Connected cameras are a staple of the smart home, but as much as consumers have scooped up the likes of the Nest Cam, the Ring Doorbell, and others, Apple left cameras out when it launched its HomeKit smart home platform in 2014.
That will change this fall once iOS 10 arrives. Apple said at WWDC that it’s adding smart camera support to HomeKit with its new mobile OS. Its device partners will follow with an assortment of new cameras.
You don’t technically need to wait for the iOS to get your hands on a HomeKit compatible video device. The newest video doorbells from August and Ring have both been certified by Apple to work with HomeKit, and both have incorporated new circuitry from the manufacturer Ambarella that has Apple’s HomeKit camera profile baked in.
Alongside those two existing products, Withings, Flir, Kuna, D-Link and Canary all plan to have new HomeKit-compatible video devices out in 2016, all using Ambarella’s chipset. With these new cameras will also come new support for HomeKit devices and Siri across Apple’s various operating systems for Mac, Apple TV and Apple Watch. We don’t have full details on the new hardware or any future new apps, but here’s what the new camera landscape might look like in an Apple-based smart home before the end of 2016.
From your front door to your TV
One limitation of connected security or doorbell cameras is that you often need to go through multiple steps to actually view the video feed. Once you get a notification on your phone, you still need to unlock the phone and open the appropriate app. Those are small delays, but in aggregate, they can get in the way of a camera’s usefulness. What’s the point of having a smart doorbell camera if whomever’s ringing leaves before you can respond?
For iOS, Apple is adding a quick swipe feature that will not only show you a video feed, but it will also let you interact with your doorway depending on how connected it is, with no added interface layers. With an August Doorbell Cam paired with the company’s Smart Lock, for example, you’ll be able to use the two-way audio feature to talk with whomever might be at your door, and even unlock the door, right from the quick access screen.
You can also imagine how this might work on Apple TV. There will be no Home app for Apple TV, at least at the early days, but developers will be able to write discrete Apple TV apps that control their HomeKit devices. Imagine an August app that lets you watch your video doorbell feed on your television. August CEO Jason Johnson wouldn’t confirm a forthcoming August app for Apple TV, but he did suggest the following: “Depending on the device that you’re on, an application will support live video. You could be in the hallway or on your couch. Suffice to say that the architecture [of HomeKit] is such that using Siri, you can invoke live two way audio and one way video with someone at your door.”
Batteries not included
The video chipset from Ambarella will introduce standardized specs across the new camera products. Those specs include the ability to display 1080p video at 30 frames per second over WiFi, as well as finance-grade 256-bit encryption between the camera and your phone.
A limitation of the new HomeKit cameras is that they must all be hardwired. The new camera specification won’t support battery-powered cameras. Most connected cameras right now either plug in or need a hard-wired connection, but for video doorbells in particular, battery-based units can be a big help. Some video doorbells won’t wire in directly to certain kinds of doorbell chimes. Others won’t always fit cleanly on your exterior trim. You obviously need to worry about replacing the batteries over time, and sleep modes for the camera can help with this. It’s balancing sleep mode with responsiveness that’s the trick, and the report is that Apple is still working on getting that right in its new spec.
NestCam has the edge for now
Of all the camera partners, only D-Link and Flir offer a familiar DropCam/NestCam-style freestanding connected camera. Neither is verygood. The HomeKit camera manufacturers have also previously focused on specialty camera products like thermal imaging, all-in-one security units, and the aforementioned video doorbells. Those all have their place, but the DropCam design has the most versatility since you can put it pretty much anywhere with a power outlet.
Any one of the new HomeKit manufacturers could branch out (or improve), but NestCam is still the general-purpose camera leader in terms of flexibility and ease of use, with no worthy competitor on the horizon.
You won’t find concrete release dates for the new cameras or the new Home app yet, so the when of all of this will arrive is up in the air. The expectation is that the camera manufacturers will bring their products to market as soon as they can once the new HomeKit camera specification comes live. All involved likely have the 2016 holiday buying season in mind, but until at least some of these actually hit the market with their full HomeKit feature set realized, I’d hold off on buying any connected camera, especially if your smart home loyalties are still up for grabs.