Smart Home Dictionary

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SMART HOMES MADE SIMPLE is a project that is designed to raise awareness about how people with disabilities can gain control over their environment and live safely and more independently in their own homes using generic smart home technology.

It is a project of Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF). PATF provides education and financing opportunities for people with disabilities and older Pennsylvanians, helping them to acquire assistive technology devices and services that improve the quality of their lives.

Common Smart Home Words and Products

One of the goals of the Smart Homes Made Simple project is to develop a dictionary of common terms for people using and learning about generic smart home technology.

Check back often as this listing will grow. Contact us if there is a word or phrase you would like to see defined.

3-Way Lighting Switches
A lighting system that consists of three terminals so that the circuit can be controlled by two different switches. For instance, a set of stairs may have a switch at the bottom and one at the top where both can turn the stair lights on and off. When installing smart switches to replace existing wall switches, you must consider if you have a regular switch or a 3-Way switch as the type of smart switch needed will vary based on the single, 3-Way and 4-Way switches in your room. The image below shows a 3-Way Switch configuration.

3-Way Switch configuration

A mechanical or electrical device for moving or controlling something. For example, a power wheel chair uses actuators to turn the motions on a joy stick into forward, back, left and right motion. When controlling things like pumps, blinds, sprinklers or other mechanical devices Actuators are used to translate electronic signals into a physical action. The photo below is of a Controller and an Actuator arm for a lift chair. When up or down is pressed the motor on the arm moves it up and down.


Amazon Alexa Voice Services
Alexa Voice Service (AVS), otherwise called simply Alexa, is Amazon’s suite of services built around its voice-controlled artificial intelligence assistant for the home and other environments. AVS and Alexa were first introduced with Echo, the company’s intelligent speaker, which enables voice interaction with various systems in the environment and online. Alexa is available for an ever-increasing number of other devices, including smart phones, tablets and remote controls. It is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic, and other real-time information, such as news. Voice commands can be given to Alexa to control smart home automation devices including lights, thermostats, locks, cameras and other devices.

Alexa gets its name from the ancient library of Alexandria, and it can be activated by first saying a trigger word (either “Alexa” by default or “Echo,” “Amazon” or “Computer,” based on your preferences), followed by your query or request. Alexa uses natural language interpretation to process and act upon requests.

Privacy Concerns with Alexa:
Alexa is only designed to make calls, send messages, and to send short query and request information once triggered, but it is always listening in the background for its trigger word. While there have been media reports of Alexa “randomly” sending a message to someone, the transcripts of the incidents have been found to be rare occurrences where the person unconsciously said, “Alexa…send message…[Name]”. For whatever reason, for the people when this occurred, they ignored Alexa’s responses and inquires. For more information click here for an article discussing Alexa and Google security.

With Alexa always listening for its trigger command when conversations take place within its range, and because Alexa continually collects data to learn more about the users interacting with it, its use has raised privacy concerns among some.

Amazon Echo can be setup to only allow certain action based on your unique voice, such as purchasing. Most of the devices do feature a mute button that will disable the device’s microphones, but users do need to physically press the button in order for Alexa to stop listening.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo (shortened and referred to as Echo) is a brand of smart speakers developed by The devices connect to the cloud based product, Alexa Voice Services (AVS), which responds to the name “Alexa”. This “wake word” can be changed by the user to “Amazon”, “Echo” or “Computer”. The device is capable of voice interaction, music playback, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real-time information. It can also control several smart devices acting as a home automation hub. It also provides news, internet radio and plays and controls music, and can make and answer phone calls. More importantly, it can be used to automate your home, as it is compatible with Belkin, WeMo, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Nest, and Ecobee. It can also be used to control apps including Spotify, Uber, Domino’s, Pandora, IFTTT, Audible, and, of course, Amazon. Below is a pictures of an Echo:

Amazon Echo

Examples of voice commands that can be issued to an Echo are: “Alexa, dim the lamps 50%.” “Alexa, lock the front door.” “Alexa, set the thermostat to 72 degrees.” “Alexa, re-order paper towels.” “Alexa, what is the latest news.” “Alexa, find me a Mexican restaurant.” “Alexa, set a timer for 20 minutes.” Alexa (the voice system used by the Echo) will respond in kind.

Artificial Intelligence
The ability of a computer, computer system or robot to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as reasoning, discovering meaning, visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages.

Assistive Technology (AT)
Any device that helps a person with a disability achieve a more independent and productive life. The federal definition of assistive technology under the Assistive Technology Act is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” (Examples of AT include an adapted vehicle, ramp into and out of a home, hearing aids, a walker, Glasses, wheelchairs and smart home devices.)

The process of adding a Device to a Group. By doing this, the device can be controlled as part of the group. For example, a living room may have four smart switches and bulbs. Rather than turn each on and off, they can be added to the group “Living room lights”. One could then turn them off by saying, “Hey Google, turn off the living room lights”.

Audio Descriptions
This Apple product allows one to watch movies with detailed audio descriptions of every scene on your iPhone or iPad. Movies with audio descriptions are displayed with the AD icon in the iTunes Store. This is used by the visually impaired, people living with blindness or people who want to follow a movie without actually watching the screen.

iPhone also lets VoiceOver users access closed caption and subtitle tracks audibly or through their Braille Displays.

A wireless Protocol (defined way of communicating) that is popular among smart home and consumer electronic devices. New Bluetooth protocols are designed to use considerably less power while maintaining a similar range. Bluetooth is most often used to connect to speakers and earphones to play music wirelessly. One can identify Bluetooth products by the following symbol:


Braille Displays
A Braille display is a device, typically attachable to a computer keyboard, that allows a blind person to read the contents of a display one text line at a time in the form of a line of Braille characters. Each Braille character consists of six or eight movable pins in a rectangular array. The pins can rise and fall depending on the electrical signals they receive. This simulates the effect of the raised dots of Braille impressed on paper. There are usually 40, 65, or 80 arrays (characters) per line of text, depending on the device. Less expensive devices display fewer characters per line, and require the user to read the standard 80 characters of a normal text line in several readings. The following is an example of a Braille Display:

Braille Display

When used in conjunction with a Braille keyboard, the Braille display makes it possible for a person to operate a computer – read the display, send and receive e-mail, and browse the Web. Other approaches instead of or in addition to the Braille display include voice recognition and speech synthesis technologies. The following is a Braille Display with an iPad.

Braille Display with an iPad

CFL Bulb
Stands for Compact Fluorescent Lamp – these are ‘energy-saving’ light bulbs that, along with LED (Light Emitting Diodes) have replaced traditional (incandescent) light bulbs. CFLs are up to four times more efficient than incandescent bulbs. You can replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb with a 22-watt CFL and get the same amount of light and practically no heat waste. CFLs use 50- to 80-percent less energy than incandescent lights. Almost all smart bulbs are LED. The following is a CFL Bulb:

CFL Bulb

CFR Bulb
Stands for Compact Fluorescent Radio Lamp – identical to a CFL but these bulbs have a built-in radio receiver that enables them to be controlled by a wireless Home Automation network using communication protocols such as Zigbee. Earlier smart bulbs were designed this way. Newer ones use LED.

The Cloud
Simply put, cloud computing is the delivery of computing services—servers, data storage, databases, networking, software, analytics, and more—over the Internet (“the cloud”). Companies offering these computing services are called cloud providers and typically charge for cloud computing services based on usage, like how you’re billed for water or electricity at home. Smart Home devices are often managed, updated and supported by cloud providers. These include Alexa, Wink, Nest, Google Home, SmartThings and many others. Another example: Ring will charge a monthly or annual fee to store 30 days of recordings from the Ring Doorbell Camera.

Many smart home products connect to Cloud services to function. They use Wi-Fi or hubs to connect to the external Cloud services. Two devices in the same room might not be able to communicate directly. With cloud-to-cloud, messages are sent back and forth through their respective cloud services over the internet. This is becoming a popular way for hardware vendors to increase compatibility. In this way, A Ring doorbell’s video feed can be shown on an Echo Show.

A Device that can control other devices on the wireless network. There are a variety of Controllers available including hand-held remote controls and central Gateway Controllers that provide access to the Internet and PC software (via USB) that can control your network from anywhere in the world. (See Primary Controller, Secondary Controller, Static Controller, and Portable Controller.) For example, Comcast provides Internet access with a Gateway Wi-Fi Router (Controller), TV entertainment with a cable box (TV Controller) and you change channels using their hand held remote (Secondary Controller).

Cortana is an intelligent personal assistant created by Microsoft for Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile, Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft Band, Xbox One, iOS, Android, and Windows Mixed Reality.

Cortana can set reminders, recognize natural voice without the requirement for keyboard input, and answer questions using information from the Bing search engine. Cortana is currently available in English, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese editions, depending on the software platform and region in which it is used. Cortana competes with other digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa.

A Device is a specific electronic product that can be controlled through a network. The device can be attached to a local wired or wireless Controller (for example, a Wink Hub would be a device on your network and a controller for lights), or a sensor that provides input to the network. The picture below illustrates a home network and examples of Devices are electronic tablets, phones and computers.


In the example above each Device connected to the Wi-Fi router is a network Node.

A wireless controlled Device that controls the brightness, as well as the On/Off state of a local light. It will be connected to the light via standard wiring. The following is a smart Dimmer:


A common system to create a computer network using cables (wired network). This system is less common in homes, where the more convenient Wi-Fi (wireless) system is used. However, the wireless Router typically includes Ethernet sockets so that a PC or other device can be directly connected to it rather than using Wi-Fi.

A set of commands following a trigger from a device or sensor. For instance, when a motion detector is tripped an Event is activated where a light and bathroom fan turn on. Used in programs, apps, robots and IFTTT.

EyeGaze or eye tracking is a way of accessing your computer or communication aid using a mouse that you control with your eyes. An example is Tobii systems, which follows your eyes to see where you are looking on the screen. You can then select the item you are looking at by dwelling (staring at the screen for a length of time), blinking or clicking with a switch.

Tobii eye gaze systems work by having lights and cameras that are constantly sending and receiving information. The camera picks up light reflections from your pupils and translates the movement of your eyes into mouse cursor movements. It takes only seconds to complete a onetime calibration.

Below is a picture of Tobii Communicator 4 and The Grid 2:


Such software offers a wide range of symbol and text based vocabularies. The eye gaze is configured to snap to buttons on grids, making eye gaze easy to use. The Tobii I-12 and I-15 with Eye Gaze Interaction offer powerful, portable, individual communication solutions that also include environmental control, Bluetooth and Internet capabilities. This method of control can be used by individuals who cannot move or speak.

To remove a Device from a wireless network. After a device is Excluded, it cannot be controlled by the network. It can be Included into the network again at any time.

Term used to indicate how many switches are on a switch face plate. For example, if a group of switches in the kitchen includes a switch for the overhead lights and a sink, and they are together, this is known as a 2-gang switch. See picture below:

2-gang switch

Generic Technology
Devices that can be purchased “off-the-shelf” and used “as is.” When used to help an individual with a disability perform a function, generic technology is also called assistive technology (AT).

A virtual perimeter for the real world. Using your Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or GPS on your phone, your Smart Home software can trigger events based on your physical location. For example, as you approach your house your phone will use GPS to know you are close to home and it will trigger your lights to automatically come on. The Geofence is the imaginary area around your house which may be defined as within a certain number of feet or meters.

Google Home
Google Home is a smart speaker developed by Google after the Amazon Echo. They work the same way except that this smart speaker uses Google Assistant which is like Alexa Voice Services. It was released in the United States in November 2016. Google Home enables users to speak voice commands to interact with services, like Alexa on Amazon’s Echo. The Wake Word is “Hey Google.” Many services, both in-house and third-party, are integrated, allowing users to listen to music, look at videos or photos, or receive news updates entirely by voice. Google Home also has integrated support for Home Automation features, letting users speak commands to the device to control smart home appliances. The following is an image of a Google Home:

Google Home

A collection of individual Devices, which can be controlled as a group. For instance, a Controller can switch them all on with one action, rather than having to turn on each Device individually. With Amazon Echo, a name can be used to control multiple devices in a Group such as “Living Room Lamps”, to refer to all lamps in the living room and control them all at once.

Home Automation
All aspects of adding control to your home and appliances. It can be as simple as adding remote control to a few lights, or creating a more complex system that includes automatic sensors and security systems. If these devices work together and respond to Events, the home can then be called a Smart Home.

Home ID
This is a security system that ensures that when Smart Home products are manufactured, they have a unique identification so that once added to a system only one Controller can operate it. Someone cannot take control of the Device unless they have the password. This term is the common identification for all Nodes belonging to one Z-Wave network. Each Controller is factory programmed with a unique Home ID. When operating as the Primary Controller, it assigns this Home ID to the network. This is similar to each person having unique social security numbers so that financial information is unique to one person under the IRS.

When discussing Smart Homes, the Hub is the central device that allows all the different products attached to it (lights, locks, thermostats) to work together. Examples are Wink and SmartThings.

Acronym for “If this, then that”. A software platform that connects apps, devices and services from different developers to trigger one or more automations involving those apps, devices and services. IFTTT is the free way to get all your apps and devices talking to each other.

The process of adding a Device to a wireless network. When Included, the device can be controlled by the network.

A smart home Protocol that was introduced in 2005. Insteon can operate through the power lines in your home (similar to X10) or wirelessly, which leads to very reliable systems. Insteon is a home automation technology that enables light switches, lights, thermostats, leak sensors, remote controls, motion sensors, and other electrically powered devices to interoperate through power lines, radio frequency (RF) communications, or both.

The ability for different smart home devices and services to reliably work together.

Internet of Things (IoT)
Popular term to describe how real-world sensors and appliances will be connected via the ‘Cloud’ enabling them to communicate and control each other wirelessly.

Stands for “Infrared”. Commonly used by hand held remote controls to control appliances such as TVs, cable boxes and other common electronic devices. The control signals are sent using Infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. IR is line-of-sight technology, which means there must be no obstacles between the remote control and the appliance.

LED Bulb
Stands for Light Emitting Diode. These modern light bulbs use very little power – typically 10% or less of the traditional incandescent bulbs and give off virtually no heat. Most smart bulbs are LED Bulbs combined with a radio transmitter. The following image is an example:

LED Bulb

A hand held remote control device that adds wireless control to a light or appliance. For instance, a Dimmer module enables you to control a lamp’s brightness and turn it on/off wirelessly.

Manual Override
Enables the user to control the Device without using the wireless network. For example, a Z-Wave plug will have a manual on/off switch. A wall switch may be operated manually or remotely using voice control or phone apps.

Mesh Network
A type of Network that allows each Device to send, receive and repeat messages. This process makes the network more robust and extends the range of the entire network. Z-Wave is a good example of a Mesh Network.

Like Scenes except rather than just turn Devices on and off, the lights can be dimmed, shades can be lowered and a temperature set to create a mood in the room. Mood is a Smart Home technology term where one switch or Event can control many Devices at the same time and fine tune what they do. Each device receives a different command. For example, in Wink, a Mood can be triggered called “Watch movie,” which does all of the following: “turn lamp A off, dim lamp B to 50%, lower the roller blind on Window C and turn the TV on”.

Two or more connected Devices is called a Network. This enables Devices to be controlled and to communicate with each other. For Home Automation, we typically refer to a Wireless Network as a Network.

A term used when discussing network security and setup which describes a Device on a home network. Each Node has a unique address, which the Controller uses to communicate and control it.

Means the same as Include. It is the process adding a Device to a wireless network. The network can then control the Paired device.

Portable Controller
Commonly called a “remote control”. See picture below.

Portable Controller

A network Controller that can be moved around the home or office. These Controllers are normally hand-held and battery-powered.

Primary Controller
Sometimes called a hub, this Controller includes all other Devices into the Network or smart home system. An example is a Wink Hub. For security and communication, it assigns its Home ID to the network and allocates a Node ID to each Device in the network (including Secondary Controllers and other remote controls). Wink or SmartThings hubs act as Primary Controllers.

A set of communication rules that enable network devices to communicate with each other. INSTEON, Z-Wave, ZigBee and LightwaveRF all have their own communication language rules or protocols.

Stands for Radio Frequency. All wireless technology uses RF signals to send and receive information. Home Automation technologies use various Radio Frequency ranges: Z-Wave (868.42MHz EU), LightwaveRF (433.92MHz) and ZigBee (868.42MHz EU).

Ring Video Doorbell connects to your home Wi-Fi network and sends real-time notifications to your smart phone or tablet with video and audio when someone is at your door. Using a free Ring App which is available for Apple, Android, and Windows 10 devices, you can see an HD Video stream of the person at your door and speak to them using two-way audio communication. Ring Doorbell can alert you when someone presses the button on your doorbell or when motion is detected. Below is an image:

Ring Doorbell

If a provider installs Internet in your home they will use a device called a Router to provide your Wi-Fi. A Router connects a local area network (LAN) to the Internet. In most home installations, the Router controls the wired (Ethernet) and wireless (Wi-Fi) networks as well as communication with the Internet. A Router is part of your computer network.

Used to control multiple devices with one command. It is the same as Moods. However, while Groups treat all devices similarly, Scenes enable a Controller to send different commands to different devices. This results in endless possibilities such as: “turn light switch off and open window B” or “dim all lamps to 50 % and turn on the TV”. This ability makes Scenes a very powerful part of a modern Home Automation network.

Secondary Controller
An additional remote control Devices on a Network. However, it cannot Include devices to the network, this is performed by the Primary Controller. When the Secondary Controller is included into the network the Primary Controller assigns its Home ID and Node ID. An example is the Alexa Voice Remote for Amazon Echo. It is a remote you can carry in your pocket to control your Echo. See picture below:

Secondary Controller

Home Automation Device that sends information across the Network based on changing conditions such as movement, temperature and light levels. For example, a motion Sensor sends information when motion is detected. Below is a motion sensor product that sends messages to a phone.


Setpoint Temperature
The temperature at which a thermostat is set. If the room’s ambient temperature is below this setpoint temperature, the thermostat will send a signal to turn on the heating system.

Siri is an intelligent personal assistant, part of Apple’s iOS, watchOS, macOS, and tvOS operating systems. Siri uses voice queries and a natural language user interface to answer questions, make recommendations, and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of Internet services. The software adapts to users’ individual language usages, searches, and preferences, with continuing use. Siri has become an integral part of Apple’s products, having been adapted into other hardware devices including newer iPhone models, iPad, iPod Touch, Mac, and Apple TV.

Siri supports a wide range of user commands, including performing phone actions, checking basic information, scheduling events and reminders, handling device settings, searching the Internet, navigating areas, and finding information on entertainment. It is able to engage with iOS-integrated apps. With the release of iOS 10 in 2016, Apple opened up limited third-party access to Siri, including third-party messaging apps, as well as payments, ride-sharing, and Internet calling apps. With the release of iOS 11, Apple will update Siri’s voices for more clear, human voices, supporting follow-up questions and language translation, and additional third-party actions.

Smart Home
The term commonly used to define a residence that has appliances, lighting, heating, air conditioning, TVs, computers, entertainment audio & video systems, security, and/or camera systems that can communicate with one another and can be controlled remotely on a time schedule, from any room in the home, as well as remotely from any location in the world by phone or internet or voice.

Smart Meter
Smart Meters are a new generation of electric and gas meters that can digitally (and more accurately) transmit meter readings to your utility company. Some smart appliances can work with Smart Meters to save electricity and gas consumption in the home. The following is an image of a Smart Meter.

Smart Meter

SmartThings Inc. is a technology company headquartered in Mountain View, CA. SmartThings is building an open platform for smart homes and the consumer Internet of Things. SmartThings makes a Hub (sometimes called “gateway” or “home controller”…depending on marketing) that connects to a Cloud platform and applications. The SmartThings Hub works with Google Home. The following is an image:


Means the same as Exclude – to remove a Device from a wireless network. After a device is Unpaired, it cannot be controlled by the network, but can be Paired again at any time.

This is an Apple iOS function for those living with visual impairment. VoiceOver is a gesture-based screen reader that lets you enjoy using iPhone even if you don’t see the screen. With VoiceOver enabled, just triple-click the Home button to access it wherever you are in iOS. Hear a description of everything happening on your screen, from battery level to who’s calling to which app your finger is on. You can also adjust the speaking rate and pitch to suit you.

VoiceOver Image Recognition
VoiceOver can now describe images to you, such as telling you if a photo features a tree, a dog, or four smiling faces. It can also read aloud text in an image — whether it’s a snapshot of a receipt or a magazine article — even if it hasn’t been annotated. And in the Photos app, you can touch to explore the facial expressions of people in your photos. Just tap the image with three fingers to have VoiceOver describe what’s there.

Wake Word
A Wake Word is a word that, once said aloud by a user, will put a Device in listening mode for voice control of products, where your command follows the Wake Word. An example is, “Hey Google, turn on the living room lights” or “Alexa, call Bob Smith’s mobile”.

Wearable Device
An electronic product worn on the body that incorporates sensors and a form of information presentation that serves a specialized function for the user. The Apple Watch and Fitbit are examples of wearable devices. For those with visual impairment, blindness or are reading challenged there are devices that are worn like glasses and provide descriptive information of what the “see”. An example is the OrCam System. It is activated by simply pointing your finger or pressing a button.

A wireless network that enables computers, printers, smartphones, and other compatible electronic devices to communicate with each other and the Internet, if the Router is connected to the Internet, within a particular area or range.

Wink is a brand of software and hardware products that connects with and controls Smart Home devices from a consolidated user interface. See picture below for image of a Wink smart phone interface.

Wink smart phone interface

Wink connects with third-party smart home devices associated with the Internet of Things, such as thermostats, door locks, ceiling fans, and lights to provide a single user interface on a mobile app. Wink works with devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home to provide voice control of Smart Home products.

The Wink Hub is the physical device that links to and controls the Smart Home Devices in a home. See picture below:

Wink Hub

Wireless Network
A group of electronic Devices linked together and communicating using radio waves (RF). Wi-Fi, Z-Wave and ZigBee are all wireless network technologies.

A type of Wireless communication standard. Before Z-Wave and ZigBee X10 was the primary method for devices to communicate. X10 is an industry standard for carrying control signals over the electrical wiring in a home or wirelessly. X10 devices can replace ordinary light switches, mains outlets and lamp holders which then can be controlled by keypads, radio and infrared remote controls. X10 was introduced during the 1970s and is largely being superseded by the advanced capabilities of Z-Wave and Zigbee.

A type of Wireless communication standard. A network technology that enables all your home electronics to be controlled from a single wireless network. It is named for the Swedish Zensys Corporation that developed it in 2001. It’s easy to install with no complicated programming and no new cables to run, yet offers sophisticated control of your network. Any Z-Wave enabled device (from multiple manufacturers) can be added to the network, and many non-Z-Wave devices can be made compatible by plugging them into a Z-Wave accessory module.

A type of Wireless communication standard. A network technology that enables all your home electronics to be controlled from a single wireless network. It’s easy to install with no complicated programming and no new cables to run, yet offers sophisticated control of your networked ZigBee devices. ZigBee compatibility between manufacturers’ products is limited.