Q: As a futurist and expert in the energy field, what are your opinions on the home automation world?
A: It is important for industry leaders and evangelists to manage expectations around the seductive hype of short-term change while still being confident and enthusiastic about the potential for connected devices to enrich our lives at home (and work).
The industry seems to be focusing on the right barriers – pushing for alliances and standards, seizing early market adoption around first generation products like thermostats – while still preparing for the long game of mainstream consumer adoption that is likely to occur over the next decade.
Industry leaders seem to recognize that this is a marathon and not a sprint. We have to remember it was not so long ago (pre-Internet days of the early 1990s) that people could not see a compelling reason to have a ‘personal’ computer in their homes. Then along came the web browser and age of Internet based services. Our analog is ‘why do I need a connected appliance that can learn from my daily routines and guide outcomes?’.
Today’s challenge is creating compelling visions of a connected home based on devices that learn and guide behaviors and outcomes related to everything from energy use and home security to playing and cooking inside our homes.
Q: Why do you believe this market has taken off so quickly, with new smart products coming out faster than ever?
A: The last decade gave us a perfect storm of converging trends in software, hardware, and empowered entrepreneurial communities. The result was a lowering in the barriers to entry for creating new products that we now call networked devices. We can also give credit to enlightened business leaders and designers who paid attention to user experiences and the integration of adaptive software, prescriptive analytics and behavior science.
The community has grown from the lessons of plenty of failures but who cannot be grateful for living in an era with so many entrepreneurs who are not afraid to reinvent everyday objects like light bulbs, door knobs, air vents, air conditioners, water heaters and boilers, et al. I applaud the community and find it more intriguing than watching more money go into another photo-sharing app.
Q: Do you think that people actually want that futuristic Jetsons-like life, or are they simply looking for new ways to save time, money and energy?
A: It is tempting to throw out the over-used line attributed to Henry Ford summarized as ‘…if I would have asked customers what they wanted – they would have said a faster horse.’ People did not demand the age of the automobile and I do not sense evidence of strong demand today for a futuristic lifestyle straight out of Hollywood or some corporate ‘Vision of Tomorrow’ advertisement you might find on Youtube. Yet, at some point this smart home lifestyle seems inevitable given current trend lines of adoption and integration of consumer electronics. The story usually moves from ‘why do I need x’ to ‘how did we ever live without it’.
The healthiest view of the next decade for connected devices and automated built environments is a recognition that the marketplace will be fragmented but large. The use cases will vary greatly by region and customer segments.
Q: Are there any smart products out now that you find really interesting or intriguing?
A: I hesitate to pick winners or come across with a brand bias. There is a lot to be excited about with innovations around everyday use infrastructure in the home and workplace.
On the energy side, there is a very compelling case for the evolution of HVAC systems and smart vents from companies like Ecovent and Keen – and other companies that rethink systems that can learn and adapt systems for the whole house. (If there is an energy category waiting for more investment and innovation it is home-based waste water recycling systems.)
I am impressed with connected device solutions in the kitchen from Juno’s vision of a smart oven that can teach you better skills. Meld (recently acquired) offered a great vision of integrating new capabilities with legacy stove-top oven appliances. Connected Kitchen experiences seem ripe for more mainstream adoption.
If there is a disruptive integration strategy it might indeed be the house intelligent assistant. Natural language systems are closer to market ready products. It might seem creepy now to have a table top assistant like Amazon’s Echo (Alex) or coming ‘social robots’ like Jibo – but I can see a compelling pathway for conversation-based assistants as the center of our homes and array of connected devices. It may seem more compelling to speak to our table-top robots about what is needed for the shopping list than try and have a conversation with our smart refrigerator!
Not as exciting as table-top robots, there is also something intriguing about subtle rethinking of ‘lock boxes’ like TinyLogic’s Memobox integrated with natural language assistants and apps for managing behaviors related to taking pills, securing our belongings or forcing certain types of choices. As a parent with young kids a secure natural language based smart ‘treat’ box to monitor and control intake would be an easy sell! I also have a vision of families turning to lock up ‘boxes’ in order to force unplugging during dinner time. Everyone surrender their phones before we sit down! The box could notify you if that important text comes in from friend or co-worker. Otherwise it is locked down during family (or bed) time. I can imagine Oprah endorsing a lock box product to help families (and couples) unplug.
Q: Where do you see the smart home market heading within the next few years?
A: There are a few things to explore around the next few years.
First, we should start with scenarios that play into major demographic transitions.
The largest opportunity is supporting the shift in social norms and policy push towards ‘aging in place’ for Baby Boomers who seek to live safely, securely and independently outside of an institutional setting. Convincing Boomers to buy into the ecosystem of services built around connected devices might be the biggest prize for smart home market.
An equally compelling opportunity is aligning products to the family-formation stage of Millennials (b. 1980-2000). Beyond thermostats that learn, I would expect Millennial parents will want product solutions for their children – play and learning experiences, augmenting childcare, et al. (Imagine Nest products being able to teach kids about energy and environmental systems.) I would expect Millennials to expand the boundaries of the smart home
(securing packages left at the doorstep, monitoring air quality inside/outside the house, et al)
Secondly we need to imagine scenarios unfolding around the industrial transition itself. Memes of ‘smart homes’ and automated environments are increasingly being brought under the umbrella of Internet of Things (IoT) business models based on managed services. It is possible that energy focused products are owned by utilities or energy companies and customers pay monthly fees for managing performance and outcomes. This opens up a range of possibilities with new players in the space being familiar consumer brands, utilities, insurance companies and telecommunication giants.
Finally, I would pay more attention to the spectrum of backlash associated with connected devices and vision of smart homes. There is growing concerns related to data and algorithmic pacing of our daily lives. Perspectives from projects like Haunted Machines can be viewed as weak signals of potential backlash or resistance to automated systems.
I am confident that privacy issues will be resolved (though never perfect) based on the efforts of a new community of developers offering a compelling vision of the future. That community to watch is the world of developers creating cryptographically-secured DApps (Decentralized Applications) based on a ‘blockchain’ database foundation and ‘smart contracts’ to enhance privacy while bringing automation to our connected devices.
There is a steep learning curve to understanding ‘the blockchain’ and ‘smart contracts’ but projects to watch include the Ethereum development environment, startups like Filament and a pilot protocol from IBM called ADEPT (Autonomous Decentralized Peer-to-Peer Telemetry).