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How Smart Is It To Set Up A Smart Home?

The demo of a smart home from Alex Hawkinson was about the biggest I’ve ever seen. It took up a whole house. Alex, CEO of SmartThings, walked me from room to room in a large Las Vegas home as the house reacted to his presence. In the kitchen, it turned on the coffee maker and announced the weather forecast through a Sonos speaker. It even set the Philips LED lightbulbs to various colors based on how well his stock holdings were doing. 

With the SmartThings system, everything, including devices not made by SmartThings (like the Sonos, the Philips lightbulbs, and other devices) is visible and controllable from your phone — even when you’re not inside.

As we simulated walking outdoors, a vibration sensor triggered, setting the Sonos to play a recording of a large, angry dog barking to scare away a possible thief. In the garage, opening the overhead door gave us an alert on our smartphone. Also in the garage, dribbling water on a sensor, simulating a leaking pipe, caused a valve to cut off the water supply in to the house. 

And then the moving of an artifact (a ceremonial sword) in the office sent an urgent theft alert to his phone. 

Finally, Alex set the home to “night mode” by pressing the sleep button on his fitness bracelet. The lights all went off, as did the entertainment system, and the Nest thermostat dropped to nighttime levels.

It was cool, Jetsons-style magic. I wanted this gear badly. But really, who needs all this stuff? Who’s going to construct this kind of a system? 

More importantly: Is it worth it? Hawkinson said we were walking through a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. That is less money than anything like this would have cost a few years ago, and it did more cool stuff. With SmartThings software it looked easy to set up.

But still: A lot of it felt like a science experiment.

Hawkinson did agree to a point, but he said that some of the monitoring technology (like the leak detection and alerting) was actually really cheap insurance, and people who owned cabins or the like would see the value. Also, he said, this system could be used to tell parents when a kid comes home safely. You don’t need to go all Internet coffee machine to get value from a smart home .

He also thinks that smart and cheap(ish) sensors, plus technology like his to make sense of their signals, could make home security smarter and more affordable. Equipped homes could know much more about who’s in them and what they’re doing there, leading to fewer false alarms and thus more rapid and automated police dispatch when there are break-ins. 

The challenge when evaluating this smart home stuff is sorting out the useful (alarms that can help you keep your family or your things safe) from the silly (like lighting that adjusts to your mood based on what your fitness bracelet senses). A lot of the demos smashed the sane and the silly together. You’ll want it all. But you only need very little of it. 

I’m Rafe Needleman, the new guy on the Yahoo Tech team. I’ll be covering new tech and apps from companies you’ve probably never heard of, and working with David Pogue on new video features. It’s great to be here. Follow me on Twitter.