Smart homes, a new residential wave

Smart homes are emerging as a future core trend in the residential environment. The trend started in 1980 with the concept of home automation, involving simple controls mounted on a wall console used to adjust heating devices and monitor home entrances. However, with the use of short-range wireless networks and mobile communication networks within the home, this trend has evolved into the home use of IoT (Internet of Things). The word “Things” in IoT refers not only to tangible items but also to virtual objects. Yet, the evolution of smart homes is no longer powered by the question “How do we connect things to the internet” but rather “Why should we connect things to the internet?” The main reason for connecting physical and virtual objects to the internet is to create a more intelligent home environment and to allow for information to be shared between connected objects. This “more intelligent” environment of connected items provides better services for the human user without human intervention. In other words, these trends are designed to make each person’s home truly “smart.” All this is being made possible through the use of AI (artificial intelligence).

As home IoT continues to evolve, it is increasingly using AIoT (Artificial Intelligence of Things), an intelligent IoT technology where AI is incorporated, to ramp up each object’s IoT connectivity. If IoT represents the digital neural network of connectivity between devices, AI plays the role of the brain, controlling and managing the connected devices. AIoT is a core technological convergence that combines IoT and AI across various domains. AIoT combines the ultra-connectivity of 5G Advanced/6G mobile communications with the superintelligence of AI and big data. In other words, AIoT acts as the service platform technology that supports ultra-connectivity and superintelligence, powering the super-convergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

AIoT is a neologism that was coined by the Japanese company, Sharp, in 2015. In 2016, Sharp utilized AI technology to revive the sharply declining sales in its home appliance sector. The goal was to provide customized services, tailored to each individual user, by embedding AI in home appliances. As the scope of AI application broadened, AI began being installed in almost all home appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, and speakers. AIoT or “Artificial Intelligence of Things” is indeed a technological convergence that develops, loads, and utilizes intelligence that is tailored to the many unique characteristics of a diverse range of things.

In the existing IoT system, data generated from devices connected to the internet is sent to a cloud server for processing and then sent back to the device or related data. In contrast, AIoT does not simply transmit data but rather, through artificial intelligence, intervenes in individual devices or edges of data processes. “Edge” in this context refers to performing computations in a location close to the user, so this technology is also referred to as “edge computing.”

Core AIoT technologies of smart homes

To create a “smart home,” the first priority is to identify areas for improvement in real time based on various, real-life situations that occur in the home. Sensors are needed to assess the conditions of the home environment. Smart homes use various types of sensors to quickly and accurately detect complex environmental changes in the home. Next, network technology is needed to transmit data and process large amounts of data. Cloud environments, AI, and big data technology, as well as intelligent platform technology or security technology, are also needed for data processing and for meeting various needs within the home.

With the development of intelligent IoT that combines IoT and AI, edge computing has emerged as an important technology. Over time, the quantity and variety of data generated by sensors have increased, making it much more efficient to analyze and process the data at the point of generation. Given the amount of data that must processed, smart homes must be supported by high-performance AIoT system semiconductors. Finally, user-centric application service technology is an essential part of home smartification.

AIoT system semiconductors are mainly comprised of sensors, communication chips, and processors. Recently, sensors have become the standard component used to recognize and collect various information and data related to objects, conditions, and other characteristics of the home environment. Sensors play a major role in detecting external information. The term “sensor” comes from the word “sense,” as in “the human senses,” the latter of which generally cannot make objective measurements or convert these rough measurements into something that can be understood by a machine. Sensors are being developed as MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems) integrated on silicon substrates, which make it easier to incorporate them into communication and processor chips and modules. Various sensors, such as those that read and measure temperature, humidity, and light level, have been developed and are being used to create a more comfortable home environment. Other sensors, such as those that detect fire and gas, or ensure home security are being used to increase the safety of the home environment. Other sensors for fingerprint recognition, meter reading, water quality management, and remote medical treatment are also being developed and increasingly utilized.

Communication chips for AIoT support WiFi and Bluetooth (BT), which are technologies that have already been widely adopted by the general public. However, the disadvantage of these technologies is that they can’t communicate over longer distances, and so, the low-power wide area network (LPWAN) is used to compensate for this shortcoming. This type of network involves the use of technologies such as NB-IoT, LoRa, and SigFox. Although LPWAN has a slow network speed, at only a few hundred kilobits per second, it has a wide service range, covering over 10 km. 5G mobile communication technology is also an important part of the smartification trend since it can be used in smart cities, smart factories, remote medical care, and for other applications.

The processor chip is the most critical component in implementing AIoT. Intelligent tasks are performed by classifying and processing information collected by the sensor, which is a process that must be supported by a high-performance chip with a strong computational power. The most significant technological change from IoT to the AIoT era is the shift from cloud-based computing to edge computing. Another notable characteristic is that system semiconductors for edge computing require high-speed, low-power, and high-performance processors.

“Matter” standardization for the expansion of smart homes

Currently, the biggest obstacle to expanding smart homes is that home appliance and IoT device manufacturers all make many different products that have different technological requirements for support. A great deal of effort is being made to implement technological standardization throughout the industry. Efforts to standardize smart homes began in 2012 with the global partnership project OneM2M, followed by the development of standards by the OIC (Open Interconnect Consortium) and OCF (Open Connectivity Foundation). However, despite these efforts, the smart home market has not significantly expanded. From the user’s point of view, the lack of standardization often results in the cumbersome process of determining and ensuring operability between smart home devices.

However, a standard called “Matter” was recently established that is expected to promote the development of the smart home market. In November 2022, the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA), which includes companies such as Samsung, LG, Google, and Apple, announced the global smart home standard “Matter 1.0”. Matter’s competitiveness lies in its participating companies and scalability. More than 500 companies, including smart home platforms, home appliances, semiconductors, and IT services, are participating as backers of the new standard.

Matter 1.0 is a standard that applies to smart bulbs and light switches, plugs and outlets, thermostats, sensors, and TVs. Subsequent versions of Matter are expected to be applied to refrigerators, air conditioners, robotic vacuum cleaners, and other appliances. Through the continued development of Matter standards, consumers will be able to freely connect IoT products and appliances within their home, no matter the product or appliance manufacturer. Integrated control and connection will also be made possible through the same platform and application, regardless of the company that manufactured each individual device.

Samsung and LG are actively involved as co-leaders of the CSA, which held its first regular meeting, following the announcement of Matter, in Korea in March. Korean electronics companies such as Samsung, LG, Coway, KD Navien, and Commax are applying the Matter standard to their products. Even telecommunications companies such as KT and LG Uplus are considering adopting the Matter standard.

This year, Samsung Electronics expects to sell more than 20 million home appliances worldwide through its SmartThings IoT platform, while LG Electronics is focusing on developing its smart home business through the LG ThingQ IoT platform. Both companies actively support Matter standardization, together with major global companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple.

However, some people have raised criticisms that Matter is a standard being created for the benefit of platform operators, and that it has limited utilization in the home appliance sector. There is another standard called the Home Connectivity Alliance (HCA), which was launched in August 2021 for the purpose of linking large appliances such as refrigerators, TVs, and air conditioners. Thirteen major home appliance companies, including Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, Electrolux, GE, Arçelik, and Grundig, are active members of the HCA. At the Berlin IFA 2022 (Internationale Funkausstellung) in September of last year, member companies demonstrated the interconnection of home appliances. The HCA 1.0 standard was released soon after on January 3, 2023, with plans for standard commercialization to begin in the middle of this year. Although Matter and HCA can be seen as complementary for the building of a “smart ecosystem,” they are also in competition with one another.

Outlook and challenges for smart home

In Korea, Samsung and LG are fiercely competing to secure the smart home market, which is rapidly emerging as a promising core business of the future. As smart homes and smart appliances enjoy more interconnectivity, consumers are more likely to experience a greater level of convenience, making them more likely to purchase appliances from related brands. One market research firm predicts that the global smart home market will grow from USD 60.8 billion (KRW 77 trillion) in 2020 to USD 178.5 billion (KRW 226 trillion) in 2025.

As the smart home market expands, the “All-Connectivity” advantage of different devices may actually make them more vulnerable to cybersecurity events. If one device suffers a cyberattack, many other devices can be exposed or hacked at the same time, increasing the potential exposure of personal information. Therefore, strict measures are needed to ensure the security of connected devices.

Another thing that may impede the growth of smart homes is the fact that Korean consumers are still reluctant to adopt smart home technologies. For many consumers, the convenience and practicality of a smart home environment are not compelling enough for them to adopt smart devices and services. Manufacturers need to make greater efforts to develop services that maximize user experience from the perspective of the customer.

By Kim Yong-seok, Vice President of the Institute of Semiconductor Engineers and Professor of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University