The so called smart-home has been gaining a lot of attention lately. Almost all the world’s major tech companies have announced plans and technologies to make the smart home the next big thing.
Over the past decades we've seen large businesses losing out because of disruptive technology changes. Kodak suffered from digital photos. Nokia from smart phones. Blockbuster from video on demand. Microsoft Windows is now the number three operating system, where they used to dominate the PC market.
The Internet of Things, or IoT, is another such disruptive technology. Nobody wants to have a Kodak moment, or go into history as the executive that said no to the smartphone, the Cloud, and other big opportunities. This means that IoT is attracting billions of dollars in investment.
More information: The internet of everything
Mobile phone developments have made lots of electronic components cheap. An explosion of small supercomputers is happening, often smaller than a credit card and costing less than $10. Your average phone contains more than 10 sensors, many of which can now be cost-effectively added to home appliances, so future smart devices will potentially cost the same or even less than their current 'dumb' counterparts.
We now have smart thermostats, smart televisions, fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, drones, robots and many more. These devices are capable of measuring anything around your house. And it doesn't stop there.
This month, Amazon is due to release 'Echo', a voice-activated home speaker, in the UK and Germany. This gadget has been available in the US for over a year and has proven a minor hit, with sales estimates of nearly 3 million. It uses an artificial intelligence assistant called Alexa to allow users to access the information and services of the internet and control personal organisation tools like playing music or turning on a light. Alexa uses 300 of its own apps (which Amazon calls 'skills') to provide the device’s different capabilities.
Of course Google can not stay behind and is expected to release its competitor, called Google Home, later this year. This speaker will reportedly cost $129, which is $50 less than the Amazon Echo. While Amazon is said to be ahead of its competitors thanks to a high-precision microphone and a more sophisticated voice recognition system, Google's DeepMind claims to have significantly improved computer-generated speech, and even music, with an AI technology called 'WaveNet'. At the moment, however, the programme requires too much computing power, as well as vast quantities of existing data to train itself, to be used in existing devices.
Recently, a survey revealed that the US market for connected home technologies could grow to 30 million homes over the next year, about a quarter of America’s 125 million households. The August/Xfinity survey indicated that family safety is the biggest motivator for most consumers to adopt a smart home technology. Video cameras and the ability to arm and disarm remotely a home security system with a smartphone are the 2 most compelling smart security features consumers are looking for in a smart home product today. Convenient features, such as the ability to turn on the lights after dark and the ability to provide remote access to delivery services or house cleaners, are also high on consumers’ minds.
There are a number of big issues though. The current IoT gadgets are often just that, nice gadgets that look great on your wall but don’t really solve a big problem. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a smart version if the 'dumb' version is good enough? Even if you do find a really cool and useful smart device, it is probably speaking Chinese whilst your other devices speak English. Your lesser smart devices, or even smart devices from other manufacturers, speak different languages, making a truly connected home more difficult to imagine.
How are IoT companies going to make money if a smart device costs just tens, not hundreds or thousands and profit margins are almost non-existent? Several companies are doing so by offering cheap or free hardware if you use their platform, give them your data or subscribe to a service. An alternative view is a future very much like mobile phones whereby you go to an app store and download apps for your fridge and vacuum cleaner.
App stores will allow developers to anticipate any potential problem and offer you a solution. Apps and sensors will make sure your home is safe and repairs are done before things break. Apps can make sure different devices from different manufacturers can easily talk to one another. Your house will learn what you like and start personalising itself. If your house has access to the heart monitor in your smartwatch, it can find out which music relaxes you, what your ideal temperature is, switch off the television when you fall asleep and make your house smarter for you.
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On the other hand, we are also seeing more and more of those smart devices being hacked and data being breached. You probably heard about that baby monitor that was used by a hacker to speak inappropriately to a toddler. Or that car with the journalist in it, that hackers drove off the road without anyone being able to stop it. Poorly protected devices can also be used as a botnet to conduct cyber attacks, as recently happened in the United States.
Your smart home will soon generate more data than Google was handling ten years ago. But are you ready for your toilet to share with the world that you have diarrhea? The future of smart-home technology might depend on the ability of both governments and tech companies to gain consumers' confidence and guarantee that their data and personal information are safe in their hands. Which will not be easy if we look at past experiences.