Teaching Your Smart Devices To Get Along
If you’ve ever tried to connect a new Internet of Things device in your home, such as a smart plug or light, you know it can be a complicated process. Not every device works with every other device, and even the most tech-savvy customer may find themself turning to Reddit for help troubleshooting.
These are problems a new Internet of Things standard called Matter aims to solve. Created by a coalition of home device companies, Matter allows devices that run it to speak to each other, set up seamlessly, and communicate securely. The standard officially launched in early November with dozens of new Matter-enabled devices.
Ira talks to Jennifer Pattison Tuohy of The Verge about the problems Matter aims to solve, and some of the practical hitches along the road to a more seamless smart home.
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Jennifer Pattison Tuohy reports on smart homes and the internet of things for The Verge. She’s based in Charleston, South Carolina.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. For the last few years, I have been trying to turn my house into a smart home where smart devices anticipate my needs. For example, when I walk into a room, the lights go on. When I go to bed, I tell my smart speaker goodnight, and it turns off all the lights in the house. And at sunset, my smart switches know how to turn on the outdoor lights and turn them off at sunrise. It has been an exciting journey, but also a very frustrating one.
Here’s the rub. Each of these smart devices has its own master. Some of them obey commands from Google, some from Siri, some from Alexa, and unless you’re a super geek who can MacGyver them together, you may wind up with a whole bunch of motion sensors, switches, and lights, that cannot talk to one another. You wind up having to remember which sensor is doing what, which is where I am at now.
But there’s hope. A new development that may help bridge the digital divide called Matter. Unrolled officially earlier this year, Matter enables your devices to talk to each other securely and quickly. Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a reporter covering smart homes, and the Internet of Things for The Verge, and she has been writing about the rise of Matter. Plus, what’s still left to do before we can live the dream. Welcome to the show, Jen.
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: Thank you, Ira. I’m very pleased to be here. I’m very excited to hear about your smart home journey, as well.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s talk about Matter. Why was it so hard to develop this in the first place? I mean, couldn’t we have had this from the very beginning?
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: [LAUGHS] Yes, the biggest issue was competing companies. Everyone was trying to make their mark in the Internet of Things Gold Rush. It was going to be this amazing new platform. There was tons of money. Everyone was going to buy smart devices. So everyone was rushing to be the first and the best. Then we hit this wall, where not everyone was doing what you did and going out and buying smart home devices, and making them work in their home because it was too complicated.
You couldn’t always find the right device that worked with your phone or with the smart speaker you’d chosen. And finally, all the companies started to realize we need to do something about it. So they literally got together around a dinner table, and were like, OK, we need to reset the smart home, and we need everything to talk to each other because it’s just not working otherwise.
And so Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, and a whole host of companies got together with an organization called the Connectivity Standard Alliance and came up with Matter, which is basically a new language for your smart home devices. So hopefully, going forward, it’ll be a lot easier to get the smart home set up for everyday consumers, not MacGyvering or needing to pull in their techie neighbor to help them get their doorbell set up.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely. Does that mean I’m going to have to go out and buy a whole new set of devices that work with Matter?
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: Hopefully, not. The plan from the beginning was that many devices could be brought into Matter. Matter works over different protocols that already exist in the smart home, so Wi-Fi, which is ubiquitous, most people have Wi-Fi today, ethernet, and Thread, which is a newer protocol.
But it is something that many devices are able to be either upgraded to or bridged to, which unfortunately would mean you’d have to maybe buy a bridge, and then all your smart bulbs will work in Matter. But there probably will be instances where you’re going to need to go out and buy something new, which is a bit– going to be a bit frustrating.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk more about this thing you called Thread. What is Thread? And why do people see this as so crucial to smart devices moving forward?
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: Thread is relatively new, but it’s almost a decade old. So it’s been around for a while, so there’s already Thread devices out there. It is the first protocol that has been designed specifically for the smart home. Most other protocols that you use, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Z-Wave, Wi-Fi. They have other use cases as well. They weren’t really designed just for the smart home.
Thread itself, is specifically for low-powered low-bandwidth devices, like bulbs, motion sensors, small things that don’t need a lot of power, but that do need to be able to communicate quickly. It’s a mesh network, so the more Thread devices you have in your home, the more the connectivity will extend.
And this has been one of the frustrations in the smart home, is that if you don’t have strong Wi-Fi signal throughout your home, then maybe that doorbell camera, you bought, isn’t going to connect properly, and you’re not going to be able to see a good feed. So one of the problems they’re trying to solve with Matter is that kind of reliability, and Thread is built in with reliability. That’s its main focus.
IRA FLATOW: Isn’t there also a security advantage of Matter in that devices, when they talk to one another, they don’t need to send their conversations out into the world, out into the internet, they stay in the house?
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: Correct. That’s one of the key focuses of Matter, again is it’s a local protocol. It does have the ability to communicate to the cloud so that you can use things like voice assistance or your streaming music services and also get updates, which is key for security. But because it’s local, you don’t have so much of what’s called an attack vector. So there’s less likely people going to turn your thermostat into a DDoS attack and bring down your local network.
There have been some awful horror stories about Internet of Things devices causing all sorts of problems. So Matter was designed to have a very unified basic security principles for all devices that are on your network. So every device has to prove that they are what they say they are. However, devices aren’t out in the wild, so we haven’t been able to– and security researchers haven’t been able to prove this concept yet. So we’re going to have to wait and see.
But that is definitely the promise is that this will be– if a device has the Matter logo on, which is how you’ll know whether it’s Matter enabled when you go and buy your smart devices. Then it also comes with this basic set of unified security principles that will mean you shouldn’t have to worry about your thermostat or your fridge going rogue.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of what people are worried about, I realized there may be a lot of people out there listening who don’t know why they should be investing in this technology. I mean, why bother making it a little easier for a smart speaker to turn on your lights, when it’s easy enough to flip a switch, right?
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: It’s true, it’s a lifestyle choice to some extent, at this point. It is a lot of fun, though. I mean, personally, my household runs everything is automated, and there’s a lot of convenience. But just some basic things that I think most people would relate to, for example, I have a good night scene. So I can just press a button or say goodnight to my smart assistant, and my thermostat will turn down, my door locks will lock themselves, my lights will shut off, and my security system will arm itself.
And if I have window shades that are open, the shades will close. And then the reverse can happen in the morning. I can wake up, use a motion sensor by my bed. The lights will turn on at a nice light that’s not going to blind me, and my thermostat will adjust. My radio will start playing my local South Carolina Public Radio station. And then, I will walk into the kitchen, the lights will turn on, my coffee maker will start running, and I’ve just saved myself five minutes of my busy morning.
There’s also a lot of benefit in the long term. And this is something that Matter is really going to help with, I think. So up to this point, devices haven’t communicated with each other. So it’s been hard to sort of really get the benefit of the energy management side of the smart home, which that was the original promise. When the Nest Thermostat came out, everyone was so excited. This is going to transform energy use in our homes, and we’re going to be able to save money and save energy and help the smart grid, but that hasn’t really materialized.
And the next key part of Matter as it moves forward is energy management and being able to get every device that uses electricity in your home talking to each other. So you can really see how your home consumes energy, and hopefully, maybe adjust and be able to save energy. And then, in the long run, there’s potential as we go forward to use that energy management to look at how homes can work as part of a dispersed power grid.
The demand side response helping counterbalance when there’s too much demand on the grid, homes that have EVs or energy storage can actually act as small little power plants for the grid, those kind of things could be transformational in the long run. And it’s not just about, oh, it’s convenient to turn my light on. It’s actually about helping us manage our resources better.
IRA FLATOW: OK, so those sound like great things to look for in the future. When are we going to get there? What’s it going to take? What does Matter still need to take off in this way?
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: The key is getting people to use the devices and put smart lights, smart plugs, connected appliances, connected HVAC systems, in their homes. And right now, there’s been a lot of resistance to those things for a number of reasons, price, security, privacy, simplicity. That, again, is what Matter is trying to solve. Whether it’s going to do it or not, the jury’s still out.
But I think the key part here is that Matter will make it easier to buy a device. So right now, when you think about buying a new light bulb, most people don’t think I’m going to buy a smart light bulb. When you think about buying a new fridge or a new washing machine, most people don’t think I’m going to buy a smart one. And if they do, and then they get at home and connect it, they can’t make it work, and it’s frustrating.
This is the core principle of Matter. You buy one of these devices. You bring it home. It will work with any of your smart assistants. It will work with whatever smartphone you have. You don’t need to pick one that works with Amazon’s Assistant, one that works with Google’s Assistant, or one that works with Apple’s. You buy one device, plug it into your home, and it’s just going to work. So once we get there, then I can see that we could start to build some of these experiences.
And some of these beneficial energy management, those kind of solutions, we can build on top so much more easily than we can today. Because today, the smart home is full of silos and it’s full of areas where there’s so much promise, but we can’t actually enact that. We can’t find that data and bring it together to be useful. Even just ourselves in our own smart home, let alone, trying to do something on a larger scale.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I can’t wait to do that. I can’t wait for the future because I have to say goodbye and go home and adjust my power system here. [LAUGHS] Thank you, Jennifer.
JENNIFER PATTISON TUOHY: Thank you, Ira. It’s been a pleasure chatting.
IRA FLATOW: Jennifer Pattison Tuohy, a reporter covering smart homes and the Internet of Things for The Verge.
Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.