Good engineering requires a clear focus on the end user. Few engineers understand this better than Liam Highmore, whose company Homeable designs solutions for people with unique requirements.
The idea of a smart home has attracted — and often eluded — countless homeowners.
Whether for simplicity, security, efficiency or just out of curiosity, many of us have added smart lighting, video doorbells, power plugs, digital deadbolts and more.
Then, when these devices mysteriously stop doing what they are supposed to do, we wonder why we didn’t just stick with the tried and tested.
Highmore, co-founder and CEO of Homeable, launched his business around the idea of creating smart homes that live up to the “smart” in their name. But he quickly recognised a specific market that needed these services much more than most.
“The business was born out of a design-a-thon that was run by an organisation called Remarkable,” said Highmore. “They were exploring ways to make smart home technology more accessible.
“From our point of view, we were determined to level the playing field by enabling everyone to create the smart home of their dreams.
“But the more we spoke to people and the more we explored this issue, the more we realised that no one was doing this specifically for the disabled community.”
There is a large proportion of people living with a disability who could benefit from smart home technology, Highmore said.
His co-founder Luke Ray has a brother who is quadriplegic and inspired a lot of the team’s early work.
“It’s crazy how much of our technology and devices aren’t designed with disability in mind,” Highmore said.
The first challenge in working with smart homes, Highmore said, comes from the fact that most homes simply aren’t smart.
“There is so much technology out there — a ridiculous amount,” he said. “But often, this technology isn’t suited for or appropriate to the individual.
“The concept of a smart home has promised a lot of things in the last decade. However, most of those promises haven’t materialised. It’s important to recognise the fact that smart homes today are typically connected but not smart.”
This lack of delivery comes from the fragmented technologies that have led to a lack of standardisation. It also comes from security and privacy concerns.
“At the end of the day, that often leads to poor customer experiences,” Highmore said.
“That’s why we chose not to just focus on the technology, but also the process that people go through in creating a smart home. We want to provide value to our community, not just put technology in homes for the sake of it.”
Not everyone is a tech expert. But the promise of this particular technology, he said, is that you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy all it has to offer.
The right touch
In designing smart home solutions for people living with a disability, Highmore and his colleagues start with the manufacturers, ensuring every product is accessible, easy to use, and works harmoniously with the company’s app.
Next, they find the right installers, which, in such a competitive talent environment, is easier said than done.
“That’s one of our biggest challenges,” he said. “We’re not just looking for an electrician or an occupational therapist.
“We’re looking for someone who has the ability to empathise, who has an understanding of the challenges of living with a disability. A unique cocktail of skills is required to be in this business area.”
The business employs various systems-engineering design principles to design and install a solution for someone with a disability.
Site visits require a degree of safety awareness as well as knowledge of networking and radio frequency protocols.
“The design process we employ is very similar to that of a traditional engineering design, aligning our products and solutions to the needs and goals of the individual,” Highmore said.
“But the installation is the one area where we differ from many traditional engineering firms. There is an added degree of empathy and awareness that’s required.
“For example, often you’re not just installing a security camera,” Highmore said.
“You’ve got to consider that loud noises or flashing lights could have negative effects on the client; they could induce seizures in certain individuals. So there are a lot of things we need to consider before just hammering something into a wall.”
Before Homeable begins designing a solution, the client — or somebody in the client’s network — completes a questionnaire outlining their independence goals.
Based on those preferences and requirements, a bespoke home automation solution is designed.
A site visit follows, including a full assessment of the network. This involves signal strength testing in every room.
“We’re still working out the best ways to approach that, because no two houses are the same,” Highmore said.
“One of the common reasons for things not working as well as they should is the stability of the network in each house.”
The relationship with the client doesn’t end there. Homeable continues to educate and support them so they can get the most out of the technology.
The technology companies in the smart home field are acutely aware of the issues caused by the fact that their various offerings do not play nicely together.
That’s why, Highmore said, a new smart home and Internet of Things standard called Matter was launched in late 2022.
It is backed by Apple, Google and Amazon, three of the biggest players in the smart home game.
Matter has been developed to ensure users no longer have to read the fine print to discover whether a specific device from a particular brand will do what it is designed to do within their home’s system. In theory, everything will just work.
“The industry previously made things very difficult to navigate,” Highmore said.
“It has been hard for consumers to find the right technology that works with what they have.
“This standard seeks to unify all the connected devices. I think this is going to drive the transition from connected home to smart home.”
Advancements in artificial intelligence will allow homes to begin to predict and modify their own environment according to the habits of the people who live there, Highmore said.
“We’ve started to see it already, but I think we’ll begin to see an influx of health sensors that help keep tabs on wellbeing,” he said.
“I think that will go a long way in assisting the elderly to stay at home for longer, and inevitably reduce a long-term toll on the health system.”
For Highmore, the future of home automation is all about accessibility.
“It has to be inclusive, because you’re not just designing for one person,” he said.
“You’re often designing for family, carers and friends who come over.
“Many engineers, particularly those working in the public space, often don’t have a lot of interaction with the intended user of the building or the piece of infrastructure they’re designing or constructing.
“But doing this work in a residential environment has reminded me of the importance of putting the user at the heart of everything we do as engineers. If what we do fits the needs and goals of the end user, it’s a win.”