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Apple files patent for a smart home system that could configure itself

Apple files patent for a smart home system that could configure itself


An intelligent home

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

An Apple patent published today reveals an idea for a system that could automatically detect smart home devices and potentially configure them for the room they’re in (via Patently Apple).

As Apple points out in the patent, there are a lot of good smart home devices and technologies available now. But it can be very challenging to actually configure those devices to make a fully integrated smart home, due to factors like different types of wireless protocols, connector types, incompatible devices between vendors, and more. Apple has patented a system that could make connecting all of your smart things easier by automatically detecting a new smart device, what room it’s in, and authenticating it for you to use.

The system could automatically detect a new smart device and what room it’s in

In theory, if you installed a smart light switch into your dining room, this system could immediately display the switch in the Home app on your iPhone and automatically identify it as a light switch for your dining room.

The patent also describes a system where a “host unit” for this technology could detect other host units installed around your house to auto-generate a floor plan, detect inanimate objects like sofas to know where they are, and even know when you’re walking around your house. The system would do this with time-of-flight (ToF) sensors to get 3D depth data of the room and a signal technology like ultra-wideband (UWB) radios to connect from host unit to host unit. (If those terms sound familiar to you, it might be because Apple seems to be dipping its toes in both technologies — 2020 iPhones are rumored to have a ToF camera, and the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro already have UWB radios thanks to the new U1 chip.)

The patent even describes a scenario where the system detects if people are “authenticated” users in the house and gives them different levels of access to smart home functions depending on who they are.

Here are a couple images from the patent filing that can give you a sense of how that system might work:

However, this is just a patent, so it’s not clear if it will be implemented in an Apple product sometime soon, if ever — but it’s fun to imagine what the future smart home could actually look like. Plus, with Apple, Google, and Amazon recently announcing that they are working on an open-source smart home standard together, maybe there’s a chance that an automatically configuring system like what Apple has patented could be reality some day.

Apple isn’t the first company to consider this kind of intelligent smart home system, either. A company called Intellithings has one that connects to a user’s smartphone, allowing it to sense when that person’s phone enters a room and activate smart home devices — for example, adjusting the temperature of a room to that person’s preference. Some Roomba vacuums by iRobot can already make a map of your home, too. iRobot and Google announced a partnership last year that would allow Google Assistant use that data to set up a custom vacuuming schedule or ask Roomba to vacuum a specific room.