I have been very interested in the “internet of things” for a while now, and I finally got around to trying out Apple’s HomeKit with a couple accessories. If you don’t already know, HomeKit is a technology that is meant to help you remotely control accessories, or devices, and create a “smart home”. Notice I called it a “technology” and not an “app”. That definition is pretty vague, and from what I have seen, 99% of the people I ask have no idea what it is all about.
Let’s say you have a light and you want to control it remotely. Maybe you want to turn the living room light on when you are away from home so it looks like someone is home. You somehow need to put that light on your home network, and somehow need to have a means to control it. That’s what HomeKit does for HomeKit-compatible devices, and Apple has wrapped their typical sugar and niceness around the process so that ordinary people can figure it out.
So I ordered a couple HomeKit compatible devices (both are power switches) from two different companies, iHome and iDevices because I wanted to see for myself what the process was like for a couple different brands. Because the ability to connect to a WiFi network incurs a certain amount of cost, a switch is more versatile than say a light bulb. You can plug a lamp in to a switch, or a heater, or a string of christmas lights, or anything you want. I don’t mind spending $35 on a switch (well, I mind a little : ) but that’s just too much for a simple light bulb.
The first thing to remember when unboxing a new device is this: don’t read the instructions! I have a prerelease version of iOS 10 and it comes with a new app from Apple called “Home”. This is all you need to set up and control most HomeKit compatible devices. The first thing written in the instructions is to download a custom app from the manufacturer, but that is no longer necessary when you have the Home app. The proprietary custom app may provide extra features, but I think it’s better to wait until you need something before installing extra software.
There is a typical “Add” button in Home, and after plugging in your new HomeKit device, you tell Home to “Add Accessory”. Home lets you set up “rooms” so you can refer to things like the “switch in my living room”. It’s pretty easy and self explanatory to do that and you can choose a room to place your new accessory. Each HomeKt device comes with a numeric code, and you will be prompted to enter that code or scan it with your camera. That’s all there is to it, the new device should now be ready to go in a minute or two!
Home displays a box for each accessory you add, and you can just tap on the box to turn the switch on or off. Tap and hold to get more options. For example, my iDevices switch comes with a built-in night light so it is like two devices in one, and I can change its color and intensity with a slider. All of this “just works” within the Home app. I had no trouble at all getting both devices set up within minutes.
In iOS 10, the updated Control Panel will also display your favorite accessories by just swiping left. That is very convenient for controlling them so you don’t even need to launch an app. FYI both devices have a push button so you can turn them on and off the old fashioned way, too.
The beauty of HomeKt is that it works with Siri, too. I can say “turn on the light in the living room” and it happens (I named my switch in the living room “light” because it is hooked up to a lamp and that sounds more natural). I can ask Siri “is the living room light on?” and I’m told. That feels pretty neat, I must say!
Now, my original goal was to do this remotely, while away from home. Obviously, a server on the cloud is necessary for this to happen, as well as an internet connection. If you want to download the app that comes with your device, and sign up for an account on their server, you can. However, I wanted to keep things as simple as possible without installing new apps or creating new accounts. That’s where my Apple TV comes in!
Since I had already linked my Apple TV to my iCloud account, I was already done. Those same Siri commands on my iPhone work just as well when I am away from home. My phone sends the commands to the cloud (iCloud, to be exact) and the Apple TV automagically receives the commands over your internet connection, and controls your devices. Super cool!
One other feature of HomeKit which is very useful is sharing. If you want to let other family members also control certain devices, you can send them an invitation and now they can use Siri to turn off the light you just turned on!
Overall, I am very impressed with the simplicity and convenience of HomeKit, especially when combined with the new features coming soon in iOS 10.