Design Con 2015

Wi-Fi appliance power control: Easy, but is it good?

-January 18, 2013

We've come a long way since the crude but workable family of BSR X-10 home network-based appliance controllers, see here, that's for sure. Now you can get units such as this WeMo Wi-Fi enabled AC outlet from Belkin, and it comes with system-level software and apps so you can be controlling things in no time—at least in theory.

There's no doubt this sort of remotely controllable unit can be pretty handy for all sorts of odds and ends around the house. But the law of unintended consequences also shows up in these scenarios. First, what happens when you start having a lot of these units in your house—who is going to program and manage them? Will you spend half your time fiddling around with them, trying to get it all "just right", when all you really needed to do was turn on a light?

Second, these solutions assume full-up availability and access to the Internet, usually via Wi-Fi. OK, so what happens when that access is lost, due to power issues, interference, equipment (hardware) failure, or system glitches? If you don’t think that's a consideration, you're leading a charmed life.

Finally, is just "powering up" actually enough? For control of a basic light, it likely is, but even so, maybe it is not. Now you need to worry about what the initial power-on state is: full brightness? Low and dim? Or other? It's likely that the power-up status of many of the appliances is not defined or consistent, and likely not what you wanted.

After all, it’s not enough to turn the power to the box on; you have to also set that box to whatever it is you want it to do. So now you have more work to do: you have to go in there and remotely program it to go to the desired functional state, once the AC power is turned on.

Wait a minute, this is all getting complicated ...

As engineers, we're aware of what technology lets us do, and how it can make certain tasks easier or practical. But we also know that, sometimes, the solution to a problem can be bigger and more complicated than the problem we set out to solve. Before you know it, you're building a complex, multilayered structure when all you wanted to do initially was something simple, but in a slightly better or more-efficient way.

Have you ever been involved in such a project, where the complexity of the solution makes you ask yourself "um ... what were we trying to accomplish here in the first place?"

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