BY NEAL POLLACK
In Marvel’s blockbuster franchise Iron Man, the most popular character is unanimously Tony Stark, perfectly portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. However, the second most intriguing character is arguably J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark’s artificially intelligent personal concierge.
Since the early days of science fiction books and films, artificially intelligent computers, robots, and androids have generously populated the genre. Many with the ability to engage and interact with humans. On the Syfy Channel’s short-lived show Eureka, one of the most celebrated characters was SARAH. In fact, SARAH was so popular that she quickly generated more than 17,000 followers on Twitter at the show’s launch. However, SARAH wasn’t a person, an alien, or a robot. She was a connected home system, a “Self Actuated Residential Automated Habitat,” a hyper-intelligent system interface running the home of the show’s main characters. SARAH would open and close doors, control the internal temperature, analyze interior air quality and, when the need would arise, fire up the home’s laser defense operation. Perhaps most importantly, she could mix drinks for guests.
On the show, SARAH is neurotic, a little erratic, and even occasionally love struck. In those cases, fiction diverges from reality a bit. Real-life automated home systems are, fortunately, not falling head over heels for their residents but they are up and running. We can now have a natural conversation with our house, telling it to perform common functions. If a user says, “SARAH, it’s a little too cold in here,” SARAH, or whatever she’s named, will know who the user is and what their preferred temperature might be. And that’s just the beginning. Very recent technological, material, and digital breakthroughs coupled with the “App Revolution” are making a fictitious Smart Homes like SARAH a fast reality. The confluence of affordable high quality, high performance cameras, microphones, speakers, motion detectors, locking systems and temperature control systems, beacons, voice detection and recognition software and much more, have ushered in the seemingly endless horizon of connected home products hitting the market practically every week. Just like Apple’s SIRI, a user can talk to their home, and in turn, their home can recognize who is speaking, what room they are in, what time it is and who else is in the house. As such, the system can make automatic adjustments based on the occupants pre-determined preferences entered via an app on a smart device. Truly, the era of the Smart Home, also called, the Connected Home, has arrived. A 2013 Berg Insight report cited in The Wall Street Journal (1) predicts 17.4 million installed smart home systems in Europe and 31.4 million in the U.S. by 2017, with annual revenues of $3.4B and $9.4B, respectively.
This high growth space particularly excites Utz Baldwin, CEO of the digital home lighting company Plum (2). Baldwin has been in the automated home industry for more than 20 years. Starting out, Baldwin installed thousands of sophisticated entertainment systems, most of them in the six-figure range. Then he added sprinkler systems, fountains and security apparatuses to his installation and service offerings. “These were extremely complicated installs that required multiple remote controls with powerful and often expensive central processors,” say Baldwin. “But so much of that has changed. Smart homes are no longer the provenance of the wealthy and technologically curious.” It has become a consumer industry that’s reaching the middle class. “Now,” Baldwin says, “the technology is finally catching up. It’s an exciting time right now, and we’re clearly at the tipping point.”
THE PRICE IS RIGHT
It costs less than $10 to add a microprocessor or microcontroller to a common home device. Just about anything can become connected to some sort of intelligence for slightly more than the price of a cup of coffee. A decade ago, if a user wanted sound piped through their home, it would have cost thousands of dollars. Now, anyone can walk into Best Buy, pick up a Sonos system, and install it in an hour. The smart thermostat system, Nest, is no longer competing for rich customers who want automated temperature toys; it’s competing for people who are shopping for a thermostat, period, and has now been installed in one percent of American homes.
APPLE’S PLATFORM PLAY
If cost and ease of use weren’t enough to drive demand, Apple just declared home automation officially cool, offering a way to control all connected home devices through the simplest possible interface: voice. Apple’s HomeKit (3) enables all compatible kits—which will soon be pretty much everything on the market—to be controlled by Siri, its intelligent, voice-driven assistant. Voice control and truly intelligent automation: this is the power of HomeKit. It’s no longer something that tech-heads drool over while their partners roll their eyes—it’s something that everyone will want.
On day one of Apple announcing their HomeKit, their partners included August, Broadcom, Chamberlain, Cree, Haier, Honeywell, iDevices, iHome, Kwikset, Marvell, Netatmo, Osram Sylvania, Philips, Schlage, Skybell, Texas Instruments, and Withings. And with a veritable Who’s Who of home automation on board from the ground floor, companies not on the initial invite that make anything —with a power switch, are scrambling to get into the party.
ONE DEVICE PLATFORM TO RULE THEM ALL
But it’s not just Apple. The entire industry has taken an extraordinary leap. It offers enormous opportunities for companies that are agile enough to play in this field. Products need to be high performance—flexible, yet stable—and they need to get it right. Long gone are the days when someone needed a diploma in electrical engineering to install and set up a home automation kit. Users can typically be up and running with a new home automation gadget anywhere from two to five minutes after taking it out of the box. “The types of consumers who are gobbling up these products are young professionals in busy households, making six-figure incomes and appreciating technologies,” Baldwin says. “They expect performance. They don’t put up with latency.”
There are a number of different ways for companies to approach this burgeoning space. Adopters could be an end-point design manufacturer of items such as garage doors, sprinkler systems, water heaters, smart lumber, and other building materials. There are hundreds, if not thousands of great hardware endpoints for the home. However, if that’s a company’s entry point, then they need to support an open Internet of Things approach and be willing to publish their API because that company is going to have to be able to integrate their product into a number of different platforms.
Alternately, a company could try to operate with connected home hubs. The smart home market is incredibly fragmented, with more than 15 protocols operating at any one time. There’s a frantic scramble to find the best device that will integrate a huge variety of radio signals. Large companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft are rushing in to fill this gap but independents like Revolv are also offering nimble solutions. For $299, Revolv offers one hub, with an associated app, that brings together lights, locks, thermostats, entertainment systems and everything else that the infinitely rich smart home environment is now offering. It even has a geolocation device that can sense when the user is within two miles of home so it can set their house into “coming home” mode.
There’s also work to be done in the cloud. Products like Electric Imp allow smart home devices to integrate seamlessly with the Internet and to continually update as necessary. It aggregates information from other devices in other homes to help users’ homes work more efficiently. Big players like IBM and Cisco are also moving very fast in this space. It’s not the most overtly glamorous play, but the connected home won’t work without a reliable cloud-based
The final story hasn’t yet been told on the smart home. No one knows exactly what a real-life SARAH is going to look like when it’s done evolving or if it will ever finish evolving.”It’s still the Wild West,” Baldwin says. “There’s plenty of opportunity.”
KNOW THY ENERGY CONSUMPTION
Energy is the most vital component to any home, and the one most in need of digital transformation. As populations grow and resources become scarcer, it’s vital that our society reduce our use of water and electricity. Smart home start-ups understand that and they are planning accordingly.
Smart thermostats monitor a house’s temperature and maximize the energy efficiency of heating and cooling systems. Smart plugs, when retrofitted over existing outlets, can read the unique wavelengths of appliances. Using a full home sensoring system, they can know what’s being used and what’s not, and assign power accordingly. Attached apps can measure the cost per hour of running certain appliances and send the homeowner a text if something is draining too much power. The homeowner can know their power consumption in real time, down to turning on the TV and seeing how much power that individual action requires.
This is a burgeoning field full of activity that’s looking to transform the stodgy home energy space with a lot of, well, energy. A start-up called Chai Energy provides users with smart energy meters that monitor energy consumption. It then sends this information to a cloud-based app, which relays that information to a smartphone, which tells the homeowner how to specifically save energy using a fun, game-based approach.
Plum, which makes smart lightpads and outlets that can be easily operated from a smart phone app, recently partnered with Chaotic Moon Studios on software development, and just received a significant investment from Microsoft. “I’ve worked with consumers and have seen their frustration with technology,” says Baldwin. “Complication leads to abandonment. We wanted to make our device as simple to set up as receiving a text message. Once you install our device and you download the Plum mobile app, you answer two questions: What room, and what would you like to call it?”
At that point, the Lightpad—which has already been installed—joins a mobile network, and users can control the switch from their phones. Every Lightpad contains submetering technology that can tell users how much a light costs to operate in real time. The app can then provide suggestions, if requested, for consumers to change their behavior. By pressing a button, users can reduce a light’s output. “But we’re not limited by hardware,” Baldwin says. “We have a small computer in your wall. The features and benefits are only limited by your imagination.”
Granular, digitally based energy management solutions are clearly the future, and there’s an extraordinary need. Gradually, these systems will learn user habits. “The real future of the connected home is about analytics,” Baldwin says. “All of these devices are capturing data about how you’re interacting with them. They develop new features and habits based on your own habits and schedules, rather than some predetermined block of code.”
The price point is approaching—and in some cases surpassing—the rest of the home energy industry. Baldwin says that Plum is charging $99 per Lightpad, and estimates that the average home would cost about $2,000 to convert. That’s not yet affordable for everyone—but a similar package would have cost ten times that much a decade ago, and it would have been 100 times less reliable and less efficient.
MAKING CENTS OF SECURITY
As home technology leaps forward into the digital age, home security will keep pace. Smart locks, alarm systems and window shades will be digitally integrated into the rest of the house, operating off the same cloud-based, app-enabled platforms. That process has already begun. Homes are using proximity sensors to open front or garage doors—but user wouldn’t want their homes to open for anyone who approaches it. Smart homes require a second-tier security system that can send push notifications directly to the phone and then request a code or fingerprint identification to activate the doors. With the new iOS 8, users won’t have to unlock their phone, much less launch an app.
Everything will be sent via interactive notification. For example, a homeowner could access their home via their smartwatch or Fitbit. If a morning runner doesn’t want to take a set of keys or a phone with them, they can use a series of unique biometric measurements, or fingerprints, to open their home directly from the wearable device.
Unsurprisingly, smart home security has a lively business sector in camera surveillance, like wireless Wi-Fi camera maker DropCam which was recently purchased by Nest (owned by Google). Start-up Novi is aiming to take that tech and step forward as a service by going after the traditional home security industry, which sometimes overcharges people by playing on their fears. “Say goodbye to contracts, monthly fees and false alarms,” it advertises. Novi installs a sensor in a user’s home. It looks more or less like a smoke alarm but is equipped with powerful digital cameras and is controlled by an app. When it detects motion or smoke in a room, it snaps a series of pictures. These pictures are sent to a base station that plugs into the Internet and syncs with all the sensors at the user’s home. As soon as it receives an image, it forwards them to the user’s smartphone or tablet. When the user receives the images, they can then decide what action they need to take, if any. The system has been funded by Microsoft and,after a successful Kickstarter, will start shipping in 2015.
THE ART OF THE FIRE SALE
But security means a lot more than protecting homes from invasion: home safety is another burgeoning field. A company called Wallflowr, cofounded by the unusual pair of American Family Insurance and Microsoft Ventures, intends to reduce the risk of kitchen fires, a leading cause of domestic fires in the U.S. A small device plugs in behind the stove and wirelessly monitors its activity. If the user leaves the vicinity of the stove, it contacts the user via an app on their smartphone or smartwatch. If users don’t respond, it shuts the stove off automatically. Not only will this save countless lives and property, but if it functions as planned, it could also save homeowners and insurance companies millions of dollars.
While other areas of the smart home are definitely in the experimental phase, digital home security appears to be an idea whose time has fully arrived. The Wall Street Journal, (4) in an otherwise skeptical article about smart home technology, cites security as the one rock-solid area in the industry. SmartThings, one of the most successful smart home start-ups, offers a full home security kit for $300, and business is booming. Google recently acquired Dropcam, the Internet-connected videocam start-up, largely citing its utility in the field of home safety and security.
The hardware is certainly in place. The home sensor sector is booming with creativity, with apps like Canary, Knut, NODE and a strong multi-sensor device called WigWag, all showing tremendous longevity and promise. Alex Wilkinson, the CEO of SmartThings, has said that the field is wide open for devices that offer “monitoring, automation, control and fun.”
SIRI, MAKE ME A HOTPOCKET
The automated home is going to change the way people think about cooking and food, even if they don’t believe it yet. In the last year, we’ve seen a slew of new devices hit the market that do everything from helping people cook better to reducing food wastage. Companies not only want to make appliances smarter, they want to make previously dumb kitchen accessories into devices that can make them a better chef or healthier in general.
Much of the kitchen is already being connected to the Internet, albeit in early forms. Earlier this year, LG launched (9) an oven, microwave, and fridge that can talk to one another. LG also was the first to market an Internet fridge, way back in 2000. The microwave and oven can suggest recipes based on the ingredients users have right now or frequently use. The fridge has interior cameras built in that can take photos of its contents via a mobile app as well as auto detection of many common items, so people know not to purchase more of something that’s already there.
These devices can be controlled via a mobile app or over the increasingly popular LINE messenger, simply by requesting information or sending an instruction. A video by LG (10) shows the user asking the fridge, “How many beers do I have?” and the fridge responding that there are three left. It’s possible that eventually, users could control everything using only Siri, which could be as easy as saying, “Hey Siri, can you warm up the oven for
Microsoft has grander visions for the kitchen of the future. In a 2013 video, (11) the company imagines the kitchen as a fully connected system that can look at ingredients and come up with a recipe right on the stove top. Instead of spending time fruitlessly searching for the perfect meal, users can just present what they’ve got and it can spit out exactly what to do—no messing with other devices.
Other start-ups aim to help users get smarter at managing food. Households in the U.S. alone waste up to 40 percent of their food every year, (12) due to poor planning and overestimation of food requirements—technology, again has the answer. Quirky’s Egg Minder tracks how many eggs a user has and how long they’re good for. Milkmaid alerts users to when their milk is going bad before it’s too late. This not only adds up to reducing food wastage, but it saves money in the long run. If Americans are really wasting 40 percent of their food, that’s a dramatic cost saving for almost every family if it can be turned around with some smarts.
Working together, these devices help paint a better picture of what’s going on in the kitchen. Users will check their phones when heading to the supermarket after work and be able to determine they need more eggs and broccoli for the recipe they’ve bookmarked for the night. When they get home, the recipe for dinner is projected on the stove-top and their connected scales make sure the dessert is perfectly measured out. Everything is taken care of except for the eating, and we’re sure there’s an app for that coming soon.
BIG BUSINESS IN THE BATHROOM
In the bathroom, there are a number of emerging categories that look promising already. Perhaps the easiest target was the humble weighing scales, which have already received an overhaul. Products like the Withings Smart Body analyzer and the Fitbit Aria bring scales into the 21st century by graphing daily weight and body mass data on a mobile app, giving valuable insights into whether the user is making any progress on his goals or is becoming unfit. Others like P&G’s connected toothbrush (13) track brushing habits and recommend improvements over time, all in a simple mobile app. Even the humble toilet itself is not immune to innovation with Satis’ smart toilet touting Bluetooth to control its functions and Toto’s Intelligent Toilet touting the ability to measure a user’s—ahem—waste. Toto says that its toilet can measure everything (14) from blood sugar to pulse.
It could also analyze waste to detect early health issues, capturing data in an unprecedented volume that could help researchers discover more about the evolution of illnesses and diseases. This isn’t such a far-fetched idea; these sensors exist for the most part in one form or another, but not in a toilet yet. In fact, some DIY hardware hackers are already messing with the idea of smarter loos. One developer has already used a Raspberry Pi to track usage (16) of water in toilet flushes and to alert the owner when the toilet paper runs out. It only takes a company to start focusing on putting the pieces together to make it a reality.
NIGHT NIGHT, SARAH
We’re not yet at the point where SARAH is available in every home to open and close the blinds and stun burglars with a taser. But the technology is lining up in hardware, software, and beyond into the cloud. The automated home space is a buzzing hive of innovation and energy. Living well is going to be redefined by technology, which will go hand in hand with comfort and security. As the price points keep coming down and the technology improves exponentially, companies needs to be in position to take advantage of this revolution. Ten years down the road, everyone will want SARAH to be mixing them a celebratory martini.
Chaos Theory is a Chaotic Moon Studios publication. We are a creative technology studio in Austin, TX obsessed with creating innovative user-centered design and developing intelligent custom software for the world’s biggest and best brands. To engage us about a potential project, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org