Why it matters having Matter support for your new smart home device

As companies unveil their new smart home devices at the 2022 CES tech show, underway now in Las Vegas, much of the hype involves Matter, an open-source connectivity standard built around a shared belief that smart home devices should seamlessly integrate with other systems and be secure and reliable.

If you like devices, you are probably among the 66% of households that have smart home devices, according to Deloitte. We also know you don’t just stick with one company or brand, but probably have purchased from at least half a dozen different companies. That’s why for any company launching a smart home device this year, having Matter support will be helpful.

Not only is the protocol being developed by some of the biggest tech companies — think Apple, Amazon and Google — and smart home device makers, it is designed to finally fix the issues around fragmented smart home systems so that all of your devices can be easily set up and routed from one place.

Matter, via a local controller device, is essentially the infrastructure, the pipeline and the language that will enable all of the devices to communicate. Its Internet Protocol will ​​define a specific set of IP-based networking technologies for device certification so that manufacturers can build devices that are compatible with your Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. Matter’s first protocol will run on Wi-Fi and Thread network layers and will utilize Bluetooth Low Energy for commissioning.

The Connectivity Standards Alliance, formerly the Zigbee Alliance, which is organizing the testing for the first Matter-certified devices, identified over two dozen companies that were exhibiting or showcasing Matter at their booths, meeting rooms or virtually at CES this year. They include NXP, Qualcomm, Samsung SmartThings, Telink, Texas Instruments and Universal Electronics.

In May, Google said it was bringing Matter to Android and Nest, and today announced that in a few months, you will be able to use its Android “Fast Pair” feature to quickly connect new Matter-enabled smart home devices to your home network, Google Home and other apps with just a few clicks.

And earlier today, Amazon said its “frustration-free setup” documentation was now available for device makers to review, and it is working with a host of companies on both set-up experience and Alexa capabilities, including adding that device as a second administrator for Matter devices so you can still control them even if your internet connection is down.

It is also collaborating with silicon vendors on what will become a Matter System-on-a-Chip to support the frustration-free setup. All of this comes after last year’s announcement that most Echo devices would support Matter and that 4th gen Echo and eero devices will become Matter Thread border routers.

In addition, here are some other companies that announced new devices or services that support Matter:

  • Comcast mentioned it while launching its new xFi Advanced Gateway Router equipped with features like “IoT for Smart Homes of the Future” that was Zigbee and Matter compatible to act as a central connector for IoT and home automation devices like smart lights, plugs and locks.
  • Eve Systems, which produces connected home products, created Eve MotionBlinds, touting it as “the first connected blinds and shades motors in the market to support Thread.”
  • Home security brand Arlo Technologies unveiled its Arlo Security System, a set of sensors with eight different functions, that correspond with a security hub and integrated keypad for small businesses and consumers that want more of a do-it-yourself security monitoring solution. The company also stated its commitment to Matter as a way of solidifying its stance on broad-range compatibility in the smart home space.
  • Edge computing company Veea unveiled its Smart-home-as-a-Service offering which will include support for Matter, Thread and Wi-Fi 6. The offering includes the Veea SmartHub mesh router for the home called STAX.
  • Among Belkin’s several Matter-enabled product announcements at CES for the home are its new Wemo video doorbell that works with Apple’s HomeKit, and the Wemo Smart Plug, Smart Light Switch and Smart Dimmer that will work with Matter over Thread.
  • Mui Lab debuted its Matter-ready “muiPlatform” that turns smart devices into “calmer ones,” which includes a board that turns Amazon’s Alexa into a more visual interface.

One device Michelle Mindala-Freeman, vice president of marketing for the Connectivity Standards Alliance, is watching is Schlage’s announcement made Tuesday introducing it new smart Wi-Fi deadbolt, which will be among the first to support Apple’s latest enhancement to its HomeKit experience with home keys capability.

She says 2022 will be a big year for Matter. There are hundreds of companies involved in both CSA and Matter, and 50 companies have brought through 134 products already, Mindala-Freeman told TechCrunch.

It is expected that CSA will have the certification, specifications, testing tools and SDK released by the middle of the year. This will enable companies to be faster to market with new hardware and innovations and reach a broader consumer audience.

“At a fundamental level, our job at CSA is to eliminate fragmentation and help companies to grow and do it in a way that is highly valuable to consumers,” Mindala-Freeman said. “Standards like Matter do that, and we believe it is a rising tide that raises all boats.”

Amazon details its low-bandwidth Sidewalk neighborhood network, coming to Echo and Tile devices soon

Last year, Amazon announced its Sidewalk network, a new low-bandwidth, long-distance wireless protocol it developed to help connect smart devices inside and — maybe even more importantly — outside of your home. Sidewalk, which is somewhat akin to a mesh network that, with the right amount of access points, could easily cover a whole neighborhood, is now getting closer to launch.

As Amazon announced today, compatible Echo devices will become Bluetooth bridges for the Sidewalk network later this year and select Ring Floodlight and Spotlight Cams will also be part of the network. Since these are low-bandwidth connections, Amazon expects that users won’t mind sharing a small fraction of their bandwidth with their neighbors.

In addition, the company also announced that Tile will be the first third-party Sidewalk device to use the network when it launches its compatible tracker in the near future.

When Amazon first announced Sidewalk, it didn’t quite detail how the network would work. That’s also changing today, as the company published a whitepaper about how it will ensure privacy and security on this shared network. To talk about all of that — and Amazon’s overall vision for Sidewalk — I sat down with the general manager of Sidewalk, Manolo Arana.

sidewalk app on/off toggle

Image Credits: Amazon

Arana stressed that we shouldn’t look at Sidewalk as a competitor to Thread or other mesh networking protocols. “I want to make sure that you see that Sidewalk is actually not competing with Thread or any of the other mesh networks available,” he said. “And indeed, when you think about applications like ZigBee and Z-Wave, you can connect to Sidewalk the same way.” He noted that the team isn’t trying to replace existing protocols but just wants to create another transport mechanism — and a way to manage the radios that connect the devices.

And to kickstart the network and create enough of a presence to allow homeowners to connect their smart lights at the edge of their properties, for example, what better way for Amazon than to use the Echo family of devices.

“Echos are going to serve as bridges, that’s going to be a big thing for us,” Arana said. “You can imagine the number of customers that will benefit from that feature. And for us to be able to have that kind of service, that’s super important. And Tile is going to be the first edge device, the first Sidewalk-enabled device, and they’ll be able to track your valuables, your wallet, whatever it is that you love.”

And in many ways, that’s the promise of Sidewalk. You share a bit of bandwidth with your neighbors and in return, you get the ability to connect to a smart light in your garden that would otherwise be outside of your own network, for example, or get motion sensor alerts even when your home WiFi is out, or to track your lost dog who is wearing a smart pet finder (something Amazon showed off when it first announced Sidewalk).

Image Credits: Amazon

In today’s whitepaper, the team notes that Amazon will make sure that shared bandwidth is capped and provide a simple on/off control for compatible devices to give users the choice to participate. The maximum bandwidth a device can use is capped at 500MB and the bandwidth between a bridge and the Sidewalk server in the cloud won’t exceed 80Kbps.

The overall architecture of the Sidewalk service is pretty straightforward. The endpoint, say a connected garden light, talks to the bridge (or gateway, as Amazon also calls it in its documentation). Those gateways will use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) and LoRa in the 900 MHz band connect to the devices on one side — and then talk to the Sidewalk Network server in the cloud on the other.

That network server — which is operated by Amazon — manages incoming packets and ensure that they come from authorized devices and services. The server then talks to the application server, which is either operated by Amazon or a third-party vendor.

Image Credits: Amazon

All these communications are encrypted multiple times and even Amazon won’t be able to know the commands or messages that are being passed through the network. There are three layers of encryption here. First, there’s the application layer that enables the communication between the application server and the endpoint. Then, there’s Sidewalk’s network layer, which protects the packets over the air and in addition, there’s the so-called Flex layer which is added by the gateway and which provides the network server with what Amazon calls “a trusted reference of message-received time and adds an additional layer of packet confidentiality.”

In addition, whatever routing information Amazon receives is purged ever 24 hours and device IDs are regularly rotated to ensure data can’t be tied to individual customers, in addition to using one-way hashing keys and other cryptographic techniques.

Arana stressed that the team decided not to go public with this project until it had gone through extensive penetration tests, for example, and added kill switches and advanced security features. The team also developed novel techniques to provision devices inside the network securely.

He also noted that the silicon vendors who want to enable their products for Sidewalk have to go through an extensive testing procedure.

“When you look at the level of security requirements for the silicon to be part of Sidewalk, many of our silicon [vendors] haven’t been qualified, just because it needs to be the new version, it needs to have certain secure boot features and things. That has been quite an eye-opener for everyone, to see that IoT is definitely improving — and it is going to get to a super level — but there’s a lot of work to do and this is part of it. We took it on and embraced that security level to the maximum and the vendors have been extremely positive and forthcoming working with us.”

Among those vendors the team has been working with are Silicon Labs, Texas Instruments and Nordic Semiconductor.

To test Sidewalk, Amazon partnered with the Red Cross to run a proof of concept implementation to help it track blood collection supplies between its distribution centers and donation sites.

“What we do with this is very simple tracking,” Arana said. “If you think about what they need, it is: did [the supplies] leave the building? Did they arrive at the other building? And it’s just it’s an immense simplification for them in terms of the logistics and creates efficiencies in terms of the distribution of those [supplies].”

This is obviously not so much a consumer use case, but it does show the potential for Sidewalk to also take on more industrial use cases over time. As of now, that’s not necessarily what the team is focusing on, but Arana noted that there are a lot of use cases where Sidewalk may be able to replace cell networks to provide IoT connectivity for sensors and other small edge devices that don’t have large bandwidth requirements — and adding cellular connectivity also makes these devices more expensive to build.

Since Amazon is jumpstarting the network with its Echo and Ring Devices, chances are you’ll hear quite a bit more about Sidewalk in the near future.

Audi’s next all-electric vehicle, the e-tron Sportback, is a “coupé” SUV

Audi revealed Tuesday evening in Los Angeles the e-tron Sportback as the German automaker begins to chip away at its plan to launch more than 30 electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids by 2025.

The e-tron Sportback reveal ahead of the LA Auto Show follows the launch earlier this year of Audi’s first all-electric vehicle, the 2019 e-tron.

Audi has delivered 18,500 of its all-electric e-tron SUVs globally since March 2019 when the vehicle first came to market. And the company is hoping to grab more, and different, customers with the Sportback.

Audi plans to offer two variants of the vehicle, a Sportback 50 and Sportback 55. The Sportback will come to Europe first in spring 2020. The Sportback 55 will come to the U.S. in fall 2020.

Audi calls this e-tron Sportback a SUV coupé, the latest evidence that automakers are comfortable pushing the boundaries of traditional automotive terminology. This is not a two-door car with a fixed roof and a sloping rear, although there are “coupé” elements in the design.

This is in fact a SUV with a roof that extend flat over the body and then drops steeply to the rear — that’s where the coupé name comes in — and into the D pillar of the vehicle. Then there’s the classic “Sportback” feature in the body where the lower edge of the side window rises toward the rear.

There are design details repeated throughout the exterior, specifically the four-bar pattern in the headlamps, front grille and wheels. And of course there are special interior and exterior finishes – 13 paint colors in all — and a first edition version customers can buy. The base price of the Sportback is 71,350 ($79,000).

But importantly, besides some styling and design changes, this vehicle boasts longer range and for everyone outside the U.S., futuristic looking side mirrors and new lighting tech.

The 2020 Audi e-tron Sportback has a 86.4 kilowatt-hour battery pack that has a range of up to 446 kilometers (277.1 miles) in the EU’s WLTP cycle. The EPA estimates aren’t out yet, but expect the range numbers to be slightly lower.

The company is targeting an EPA range of about 220 miles over the 204 miles of range that the regular e-tron gets.

Audi was able to improve the range by increasing the net battery capacity. It also decoupled the front motor and improved the thermal management.

Lighting and mirrors

Audi is known for its lighting and the company has made this a key feature in the Sportback. The vehicle has a new digital matrix headlights that breaks down light into tiny pixels. The result is precise lighting that has high resolution.

Inside the headlight is a digital micromirror device that acts like a video projector. Inside the DMD is a small chip from Texas Instruments that contains one million micromirrors. These micromirrors can be tilted up to 5,000 times per second.

The upshot: The headlights can project specific patterns on the road or illuminate certain areas more brightly. And for fun, animations like the e-tron or Audi logos can be projected on a wall when the vehicle is stopped.

Check out this video to see it in action.

The safety piece of this is the most interesting. For instance, on a freeway the light might creates a carpet of light that illuminates the driver’s own lane brightly and adjusts dynamically when he or she changes lane.

Then there are the virtual exterior mirrors. This wing-shaped side mirror doesn’t have an exterior mirror. Instead, it supports integrate small cameras. The captured images appear on high-contrast OLED displays inside the car between the instrument panel and the door.

If the driver moves their finger toward the surface of the touch display, symbols are activated with which the driver can reposition the image. The mirrors can be adjust automatically to three driving situations for highway driving, turning and parking.

Neither the mirrors of the digital matrix LED lighting is available in the U.S. and won’t be until the government changes its Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, which are the regulations that dictate the design, construction, performance, and durability requirements for motor vehicles.