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.
Mark McAllister says
As a 67 yr old “crotchety” old man who cut his teeth with some early X10 switches and really dove into HA when tasked by my employer to integrate his existing DSC security system and Gen 1 Radio RA equipment with the then nascent Z-wave plugs & switches and an early whole home audio/intercom. The desired end result was to provide him a smart home environment (I think before the term was coined) for his 10,000sqft home complex. I can certainly relate to your ” meh” feelings and the rays of exuberance as I see the coming Matter standard which is essentially what I saw as being needed when I started. Luckily, I discovered Homeseer in it’s early days as the tool to achieve this and at least feel good about what I accomplished and left him with some 2 years later. It feels good that Homeseer is still around some 18 years later and pretty sure he’s still using it. I eventually
deployed early Smartthings in my humble abode and have been in a holding pattern waiting on Matter/Thread for too long now….let’s get it ON!
Andrew M. says
Maybe not boring, but in a state of flux again, particularly among the big tech companies.
As a company delivering services for vulnerable people built around available smart home technologies, it’s not helped, despite being encouraged to build with these platforms and devices, when these services are shut down with little official notice, forcing consumers and businesses to either reinvest or drop devices and/or services.
Recent examples are Google IoT Core and Samsung SmartThings. In the latter case, they announced on your podcast – The Internet of Things, Aug 11 – (in a planned or unplanned worldwide exclusive to 100M SmartThings users!) that the Groovy IDE (a vital backend infrastructure) would cease on the 30th of September next. Only announced to the user community (Aug 17) and still not announced to general consumers.
Whilst made public over the last two years, the user community was advised “Don’t worry, you will have plenty of time to make adjustments…” Six weeks’ notice! Meaning that for many it certainly wouldn’t be boring, but more costly and stressful.
james M says
Heh. “Edge computing” is just a hub with a new PR rep.
This is the 80/20 rule writ large because in home automation there is no fat “80%” of features that are easy to implement.
It’s more like Xeno’s paradox, except not half but thirds. The first unit of work covers 33% of use cases. The second effort covers +1/9 so 44%. The next unit is +1/27 so 48%, etc, etc
People are super variable so there are few truly common use cases. ML wont help create custom cases. because ML needs data over time, like years of it, and by then lives have changed, the tech changes and people move on.
David Lemire says
Truthfully: that’s always been my reaction. I have yet to hear of a Smart Home product or capability that hasn’t struck me as much too costly (in dollars, time, complexity, frustration) to be of any interest. Is it really worth it to have voice control over your lights? Is it worth 100s of dollars per window to motorize your shades? Am I not smart enough to know when I need milk with assistance from my fridge? The list goes on endlessly: manufacturers making smart everything for no reason other than winning at marketing buzzword bingo.
JD Roberts says
Since I am quadriparetic (use a power wheelchair with limited hand function), none of these use cases are trivial to me. Lights I can turn on and off by myself, the ability to unlock the front door while I’m still in bed (letting in the health aide who will help me get ready for the day), even the ability to change channels on the television set by voice are really big deals for me. They give me independence, entertainment, and improved safety. So, yes: voice control over lights is definitely worth it at my house. But choice is good, and different things will work for different people.
(I’m not sure there’s anyway to effectively describe my joy at finding a smoke alarm I could silence from my wheelchair. Other wheelchair users have written about the same moment. Roll a mile in my wheels and you’ll discover a whole world of very practical uses for what might look just like marketing buzzwords to the ablebodied. )
So carry on, capitalism, designing fun new stuff for millions of slightly jaded potential new customers! Those of us who really need this stuff will reap the benefits of higher, faster, farther: and cheaper and more reliable. To infinity, and beyond!
I agree with David’s sentiment. The marketing of ‘you need this!’ works so well on the masses who really don’t need it. When I see commercials that show a car stop or lane correct when a driver isn’t paying attention, i see laziness and bad driving habits. I’ve felt the same with smart homes. I see laziness and disconnection from ourselves.
However JD, you’ve stated a very valid and informative perspective of the practicality of “smart” homes and automation. Thank you for that.
David Lemire says
Thank you for providing a perspective informed by a very different point of view. I have a good friend that falls in-between us (wheelchair or crutches + braces to get around, but otherwise quite capable). I’ve no doubt his view on smart home automation would likely also fit between (haven’t ever had that conversation). I’m very glad that these products make meaningful improvements in you quality of life.
I actually think Matter was launched to fix this very problem: there’s little to no hardware innovation now because the market has tapped out of new customers (and perhaps is being sustained by old customers just expanding their purchases).
>Tobin Richardson, CEO of the Connectivity Standards Alliance: I think what large and small companies figured out and really started to realize two or three years ago, when this really started taking off, was that this is not going to happen by one company. As big as some of these monsters are, they can’t sell the whole market, and the market won’t take off. So this is not just systems architects that look at the whole system. These are companies that have to sell these products in the market. And that’s really powerful.
New hardware innovation often depends on startups entering the market & providing powerful competition. Today, that start-up has to spend so much $$$$$$ & personnel on integrations, mobile apps, web back-ends, APIs, cloud fees, third-party libraries, etc., just to hit “Our First Sale” of their $39.99 widget. The IoT market seems less interesting for hardware companies, IMHO.
With Matter, that start-up can really focus on just the hardware.
New innovation also depends on old companies “justifiably” investing more R&D to an expanding market, in that new product categories are invented frequently.
New innovation also ideally needs a mainstream price or else it’s just a rich person’s toy. Smaller addressable market -> smaller profits, because, in the end, we’re basically at the intersection of Best Buy x Home Depot.
At the same time, there’s a lot of exciting things I’d love to see either further refined, invented, or simply much cheaper:
1) Combined smoke-CO detectors + whole-home audio + presence sensors
2) That Matter-based casting standard integrated into all displays (TVs, monitors, projectors, laptops, tablets, etc.)
3) Fully local, multi-lingual / multi-dialect voice control
4) Smart exercise equipment: treadmills, stationary bikes, stair steppers, maybe even free weights. Wearables don’t always get it right (as our hands only capture some of the movement).
None of these might be worth making today because OEMs would need to spend ungodly sums to integrate it with Google / Apple / Amazon ecosystems (because that’s where the rest of our devices connect)–though not even Matter v1.0 supports any except *maybe* the casting option?
Interfaces all the way down… I think you are right to point to possible innovations in the invisible interface. I argue further evolution of smart home devices and their services requires novel interfaces beyond the home. Low friction shopping by Amazon is an example, where the smart home interfaces with a beyond-the-home service. It can go further.
For example, I think an interface to the electricity markets could accomplish something. The idea of tuning usage of devices based on price signals, with the added benefit of “load shedding”, is sensible, but in most places impossible to implement, since the price signal is not part of an interface the smart home can react to. This is changing in isolated cases when homes are not just buyers of electricity, but also partial producers. The marginal benefits of a more granular home device management goes up, so device innovation can pay off.
Other examples are possible, like medical services. Demographic trends suggest the need for this will increase. Again, though, I think the issue is that the creation of interfaces are not just technical in nature, but a wicked problem where we easily get stuck in coordination dilemmas between different economic-political agents. So we sit in a local optima of slightly sexier home decor that is slightly better at predicting when we are about to use the car on a cold morning etc. etc.
Absent the creation of these back-end opportunities, I am still waiting for the Dieter Rams design moment of the smart home. Despite some notable exceptions, the tangible aspects of the smart home has not changed much. The hardware “front-end” has in relative terms been devalued with the rise of data and software because the former can in isolation never quite be blitz-scaled to many billions of dollars of market valuation in a few years. I still have hope some industrial designer will figure out the fix.
Joe Galatha says
I should have made my handle “Jack of All Trades, Master of None”.
I wish I could have an hour to talk with you about what a “smart home” is. My home has two detached buildings, and back when X-10 was sold through Radio Shack, my father bought a switch and an RF remote receiver/transmitter with keychain so that a switch inside one of the buildings could be turned off from the kitchen with a keychain remote control.
It was simple, but it saved us having to bury conduit to run a swtich leg over 80 feet away. That module, installed in 1999, still works.
I moved here in 2005, and because of the Smarthome website, fell for Insteon, which they claimed was X-10 backward compatible. TO a point, it was – – that arrangement worked, an Insteon 2486D would control X-10 with some effort. HOWEVER – – all of my Insteon switches, keypads, and controllers all failed within a few years. They seem to be vulnerable to voltage spikes, or some other problem I have which does not corrupt or cause the X-10 to fail.
So I’ve been through (4) Insteon 2486D keypads, roughly $80 each, which I loved and worked great, for a while – which just turn into bricks in less than 2 years, on average.
The guy at Smarthome.com told me “X-10 is going away” and …. that was my error; I bought into Insteon based on that. Recently I rediscovered X-10, and I’m replacing the Insteon stuff, inasmuch as is possible, with X-10. It doesn’t have the same functionality, but it works longer than the time between dental checkups before it fails. My home is a pretty simple setup, but I like the stuff I have, and it makes life a lot easier in those two outbuildings and for flood lights mounted on a 2nd floor deck that are controlled from modules inside a small cubby space under the roof so that I didn’t have to rip up a wall to install a switch.
I have no “hub” or web-based control, and really don’t know if i want one.