Over fifty years on, the true smart home – a seamlessly connected space in which our needs are anticipated, our lives are made easier and healthier, and our carbon footprint is reduced –is still some way in the future. But today’s explosion of technological innovation and AI in particular, is enabling companies to deliver more and more elements of what will ultimately comprise the smart home.
According to an October 2017 report from The NPD Group1, 15 percent of U.S. households own a home automation device, up from 10 percent in April 2016. NPD reported strong growth across all types of devices, with security and monitoring representing the largest share of dollar sales, and product categories such as video doorbells and smart lighting also growing quickly.
NPD also reported that ownership of voice-activated wireless speakers (e.g. Amazon Echo and Google Home) had more than tripled over the year, totaling 10 percent of U.S. households at the time of the report.
Smarter homes require smarter technologies
Building on this foundation, many new devices are entering the market to offer increased efficiencies for our home lives.
One of the most highly anticipated (and possibly feared) innovations is the robot. Already Roomba and other robotic vacuums are helping many people keep their floors free of debris; and robotic lawn mowers, while not yet affordable enough for mass adoption, are already on sale. According to a 2018 report by Juniper Research, domestic aide robotics like the Roomba will drive consumer robotics hardware revenues from an estimated $6.4 billion in 2018 to nearly $23 billion by 2022; an increase of over 250%.
Our homes are beginning to incorporate ubiquitous voice and gesture control. Voice today is already becoming widespread through digital assistants. Alongside gesture control, using this technology will feel even more natural. To work effectively, today’s gesture tracking technology requires depth sensors backed by high-performance computers, so it’s not yet practical for all devices. This is changing though with the help of new software and more efficient hardware. Today you can already buy products that control the lights, turn on your TV, control the thermostat and more – all with a wave of your hand – but in the future we expect the technology to blend more seamlessly into the living environment allowing consumers to interact more naturally with their smart home.
More immersive and interactive entertainment and experiences are also being introduced into the home through the proliferation of untethered VR and AR devices. Today’s AR devices show what are very obviously computer-generated graphics over the top of the real world view, but higher-performance graphics will make this less obvious and more realistic over time, seamlessly blending the virtual environment with the real world.
On the VR side, the true immersive capability will come when untethered devices have the same graphics capability as tethered devices. One drawback today is in degrees of freedom (DoF): on untethered devices today, there are only 3DoF, versus 6DoF in tethered devices. The difference is in tracking a user’s position not just by where they are looking, but also how they are moving – an important consideration for delivering a realistic experience. These challenges will be overcome, and we will see untethered devices with location services, increasingly better screen quality, 3D room scanning and low network latency – all leading to true immersion in a virtual world.
Another exciting development is in the area of personalization across devices. Whether it’s your television or your digital assistant, AI will enable devices to recognize different family members and deliver personalized services. Turn on your TV and it will recognize you and adjust the settings accordingly (with parental controls, favorite programming, etc.). This personalization is also coming to entertainment robots, with several robots already available which leverage a combination of robotics, AI and computer vision to recognize family members. Interactions in some cases include simulated emotional responses. Makers of these devices are increasingly packing in advanced technologies, creating more natural interactions and capabilities over time.
Across these devices and many others, ubiquitous connectivity is coming. It is this connectivity that will enable the home to provide useful services. Devices will integrate Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 5G and even location services to provide a better experience.
SoC design requirements
All of these innovations will make use of systems on chips (SoCs) that integrate IP cores including CPUs, GPUs, neural network accelerators (NNAs) and connectivity processing engines. If they are to overcome today’s limitations and deliver a compelling user experience, they need IP cores designed with industry-leading performance, power and area (PPA).
With highly optimized IP, SoC vendors will produce devices that deliver more performance per watt, OEMs will produce products with new features for new markets, and third-party developers can partner with OEMs to deploy advanced algorithms that differentiate their products.
Power efficiency is critical to battery operated devices in ensuring they can function for an acceptable time before needing a recharge. It is also critical for many wired products which are designed to operate within energy efficiency guidelines, and for devices like AR/VR devices which are worn on the face (where a hot device will lead to a very poor user experience). IP that is designed for low-power operation, and also made to be easily integrated into SoC-level power management schemes, can reduce overall SoC power consumption, leading to longer battery life and less heat output.
For many of the entertainment devices of the future home, immersive, realistic graphics will play a key role. Today’s GPUs are also being used for applications beyond graphics on devices without screens, since they are better parallel processing engines than CPUs, tuned for complex mathematics operations. We’re starting to see SoCs that incorporate GPUs for high-end compute to deliver real-time 6DoF computation in VR; precise alignment of graphics overlay on real-world in AR; and a combination of NNA and GPU compute for AI and natural language processing. For these use cases, GPUs must support larger formats, greater bit depth, wider dynamic range, better low light performance, faster response time, and greater functionality.
The home of the future is all about connectivity, and there are multiple standards to support. Wi-Fi plays a key role cross many devices, notably 802.11ac and 11ax for high-bandwidth connectivity. There also remains a strong demand for the older 802.11n standard for low-power, low-bandwidth applications. But because Wi-Fi is traditionally power-hungry, if it is added it to battery operated or energy conscious devices, what’s needed is a low-power connectivity engine which is architected from the group up to minimize power usage, and maximize battery life and communication range.
The many personalized and value-added features that are coming to the smart home will be driven by neural network accelerators (NNAs). These engines enable natural language processing, voice recognition technologies, vision processing algorithms and more. Because this technology will be implemented in many battery powered devices with built in intelligence, power consumption is key.
Consumers will only begin to adopt products en masse when they are affordable. Smart home appliances are still expensive: even smaller items such as networked light bulbs, smart thermostats, door and window locks, and smart electricity sockets are not yet attractively priced. Smart home starter kits can cost several hundreds of dollars. And since adding more sensors can be prohibitively expensive, homeowners often abandon their plans to expand the system.
For silicon design, the biggest contributor to cost is silicon area. For products with GPUs, NNAs and various connectivity requirements, you can imagine that all of the integrated technology can lead to a fairly large silicon die, but consumer products have a short lifecycle and need to be affordable. Whether creating a highly-integrated single-chip design or a companion chip, keeping area to a minimum will decrease costs. IP that is architected for compact area will absolutely play an important role.
Advanced features “as standard”
All of the affordability and battery longevity in the world won’t make a product successful if it’s not useful and fully featured. Product developers need to deliver true value and a compelling user experience. Silicon IP delivers the underlying performance and features needed to drive these experiences.
For VR and AR devices, GPUs deliver high-performance compute for imaging processing (e.g. stabilization, correction, improvement, face detection and beautification tools), multimedia e.g. (real-time stabilization, information extraction and superimposition of information), computer vision (e.g. augmented reality, edge and feature detection), and gaming. These GPUs must support larger formats, greater bit depth, wider dynamic range, better low light performance, faster response time, greater functionality and more. The PowerVR Furian architecture is designed to scale efficiently to the high performance points needed, and does so in a manner that mitigates performance density issues which are seen in some competing solutions.
Many home devices of the future will require SoCs that process data locally and relay data to the cloud for onward processing and data aggregation. In many cases, the inferencing could be run on powerful hardware in the cloud, but for many reasons it’s now time to move this to edge devices. Where fast response is essential, it’s simply not practical to run neural networks in the cloud due to latency issues. Moving the processing onto the device also eliminates the security issues that could occur. As cellular networks may not always be available, be they 3G, 4G or 5G, dedicated local hardware will be more reliable, as well as offering greater performance and, crucially, much-reduced power consumption.
On the connectivity side, given today’s many home standards, what’s needed is a connectivity engine that supports them all. The future home gateway will likely combine 802.11ax and 802.15.4 (e.g. Zigbee, Thread) and potentially also Bluetooth. In addition, some operators are now considering re-adding DECT in the gateway to support phone handsets, as they retire traditional phone service in favor of providing broadband only.
Visionary technologies deliver true innovation
To achieve the vision of a truly smart home, there are many challenges to overcome in terms complexity, affordability, interoperability, ease of implementation, and countless others. These challenges will take time for the industry to address. It will also take time for consumers to accept and welcome many of these technologies into their homes. In the meantime, we will continue to see smarter home products that make our lives easier, our interactions richer, and our entertainment more immersive.
The true vision of the smart home will be realized when customers can affordably and easily implement the needed technologies; moreover when the smart home begins to aggregate the data generated by all of the connected devices therein. At that point, the system will monitor itself, make intelligent decisions and manage everything autonomously without consumers’ intervention.
With innovative IP from Imagination, we’re moving quickly in that direction. Only time will tell if these conveniences will lead to a work-week that is only two hours long, like that experienced by George Jetson.
About the author:
Simon Forrest is Director of Connected Home, Imagination Technologies - www.imgtec.com