Smart home tech must be as clever as it is cool

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Posted by George Gabriel on 03 Oct, 2014

Personal technology has developed at an overwhelming pace during the last ten years, and our expectation of what it can do grows ever larger. We’ve become more productive in the office, on the road, at sporting events and on the treadmill, and thus seek higher levels of technological empowerment wherever we are. With millions and billions of pounds changing hands in the connected tech market, many have dubbed 2014 “the year of the smart home.” Yet, much research points to widespread consumer scepticism and disinterest in kitting out homes with connected devices, and it raises a discussion around whether the latest wealth of technology actually improves the in-home experience.

Household names

The recent arrival of the tech industry’s biggest players to the connected home market should speak volumes about where things might be heading in the months and years to come. After ditching its own attempt to break the market with EnergySense, Google kicked off 2014 in style by announcing a £1.9bn acquisition of Nest, one of home automation’s most impressive and innovative companies. Samsung followed suit in April with their capture of SmartThings, another start-up company who sell packs of interconnected, affordable and easy to use smart gear including movement sensors, remote switches, and keys with built in GPS. Apple made their move into the market with the June announcement of HomeKit, and although not unveiling any Apple-built hardware, hoped to introduce a powerful cradle for big-name brands and developers, using their iOS devices as the facilitator for actions and commands.

As a consequence of the above, industry experts predict around 11% of UK homes will be ‘smart’ in some capacity by the turn of the year. Wireless industry group GSMA believe that this level of uptake will value the connected home market at over £6bn next year, a figure estimated to blossom to as much as £27bn by 2017. Global consulting firm Navigant Research note that the demand for custom lighting hardware such as Philips Hue is worth £1bn alone.


To buy…

The technology – and the possibility of what it can accomplish as part of a connected home – is nothing short of impressive. There are locks that let you in with your fingerprint, lights that change colour and brightness based on your schedule or time of day, and blinds that are drawn when it starts to get dark. Google’s acquisition of Nest can be quite easily attributed to the company’s acknowledgment of the Nest Learning Thermostat, a WiFi-enabled dial that replaces the unattractive thermostat we normally use. The ‘Nest’ learns residents’ patterns, detects when they come in and out of the house, and thanks to its connectivity can be controlled remotely with a smartphone. South Korean consumer electronics company LG released their HomeChat service in June, which lets owners interact with their smart fridges, washing machines, vacuums and ovens using instant messaging. The famous “do we have any beer left?” question needn’t be a roadblock for HomeChat users, who can literally text their fridge and find out stock levels of anything in there in a matter of seconds.

Thanks to a brilliant service known as IFTTT (“if this, then that”) pieces of technology can often speak to each other, and respond to triggering actions from smartphones, cars or external services. IFTTT works on the simple premise that one incident occurring provokes action from another. Mercedes-Benz are signed up to Nest’s popular developer program, meaning the smart thermostat realises when drivers are due to arrive home based on their location and heats the house accordingly.


…or not to buy?

Despite the endless list of connected home devices – and we’ve only touched on a few – consumer take-up has been slow, and met with a certain amount of apathy and concern. A survey by field marketing agency Gekko revealed that of the 2,000 UK adults they questioned, more than a quarter were not interested in installing a connected device. Half of those surveyed expressed that smart devices simply aren’t important to them and don’t really fill a need. Given that we have been walking into rooms and flicking light switches for as long as we can remember, it’s one of the most innate things we do and would take something special to unseat it.

Over two thirds of those surveyed cited price as their most important factor when buying (or not buying) connected home devices. It doesn’t yet appear to make sense for users to spend the best part of £200 on three light bulbs that change colours, and many smart home solutions cost several times more than the devices they’re replacing. HomeChat, although interesting as a concept, requires users to have LG’s own premium appliances; an expensive venture to undertake at once. Privacy is also a pressing issue, and a Parks Associates survey of 10,000 U.S. households revealed that over 60% maintain significant concerns that smart home systems would lead to privacy violations and unauthorised access to their data and devices.


Saving money, saving time

We’re currently at a point where the demand for connected home technology is not yet replicating the level of supply, a reflection of how useful the technology is perceived to be by consumers. While it’s undoubtedly cool to instruct your living room lights to droop into a deep, reflective blue when the rain starts coming down outside, what service does it replace? What need does it actually fulfil?  The initial popularity of the Nest thermostat, validated by Google’s substantial purchase of the company, can tell us a lot about what connected technology needs to do to attract users.

The lure of the smart thermostat doesn’t come primarily from its ability to be controlled remotely; which although useful, is perhaps considered more of a ‘cool’ feature. After all, Nest’s nuanced capacity to learn and act on your tendencies in order to actively cut energy bills should negate the need to control it remotely anyway. It represents a shrewd marriage of innovation and utility, justifying its place in the home. If connected devices are to succeed in the future, they must do more than just employ modern technology. It is crucial that they also utilise it in ways that actively improve our lives, save us money, help us make smarter choices, and allow us to spend more time doing the things we love to do.

The smart home has certainly moved past the stage of early adoption and is incrementally filtering into the mainstream, but it’s not yet clear what the best approach is. With a range of devices, ecosystems, hubs, connectivity platforms and manufacturers, buyers are flooded with options in a market they don’t yet know too much about. As consumers and companies begin to grow a better understanding of smart devices and how they work within the connected home, history dictates that their popularity will increase. With industry leaders like Google, Apple, Samsung and LG all making considerable moves into the market in the past 12 months, further influential advances will surely be made. It could indeed be the case that 2015 steals the show and becomes the year of the smart home.

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