Smart homes grow up: How Revolv unifies connected gadgets

Smart and connected home technology -- once the province of science fiction movies -- has moved very close to the mainstream in the last year, with a wealth of devices now available to automate your house or apartment. 

Two years ago, this product category didn't really exist at all, but now there are electronic door locks from Yale and Kwikset, music players like Sonos, smart thermostats like Nest, and even the Philips Hue, a wirelessly controlled light bulb. And that's just scratching the surface: Belkin offers the WeMo smart outlets that extend wireless control to almost any sort of appliance, for example.

What's missing is some kind of master control to make sense of all these disparate devices. Recently, a few gadgets have emerged to fill that void. One of the most ambitious is called Revolv. A home automation hub, Revolv wants to be the single controller for all of the connected devices you've accumulated.

That's a tall order, since there are few standards for all of these different gadgets. Revolv's modestly sized device (it's about the size of one of those cylinders that holds 25 blank DVDs) is packed with 7 antennas to operate different wireless standards like Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Insteon (though right now, only three antennas are enabled, with more coming online later). Revolv is very much a work in progress; it supports a modest number of devices today, with the promise of much richer support later.

I recently had the chance to experience Revolv for an extended test with my house full of smart gadgets, which included the Nest thermostat, Sonos music system, Philips Hue lights, and a Yale Z-Wave door lock.

Setup is amazingly simple. Unlike many "hub" devices, Revolv is completely wireless -- it doesn't need to be plugged into your overloaded router to communicate with the home. And there's no PC configuration either, just a smartphone app that programs the hub by a sequence of flashes from the camera flash. And Revolv finds the connected devices in your home automatically. In fact, it has just about the simplest setup I've ever seen for a product of such potential complexity.

So what does Revolv actually do? Well, you can use it, to a limited degree, as a universal interface to control those smart devices, rather than opening a half-dozen different apps. But this story is weak, since Revolv doesn't have access to the various devices' APIs, and so its capabilities are limited. You can't select a Sonos playlist within Revolv, for example, you can simply turn the music on or off. In most cases, your smart device's original app is more powerful and potentially easier to use.

Instead, the real value of Revolv is realized by chaining device actions together in a smart way, and activating them in response to certain triggers. For example, you can set up a geographic action that unlocks your front door, fires up the thermostat, turns on lights and starts music when you arrive at home. And you can reverse those actions when you leave. You can program lights to come on at a certain time of day, or just trigger actions manually from your phone, turning your iPhone into a remote control for your house.

That's pretty neat, but Revolv is, as I say, still a work in progress. You can create a time-based action or a geo action, but not a combo of the two -- so your lights come on when you get home no matter what time it is. And the geographic fence that Revolv draws around your home is enormous, in the neighborhood of a half mile in diameter. That means your house will spring to life when you're still a significant distance from home. Price is another rough spot. Revolv costs $299, and that's in addition, of course, to all of the smart devices you'll need in addition.

The bottom line is that Revolv has a ton of promise. Depending on what smart devices you already have, Revolv can be practical and convenient right out of the box -- but the company is rolling out additional product support on a continuous basis. And the company has impressively grand plans. In addition to improving the interface, increasing product support, and deploying conditional actions, Revolv talks about letting the Revolv hub eventually serve as a sort of universal hub, taking the place of each individual hub for all of your smart gadgets, freeing up previous Ethernet ports on your home router. That's pretty impressive, assuming it comes to be.

That said, the interface is a little clunky, and it'll definitely take time for the app to take better advantage of the Revolv's promise. And yes, there are less expensive alternatives: The Staples Connect Hub, for example, is just $99. But it works with a more limited set of devices, and it requires an Ethernet port to connect to your network. Revolv is playing a long game, though, and based on what I've seen, I think it's the device to own.

Photo courtesy Revolv.

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