A smart home that gives you what you want, when you want. It sounds great, but will it ever become a reality?
So-called ‘smart homes’, in which appliances talk to each other, operate by themselves and can be controlled remotely, have featured in numerous science fiction novels, films and TV programmes over the years. However, in the real world, they’re a rarity – despite decades of innovation, the uptake of smart home technology isn’t widespread.
From self-watering plant pots that can be switched on and off remotely via your phone, to an in-fridge camera that texts you when you’re running out of milk, the list of available smart home devices is endless. But are they all just gimmicks helping the tech-obsessed keep up with the Joneses?
While hardwear-laden plant pots and fridges don’t seem to be soaring in popularity, other categories of smart home device are starting to see some promising traction.
Devices that help reduce energy use are among the most popular smart home tech products on the market. Smart thermostats that can be controlled via mobile apps are making their way into an increasing number of homes, helping users cut the price of their energy bills.
Some smart thermostats go beyond simply letting you control your heating from your phone, they learn your schedule by detecting when your smartphone is in the house and can even detect when you’re on your usual route home, preparing your house to the desired temperature.
Nest is one of the most popular smart thermostat producers. The firm raised $80m across three funding rounds before being acquired by Google in 2014 for $3.2bn. Nest claims its smart thermostat, which launched in 2011, saves users an average of 10% to 12% on their heating bills, and with the average dual fuel bill in the UK being over £1,344, this can amount to quite a significant saving.
There are plenty of similar devices on the market, including tado°, Wave, British Gas’ Hive and the 4iE and 5iE by floor heating brand Warmup.
The 4iE and 5iE have a SmartGeo feature that uses a combination of real-time and learnt data to understand its user’s routine and change settings accordingly. The devices track data points such as user location and heat up/cool down rates of the home in order to make a decision on temperature control. They also have a feature called EasySwitch, which simplifies the process of switching energy tariffs and providers. It sources tariff data and finds the best deals available and can then either show these deals and make it easy for the user to switch or just move them on to the best available rate automatically.
Other devices designed to reduce energy use include smart radiator valves and lightbulbs. Netatmo Valves, for example, replace the existing valves on a radiator and allow the user to turn up or down their radiators – each valve can be controlled separately. They can even detect when a window is open and stop heating a room, preventing unnecessary energy wastage.
On the lighting front, Philips recently unveiled its Hue Motion Sensor – a wireless and battery-powered device that can be programmed to automatically turn on connected Philips Hue lights when the user enters a room. The system can cut energy use, as it turns lights off automatically when motion is no longer detected, plus there is an integrated daylight sensor, so lights only turn on when they’re needed. However, testing by the International Energy Agency’s Electronic Devices and Networks Annex showed the standby functions of many smart lighting systems can drastically increase total energy use, with the standby energy often being larger than the energy used for providing lighting.
This aside, research by IT analysis firm Context shows revenues from the sale of smart thermostats increased 286% in 2015, with two thirds of the year’s growth taking place in the last three months of 2015. On top of this, smart lighting sales also enjoyed a 126% year-on-year rise.
Another popular category of smart home tech is home security. CCTV and digital door locks have been around for decades, but have only started to become popular in a domestic, rather than commercial, setting since the early- to mid-2000s. Now, with the emergence of the Internet of Things, such devices are being updated and experiencing a surge in popularity.
London-based company DingLabs, for example, is creating a smart doorbell with built-in camera and microphones. It allows the owner to talk with the person at their door from wherever they are in the world via an app.
Better-known companies that are synonymous with home security are also getting in on the act, such as Yale. The company has been innovating in the home security space for more than 175 years, but recently launched a collection of connected security products called Yale Smart Living. The range features CCTV systems, alarms and smart locks, which users can open with their smartphones.
“Sales figures indicate a clear increase in the purchasing of smart security devices and due to their popularity, manufacturers have also increased the development of new products being introduced to the market,” said Anthony Neary MD of Safe.co.uk, an online retailer of home security products.
“It would seem that almost everybody has a smartphone nowadays and people are clearly comfortable with controlling their home security via an app on their phone,” he added.
Neary’s views are bolstered by the information revealed in Context’s research earlier this year. It found sales of smart security devices increased 156% in 2015, with 42% of the year’s growth taking place in the last three months.
Recent research by PwC found 72% of survey respondents were not interested in buying smart home technologies over the next two to five years. However, of those who own smart appliances, 95% said they’re already experiencing the benefits.
So if these devices have the potential to save people money and/or make their lives easier, why is uptake so slow? There are a few answers to this. One of which is the upfront cost.
The energy-saving devices may save you money in the long-run, but the upfront cost can be a bit of a killer. For example, Netatmo’s smart radiator valves are about £60 each, Parrot Pot’s self-watering plant pot is £129.99 and the Yale Keyless Connected Smart Lock is about £100.
Another factor that’s off-putting for many is the management of these devices. Yes, the idea is they, to a degree, manage themselves, but they’ll require at least a little human attention from time to time. Most smart home devices come with their own individual apps, which can take up a lot of space on your phone and also a lot of time learning how to use them. We’re now seeing the emergence of platforms designed to cluster the controls of all of these devices in one place. Apple’s Home app, Samsung’s SmartThings, Amazon Echo and the upcoming Google Home are all designed to do just this.
Gideon.ai is a London startup taking on these tech giants with its own aggregator that can be considered the universal remote controller for the IoT. It’s integrated with a whole host of smart home device providers, including Nest, Netatmo, Philips, Sonos and Motorola and is seeking to add more.
Despite facing strong competition from global tech firms, Gideon.ai co-founder Marco Matera said his company’s progress is promising: “When we launched we were not expecting a strong response because we didn’t have money for a strong marketing campaign, honestly, in the first three months we had a boom.”
Since then, the company has been analysing usage in order to improve their offering.
“We’re trying to build something with our users’ input so that we can grow as the market grows,” Matera added.
The market is growing, but research by IT analysis firm Context found education is the major barrier preventing the mass adoption of smart home devices. Only 39% of UK respondents to the company’s survey had heard of the term ‘smart home’ and only 13% thought they had a good understanding of individual smart home products. Just 8% of UK consumers felt retailers were doing a good job of explaining smart home tech.
However, 57% of those surveyed said they were open to learning more, especially when it comes to devices that can bring about cost savings, increased security and convenience.
Adam Simon, Context’s retail MD, said: “2016 promises to be a year of steady progress as consumers come to understand the benefits of the smart home. We’ve been closely tracking European consumers’ attitudes this year, and have seen many purchasing barriers lower in the past six months.”
He went on to say it’s clear more people are interested in learning about the smart home and are starting to purchase their first connected devices.
“Europeans are putting their smart home together one product at a time and a quarter are willing to spend up to £500 in the next twelve months on the right products. The category is growing and is there to be seized,” Simon concluded.