beaming any day!

  16. theotherone
    Paris Hilton


    why can't you just flick the light switch off with your finger?

    paris cause she can flick off...oh never mind

  17. Liam


    i have to say i love the fact my ps3 remote is bluetooth, it means i can use it outside to change my music (and upstairs/bathroom if i want to answer Jeremy's question). as i have my home cinema kit in the corner of my lounge (with tv central) my V+ box never seems to work without me pointing the bloody thing into the corner. bluetooth or BT style remotes for everything could be very cool.

    @ "you can point the remote almost completely behind you away from the television and it will still change channels/work as intended?" - you sure you arent bouncing the signal off walls in your house? i used to be able to switch on my lights in the lounge from the kitchen by bouncing the signal off 3 walls :)

    btw - for a cool toy try remote controlled dimmer switches :) ive got them in my house :)

  18. Michael

    Zigbee et al

    Zigbee doesn't need the internet. Certain companies sell solutions that use the internet as a controller. Also there are plenty of people working on proprietary 802.15.4 based comms protocols.

    The benefit of these are that you can drop in a wireless meshed self configuring network to run whatever they have been designed to run or monitor. The downside for the consumer is that you can't buy from multiple companies and have somethig that just works.

    I've see implementations and been involved in the design and deployment of low power wireless comms solutions that have a battery life of 3-5 years. I've also been involved with deployment of systems using energy harvesting to remove the need for battery power and in theory should provide devices that work indefinitely.

    These things are already being widely deployed in industry and the move to the home is going to happen.

    I have to agree that having IR for the TV is a good idea. I don't want the channel to change every time I sit on or drop the remote. The reason IR has been used for so long is because it does exactly what it needs to.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Does anyone still wear a watch nowadays? I thought now everyone has a moby, well they're sort of redundant unless you're a bling ponce?!

  20. David Pollard

    @ Kevin - through their routers?

    "A light switch that needs to go through the internet, through some Acme routers, back to the house and to the plug/socket."

    It's forward planning: so that they'll be able to check over the net and locate terrists and similar miscreants who haven't installed CFL lamps as instructed, or who leave their phone charger switched on.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Oh the Fun!!!

    of a trojan or virus that spreads via wi-fi and screws all such devices up...

    its only a matter of time...

    Can't wait for the syptoms of an infected property... [FHOD] the flashy house of death.... :)

    [Call Center operator]: yes sir, what seems to be the problem.

    (Frantic Customer): all the lights keep turning themselves on and off... it wont stop... help!

    [Call center]: Ah yes sir, thats a common problem these days, it's 'FHOD' sir. your home has a virus! have you tried turning everything off and on

    (even more frantic customer): wtf! my home has a cold??? turn what! off and on? the entire place is doing that itself!!! we cant even get out, the doors and windows dont work!

    [Call Center]: Ok sir i'll log a call for the mobile EMP generator team to pop round... our next available free slot is next Tuesday at 3pm, is that ok...

    (customer): WTF!!! next week! but were trapped... now!


    can you imagine the choas if they deployed this crap in a office block...

    does skynet come to mind... again...!

    ho-hum back to the tin-foil!

    mines the one with 1W jammers operating at 2.4 and 5.8Ghz with the antenna's fitted in the arms...

    (shortly to be available c/o your friendly chinese importers on Ebay :)

    the latest in BOFH specials, along with mobile phone tasers and cattleprods...

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Watches?

    Watches aren't yet obsolete.

    I can check a watch discreetly during a meeting - whipping out my mobile is a bit obvious - even if it will give me the chance to show off the Red Gem on my iPhone...

    And even the iPhone doesn't work too well 50m underwater...

  23. A

    Cables and old fashioned switches please

    Funny thing about those old fashioned light switch things, most of them have a lifespan of 25+ years, and require no power or troubleshooting at all.

    If you do decide to make life complicated with these things, please at least give us some useful way to debug the stuff.

    Does the light not work because, a) the bulb's failed, b) the wireless switch has failed, c) the wireless transmitter has failed, d) the wireless switch is on the wrong channel, e) the wireless switch is suffering interference, or f) because the router's down, g) because your internet connection has failed, h) because you've been hacked, i) because you're using the wrong switch (office vs home light switch), j) your switch is of a different and slightly incompatible design, or k) you need to replace the battery on the transmitter. You could argue that the last one is a subcase of c, but IMO a flat battery is different to a failed device. I'm sure there are countless other potential stumbling blocks I've forgotten.

    It's probably going to be simpler to buy a new house with those old fashioned light switches in it, than it would be to troubleshoot just one of these things successfully ;)

  24. Nick Pettefar

    Watch The Frequencies!

    All this radio-tech is all well and good so long as they design it correctly and rigidly ensure frequency compliance in manufacture. Otherwise they will piss everybody off when loads of people buy cheap foreign-made kit that is then banned because it craps all over adjacent bands, such as Amateur Radio or military.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Energy saving.....

    One plan is for a zigbee network to include your Smart Electric Meter and all other devices in your home. At times of heavy requirement the meter and devices reports are analysed and the Electric company will then be able to send a command to your house to turn off or turn down the air con. Obviously not much of a problem over here in coldsville but apparently significant in the hot States.

    The obvious extension to this in the UK once the TV remotes are under Zigbee is for the government to select our viewing for us. They will be able to detect that we are watching the wrong channel and switch all TVs with a single network broadcast. Knowing this lot, this forward planning is the reason that TV remotes have suddenly been brought into the equation in the UK.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    this is wireless gone mad!

    with the long and even short term effects of wi-fi on health being ignored by the government for reasons of profit over health do we really need to flood our homes with it?

    wi-fi already travels through walls from your neighbours houses into yours. If we all use this proposed technology, we'll have no escape [anywhere] from its effects, and will have no control over whether we have it in our homes or not! Consider that most people are too lazy (or stupid) to turn it off at night (or during the day) when it is not being used, and you quickly realise that we are now surrounded by it day and night.

    What happens when it is proved beyond doubt that wi-fi is bad for us? If we introduce these proposals it will be too late to do anything about it.

    Removing asbestos is still a growing job market, and how long have we known about its devastating effects? Smoking is still a massive problem, why? because the governments believed our health was not as important as business, and like it is doing with wi-fi, toned down, criticised, and even geared the tests towards ambiguous results. Before we get sensible health results we'll have it everywhere, in every shop, every home, every pub! Now try removing it!

    Bear in mind that when you disable wi-fi, in 90% of devices (the PS3 40Gb is a rare exception), you do NOT turn it off. You just disable its receive function, rather than turning off the transmit. Lazy and cheap design and programming! The ONLY real way of making sure it is off, is by physically turning off the power to it.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @this is wireless gone mad! by Anonymous Coward

    You sure you're in the right place here?

  28. Simon Taylor

    Never mind battery life - how about no batteries?

    EnOcean uses energy harvesting to provide these control functions, the power used to press the switch generates the energy to transmit. Hundreds of thousands of these switches are already used around the world, yet this article omits them. - most of the existing switch manufacturers have already adopted this technology, not many have ZigBee, Z-Wave or Wibree products.

  29. Anonymous Coward

    Arch Rock?

    Um -- no mention of Arch Rock, which already has this stuff out and working, and is IP-based?

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