During a long trail walk this weekend, my wife asked me, “What’s new in the smart home these days?” I took at least 20 steps in silence before answering her, saying, “Not much, to be honest. It’s kind of… boring.” Oh, I know that Matter will soon bring much-needed integration between devices and ecosystems, but she doesn’t really care about that. She just uses what I buy and frankly, she doesn’t use our smart devices that much at all. The truth is, other than Matter devices launching this year, I just don’t feel the excitement I used to feel about the smart home.
I’m sure some of this perspective has to do with how long I’ve had smart devices in my home. It’s been nearly 12 years since I first dabbled with Insteon gear. My wife will never let me forget that time.
I was in London covering a Nokia event, I was demonstrating how I could turn the lights on and off at home, which was thousands of miles away. Of course, I forgot the time difference between London and Philadelphia, so my wife’s first smart home experience was me inadvertently waking her up to a pre-dawn light show. Yeah, I blew the smart home concept to shreds on day one for my family, which likely explains their lack of usage to this day.
Even 12 years isn’t that long though. We regularly hear from readers that implemented an X10 smart home one or two decades before I showed off remote home access. I wonder if those readers are even more bored than I am.
Coincidentally, this “meh” feeling has popped up recently as Stacey and I were planning for our IoT Podcast episodes and blog coverage. “What’s a new device you’d like to review?” Stacey has asked. And with increasing regularity, I’ve come up empty. We seem to be nearing the end of the smart home going mainstream while we wait for the next big thing. I believe that the next big thing will be connected devices understanding our intent without the use of voice or touch. Call it the next step of “the invisible interface”, a term I dubbed in 2011. That’s not going to happen any time soon though.
Given that I’ve been reviewing and using smart home devices for more than 10 years, let me share more details on why I’m feeling this way.
I was certainly excited when the first smart speaker arrived in 2014 with the Amazon Echo. Technically, I wasn’t excited by it at first, but once Alexa gained voice control integration with smart home devices, I was reinvigorated. Other platforms followed suit with their own intelligent speakers crammed into speakers, and choice is good.
Those, along with the smart displays that followed, sate my enthusiasm for a few years. How many true innovations in this product line have arrived in the past few years though? Not many outside of adding ultra wideband to the Apple HomePod 18 months ago. And even that’s not thrilling: I can hand off music from my phone to the speaker using UWB. Yay?
So I’m not included to review the latest iteration of a smart speaker. The additions are far too incremental.
Unfortunately, I can say the same thing about the latest smart light switch. Or smart camera. Or smart bulb. Or… you get the idea. These “smart” devices aren’t getting that much smarter. They’re just getting the occasional new radio, feature, or coat of paint. How many iterative versions of the same devices are worth a detailed look?
To be fair, there are new impactful technologies in the works that raise my excitement level.
I mentioned Matter and I don’t want to downplay its importance. Because it is important. It will open up the choices for smart home owners to mix and match devices from different smart home platforms for a more cohesive experience. It’s an initiative that we should all be excited about. Perhaps my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that I already use devices from different platforms in my house, but that’s because I need to have that perspective to write and talk about them. Either way, I am looking forward to Matter.
But where are the amazing new devices that will further advance the smart home beyond that? What will boost my excitement about the smart home in the future?
The answer likely doesn’t lie in new categories of devices, but in services that bring synergy to our smart home devices. Services and technologies that, as Stacey put it recently, make the smart home itself a robot.
For example, there are multiple approaches to solve the problems of presence detection in the home. And it’s not just the presence of someone in a particular room; research and development are getting to the “what is that person doing or likely want to do” in that room. That’s all about context, which is fairly rudimentary in today’s smart home. Ranging from Wi-Fi solutions to those that use Bluetooth or ultra-wideband, I find these sensing solutions both interesting and practical to move the smart home forward.
Edge intelligence is another interesting smart home feature that has plenty of room for growth. And I want to see that growth because when paired with contextual information in the home, machine learning models at the edge can enhance the smart home experience. Maybe then my family will use our smart home devices more often and not even know it. If those devices can better understand their needs and anticipate them, our home will simply react to my family and eliminate the voice assistants and mobile apps they don’t want to use.
Am I being too jaded here? Having just turned 53, I know I run the risk of sounding like a crotchety, old, ranting blogger. And maybe that is part of the reason my smart home enthusiasm right now is at an all-time low. But I don’t think that’s all or even most of the reason.
I’d love to hear what you think and if you’ve been feeling the same as I have for the past year or so. If you’re new to the smart home scene, you may disagree with me. I can understand that because this segment is bringing new functions and experiences to your house. For me, and some others like me, though? Boring now with the promise of more excitement with new technologies.