Smart Hubs and Virtual Assistants: The Basics

November 24, 2023

How smart are smart devices? Well, they haven’t figured out any source of everlasting youth, but close enough for these days. The fact is that there are many different levels to smart equipment. Some devices are smart in the sense that they have some sort of application to perform a limited amount of actions, such as a light bulb turning on and off, perhaps dimming or changing colors. Some devices have a wider variety of features, including energy consumption and perhaps some predictive/prescriptive information. Others, depend on one or more external devices (other than the actual device and your smartphone) to work better. However, there is a wide variety of devices that can work through a single platform, allowing for centralized control and management of your home. 

One of the cons of installing any-thing (see what I did there?) smart is that it typically uses its own app to connect your devices with what is called a hub (another app, or even physical devices), and this may seem like a longer configuration process. But enough of the sad story. We’re here to learn what these smart hubs are and what they can do for you. If you are into smart stuff, you probably are a firm believer that there’s a faster and more reliable way of managing your powered devices at home. There also may be a reasoning behind the comfort to collect data that might help save money and resources. Or you could just love having absolute control of your house and everything in it within the grasp of your hand, from your smartphone (Hail You, the almighty house chief!)

So what are smart hubs, other than being hubs that are smart? When I picture a smart network I try to think of a bicycle wheel. Right at the center, holding everything together is the hub, which is where the magic happens. Its direct extensions are the spokes that allow the hub to connect to the wheels and tires. Similarly, a smart HUB is the center of all IoT (Internet of Things), and the smart devices are the spokes that connect to your house. If you’re keeping up, you already know that the house translates to the wheels in this analogy. Although some devices may work independently, having a centralized place to manage all devices is crucial to automate a series of actions and create algorithms that take as input the output of another process (ie. if rain is detected, do not water plants today). Don’t worry, we’ll get to some basic chain reactions that you can try for yourself in another blog. 

Some features of the hub include controlling the devices via an app. Amazon’s Alexa, Samsung’s SmartThings, Apple’s Home and Google Home are just some examples of hubs (or apps, really) that are compatible with a wide variety of devices. You might be asking yourself: “do I need to install a hub just to have a smart light?”. And the short answer is no. Most devices come with some version of an app that allows users to control the devices of that same brand. But if you got excited (like us) and bought many devices from different brands, each with its own app, managing them can get very complicated very fast (been there done that!). Hence the smart hub: a centralized platform that allows multiple devices (depending on their compatibility, of course) to be controlled within one place and interact with each other. 

Depending on many factors, devices may be limited to a narrower amount of features when controlled through a hub (instead of controlling directly from the device’s default app). One example of this can be multi-color lights. When using a hub you may have a preset list of colors, instead of the full range that is indicated within the device’s factory specs. Just one little caveat to look out for, but may be of minimal impact, as many companies try to reduce this as much as possible. 

Technically, your phone or tablet is all you need for a smart hub app to be controlled. But if you already got into smart devices, why not automate further? Incoming: Virtual Assistants! Yes, we got there. Talk to your device and ask for information that you would’ve had to type in or do manually before. Ask your device about the weather, game results or even turn on your lights when entering a room. Most apps and smartphones come with their version of a virtual assistant, such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Bixby or Siri. Another strength many of these apps have is their ability to interconnect. Of course, this is a limited feature for security reasons, but it allows for some basic functionality between smart hubs. 

If you’re exploring hubs as your homebase, you might want to consider physical hubs. Depending on how you configure your phone, you may need to open the app to even reach the virtual assistant. Many of the leading brands offer a variety of options that range from buttons, to voice control to having an interphase (touch screen in many cases, just like smartphones or tablets) that provides control. Depending on your preferences you may have one or more of these devices (one per room, for example). A great entry-level option is having a smart speaker that has integrated microphones that already give you most audio features and controls. Also, there may be the need to have different devices for different rooms, specific to its use. Let’s say you want to monitor your kid (human or non-human) while you’re in the kitchen, which may mean that a smart camera with two-way audio in their room, and a touchscreen device in the kitchen are your way to go. If you’d like to find more ways to use and combine different devices around the house, you can see some of our other articles. 

A main component of your home automation you should consider when exploring these venues should be a strong hub. Our recommendation? Work backwards on your design. What’s the scope of your need(s)? What devices are available to fulfill the need(s)? Which hubs support these devices? Then, look at features that you need from the hub as feedback for you (audio, visuals, chain reactions from other devices, etc.) This will help with your decision making. Make sure to keep an eye on devices that are not compatible with any of the main hubs out there, since this may result in headaches further down the road. 

As you look at ways to automate your home, there’s many possible routes which may serve your purpose and it may result in a combination of brand preference and your specific requirements. If you’re not sure about what’s best for you, you can always reach out and we’ll help you find your path to your very own, cozy, Genius Igloo.

Keep reading our other articles to find specific information on many apps and devices that may satisfy your needs to automate some (or all) areas in your home. Stay genius!