In the near future, you may no longer need to remember to turn the oven off when the cake is done, switch on lights when you enter a room, or run the clothes dryer when electricity rates are cheapest. Your home will do it for you.
These products are part of the Internet of Things (IoT), aimed at automating our lives by connecting mobile devices to appliances, lights, and just about everything—a shift that could improve efficiency if it works right, but compromise privacy if it doesn’t.
They monitor behaviour—via motion sensors, Bluetooth signals, or facial-recognition technology—to identify when we are home or away and make corresponding tweaks to room temperatures or lighting. They come from Kickstarter-funded startups as well as industry stalwarts such as Samsung and LG.
“There’s a lot of exciting potential out there. For the first time, appliances can be better informed about when to run so they avoid peak-hour pricing. We are in the early stages, but we’re already seeing consumers seeking out these benefits.” – says Ben Artis, Whirlpool’s senior category manager of smart homes.
The surge in innovation can be overwhelming, says Michael Wolf, chief analyst of Next Market Insights, a research firm that tracks emerging technologies. He says consumers are bombarded with so many choices that “it’s kind of confusing, because you don’t know which ones will work together.”
At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, an entire showcase was devoted to the “smart home” and exhibits featured at least 20 different kinds of connected light bulbs and ten kinds of door locks. In the next year or two, Wolf expects shakeouts in each category that will leave a few dominant players.
No Universal Coding Language Or Protocol
The IoT industry’s biggest challenge may be compatibility. Not all products can talk to each other, because there is no universal coding language or protocol. So tech behemoths are elbowing for market dominance. Last year alone, Apple launched its HomeKit app to connect home products to its smartphones; Google spent $3.2 billion to buy Learning Thermostat-maker Nest Labs, and Samsung acquired the maker of a hub—SmartThings—that can control and coordinate devices made by different firms.
Since consumers will likely get frustrated if products don’t work with each other, companies are now rallying to create one language.
“It’s going to take time, but there’s great momentum,” says Mike Soucie, who leads Nest’s partnership program, Works With Nest. In July, his company joined Samsung and others in launching Thread Group, aimed at building a new communication standard that all devices can use.
Companies must collaborate to make connectivity work, Samsung CEO Boo Keun Yoon said in a keynote CES speech. “The Internet of Things has the potential to transform our society, economy, and how we live our lives,” he said, but to deliver on that promise, “it is our job to pull together.”
Nest is working with more than a dozen big companies, including appliance makers LG and Whirlpool and lighting companies Osram and Philips, to ensure products can talk to each other. For example, unlocking or locking doors with the August Smart Lock will automatically put the Nest thermostat into “home” or “away” mode. If the thermostat indicates no one will be home for hours, it can tell a Whirlpool clothes dryer to use a slower, lower-heat setting or wait until off-peak hours when electricity rates are lower.
“It’s reducing the load on the power grid and saving consumers money,” Soucie says, noting that such a system spreads out the demand for electricity.
Is IoT The Next Big Challenge To Our Privacy?
Despite such benefits, the IoT might raise some privacy concerns. This year could be the year that “smart-home hacking” becomes a realistic threat.
“In the not-too-distant future, many, if not most, aspects of our everyday lives will be digitally observed and stored. That data trove will contain a wealth of revealing information that, when patched together, will present a deeply personal and startlingly complete picture of each of us.” – Edith Ramirez, chair of the Federal Trade Commission.
Smart-home makers say they know how much privacy means to their customers.
“We look at the house as a very sacred place,” says Nest’s Soucie. “We do everything we can to protect the information we collect.” If a partner company is hacked, he says Nest data won’t be divulged because it’s not stored on other sites. He says smart devices offer convenience, but he adds: “There’s a tradeoff.”
To address privacy, the new facial-recognition camera Netatmo Welcome keeps track of which family members are home but doesn’t store that information online, only on the device’s memory card.
Whatever its challenges, smart-home gadgetry is expected to take off. One of every five U.S. homes with broadband access will buy at least one smart-home device within a year, pushing up sales of these devices from 20.7 million in 2014 to 35.9 by 2016, according to a survey released in October by the Consumer Electronics Association. Half of the surveyed buyers were under 35 years old.
Wolf’s group also sees rapid expansion. It forecasts that the number of IoT systems, which were in place in 1.5 million U.S. homes in 2013, will reach 15 million by 2019.