Apple's new patent would enable new smart home devices to configure themselves

New devices would automatically connect to your network and set themselves up.

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Apple has filed a patent application for a system that can automatically detect new smart home devices and configure them for you.

The filing, first spotted by Patently Apple, addresses the complicated process of setting up new smart home devices that frequently use different communication protocols and wiring configurations. The more tech-savvy user might be able to figure these things out intuitively, but the move would be welcome for those consumers just trying to dip their toes into the connected home space who lack the skills or patience to troubleshoot their way to a smarter home.

How does it work? — The patent describes a system where “host units” would be able to detect a new smart device, along with which room it’s in, and set it up accordingly. These host units spread around your house would have time-of-flight sensors that could scan a room with infrared pulses and generate a floor plan. Presumably, this is how the system would identify which room a new device is located in for configuration in the Apple Home app.

It's unclear exactly how the host units would talk to new smart devices, but Apple is developing an open-source smart home standard with Amazon and Google.

“The modular accessory, such as a power outlet, light switch, sensor device, etc., can be configured to be interchangeably and non-destructively coupled and decoupled with the host unit,” Patently Apple explains. “Once coupled, the system can automatically authenticate and configure ... the modular accessory by, for example, coupling AC power and/or Ethernet access to the accessory and configuring the setup and operation of the modular accessory in the smart home environment.”

Interoperability and open standards matter — One of the biggest hurdles facing smart home hardware makers has been getting devices to work well together. No one wants a mess of individual hubs, nor do they want to have to dig about in multiple apps to get their smart home devices working.

Devices like smart bulbs and doorbell cameras all seem to have their own dedicated apps and use different protocols to communicate, from Samsung's SmartThings to the open Zigbee standard. Some devices are interoperable with different centralized hubs, while others only function inside their specific apps and hubs. Sometimes a smart home provider will shut down their service altogether — as we saw when Charter announced it was exiting the home security business — rendering users’ devices worthless.

Can Apple crack this nut? — if it goes according to plan, Apple's partnership with Amazon and Google could be the missing puzzle piece needed to make this seamless ideal a reality. Both Google and Amazon are big players in the smart home market with their respective Nest and Ring businesses. If all three start companies start creating hardware and software that plays nice with each others' products, Apple's proposed system might just work.

Smart home technology is expected to become increasingly common as processors become even smaller and more affordable. Amazon has been pushing hardware makers to shove its Alexa smart assistant into everything from microwaves to outlet plugs in recent years, while its Ring division of connected security cameras saw sales shoot up 180 percent in December compared to a year earlier despite privacy concerns. Smart home kit isn't going anywhere, so spending less time setting up would be a blessing.