The current state of the Smart Home can be one of awe but more times than not it’s a frustrating, hole ridden, maddening experience. There’s an expectation problem. One the industry is slowly overcoming but one in which the frustration endured setting up a system is not rewarded with with a proportional compelling performance. Performance not in terms of stability and reliability - which help a ton with perception - but useful experiences that inspire a sense of wonder. If something is utterly amazing but fails 1 out of every 10 times people are more forgiving. If it’s mundane, the reaction is going to be to curse it and most likely trend towards saying, “It’s a shit product.” Which, it probably is.
So why isn’t your smart home useful? Currently there are very limited situations in which connected products make sense to use. And it’s not an execution problem. There are lots of companies and platforms executing to a nice high standard. It’s a lack of compelling use cases, industry maturity, and technical understanding.
Companies, driven by marketing or the hype train that is internet connected devices, want their devices to be connected. They put a chip in it, market the hell out of it, and well, some people buy it. The problem is they missed the use cases. They sped right past them to the finish line. What they did was take a dumb device and connect it to the internet. What they didn’t do was make it useful.
Let’s take an example: a connected refrigerator. What do you actually want an internet connected refrigerator to do?
- Tell you what you can make for dinner with what you have?
- Auto order milk for you when you’re low?
- Keep track of your diet and remind you at 3am that the apple is a better option than the ice cream?
What can it actually do:
- Turn your ice maker on and off
- Adjust the temperature of your fridge and freezer. (Not based on what’s in it, that would be compelling. This is not.)
- A glorified internet browser via an android tablet.
The products themselves are not capable yet. They need to be looked at again. Not in terms of how do we make a connected refrigerator, but how do we make a better refrigerator. This is not a new idea. Not even close. All I’m asking is that these companies take an actual full length product development cycle and build in the needed outputs (read: sensors) and hardware to enable the compelling use cases. This is hard, it’s expensive, it takes time but yields a product that will make people’s eyes light up and not a refrigerator with an android tablet that’s smart.
So what do I mean by smart or useful home products and appliances?
A connected thermostat is great but only when it works around your schedule; a connected dryer is great but only when it runs during low power usage hours; a connected refrigerator is great but only when it gives you suggestions of what to make; connected light bulbs are great but only when they make your environment more comfortable at all times of the day and turn off when you’re not there; pet doors that completely seal except when the pet is in front of it; and the list goes on.
There are companies doing many of these things - Nest, August, Ecobee, Canary - and then there are companies that are struggling. These are the big brands where there is a fundamental lack of understanding around what the technologies that make products smart are used for. For example: a light bulb has two very compelling use cases:
- Being on when you’re in the room and off you're not
- Changing the color temperature to make the environment more comfortable at a specific time of day.
- Rave Mode (cool twice a year, but not that compelling)
The second one is straight forward, the first one is currently being solved by geolocation tracking in you phone which isn’t very reliable but can be greatly increased with in-door presence sensing. For this, you care more that someone is near the bulb and less who. Bluetooth LE Beacons (iBeacons, AltBeacons etc) help tremendously with this. Given 3 bulbs in a room you have a rather precise location. The issue is that while compelling, the people making decisions at larger companies that make light bulbs think that Bluetooth LE Beacons are purely for a retail environment. Since the lightbulbs for the consumer and in home space, why even explore it? This isn’t just ignoring a use case, it’s failing to future proof a light bulb that’s suppose to last 22 years.
The cure is time and hard work to move these products categories where they need to be. So what do we do in the mean time?
Focus where the tools are built to make something compelling. The use cases where you have all the inputs you need while pushing towards the ones that make our homes truly smart. Some examples of where to focus?
- Lighting control
- Voice control
- Motion sensors -> lights off/on
- Door sensor -> lights on
- Monitoring and security systems
- Alerts when you're away from home
- Unwanted entry
- HVAC / Climate control
- Instead of using the HVAC, lower blinds and speed up fans until a set temperature.
- Don't heat/cool my house when I'm away
- Shutdown critical appliances on failure or emergency
- Fire -> shutdown HVAC + lights
- Air filter -> notification or auto replenishment
- Large water leak -> notification + option to call a Plummer
Beyond that you can make a bunch of buzz but the hardware isn’t ready.
Pick your battles right now, find something that wows people, and learn from its success while the big problems are tackled and the heavy lifting is done. And remember, the future isn’t not built over night, but 3-5 years should be enough.