The convergence of the cloud and the Internet of Things is predicted to have a radical impact on our homes. And yet, although science fiction writers have long imagined bedrooms and kitchens filled with voice-controlled gadgets, most British homes remain resolutely offline. Curtains and blinds have to be manually operated, kitchen appliances can’t be controlled remotely, and switch-operated ceiling lights are largely unchanged from Edwardian times.
Fortunately, the smart home is becoming a reality rather than a fantasy. Virtual assistants are leading the charge towards voice-controlled applications, and the huge rise in web-enabled electrical appliances means it’s already possible to control thermostats and security systems remotely. It won’t be long until biometric door locks and interactive security systems protect our homes, while gesture controlled appliances and responsive heating systems regulate them.
However, encouraging mass adoption of smart technologies remains a considerable challenge. While businesses are always keen to embrace technology, consumers remain wary about inviting futuristic technology into their homes. That’s where events like the European Smart Homes conference come in. Held in London’s Charing Cross at the end of October, it featured speeches from senior personnel at Bluetooth, IKEA, EDF Energy and Maplin.
ESH 2017 covered a wide range of topics and challenges, from consumer interaction trends to commercialisation opportunities. Delegates discussed how to promote products in an environment where wifi hub signals can struggle to reach the garden, and data thefts attract widespread media coverage. Technological innovation can frighten as well as excite, which is why industry insiders view voice-controlled assistants like Alexa as breakthrough devices. Automation seems less intimidating when it features a calm female voice and a relatable name like Cortana, and take-up levels of virtual assistants support this theory. Services may become even more important than products in coming years, and the user experience will be pivotal to the success or failure of smart devices.
Another hurdle facing IoT device manufacturers is the fear of obsolescence. Smart devices have already failed in the marketplace because few people understood the merits of a smart toaster, or glasses with on-lens projections. Predictions by Gartner that a typical family home could feature more than 500 smart devices by 2022 seem optimistic, considering many modern homes contain fewer than 500 items in total. Delegates at ESH therefore focused on areas like interaction and cybersecurity, rather than new product lines or undiscovered niches.
Nevertheless, ESH did feature case studies and discussions about appropriate business models. A key areas of focus for tech firms is compatibility – almost by definition, smart homes need devices to work together seamlessly. Photochromic windows should only darken when ambient temperatures rise, which may require interaction with a thermostat that can itself be controlled by an app. Web-enabled devices all operating independently with unconnected operating systems wouldn’t represent much of an improvement on today’s standalone appliances with unique interfaces.
A recurring theme throughout this year’s conference was the inevitability of smart homes, and a well-received presentation by Hive’s commercial director demonstrated what has already been achieved. With 300Mbps fibre broadband speeds available in parts of the UK, and ultrafast 5G in development, it won’t be long before smart homes become fully connected and controllable.