Take any object in your home and you can guarantee that at some point a Silicon Valley startup has tried to create a web-enabled version of it. The ever expanding “Internet of Things” (IoT), as it’s clunkily termed, now includes almost every household item under the sun.
Many are useful, such as thermostats, light bulbs, security cameras and televisions. Others are comically impractical, like the water dish that remotely monitors your cat’s hydration that rapidly raised over $50,000 through crowdfunding. Or the Bluetooth fork that vibrates when it senses you’ve had enough calories for one day. Then there’s the Chinese wine seller that has built wi-fi into the corks of its most expensive bottles, which can then be scanned with an app to detect and prevent counterfeiting in your wine cellar.
For every smart energy meter, there’s a web-enabled chopping board that tells you off for over-eating, but despite the tsunami of ridiculous, Kickstarter-funded gimmicks, analysts at PwC predict that the smart home business is booming and will be worth $150bn by 2020. That growth is largely driven by the ever decreasing cost of components and a near universal adoption of wireless home broadband and smartphones.
Apple, Samsung, Amazon and Google are all investing heavily in the future of connected homes, with an initial offering of devices – such as the Nest thermostat – that promise to cut your energy bills. This is where the smart home revolution will eventually take hold: money in your pocket is a far more enticing prospect than hashtag-controlled mood lighting and vibrating cutlery.
Countering the smart home hype, however, is a separate PwC report that three quarters of UK consumers just aren’t interested in the IoT. Industry experts suggest that it’s the aforementioned deluge of novelty and niche web-enabled tat – coupled with concerns about security – that’s putting us off.
“I think there’s too much needless technology on the market, devices that connect your smartphone to your doorknob and calls it innovation,” says John Carter, head of communications at Canary, an internet-enabled home security camera that allows you to keep an eye on your living room from afar, alerts you when it senses motion and deters intruders with a deafening alarm.
“There just isn’t enough product development that actually solves real problems. If you’re wondering what drives consumer adoption of smart home technology, well, there’s no big secret. It comes down to the same thing that drives consumer adoption in any market: how do you make life easier than it was before? If I have to open an app and press ten buttons to make my lights turn on, then that’s a bad user experience.”
Of the glut of new devices hitting the smart home market every day, many are inventing new problems to solve. Earlier this year Samsung announced their $6,000 smart fridge, which uses a set of interior cameras to display your fridge’s contents on a door-mounted touchscreen. Want to check on your avocados while you’re in the office? No, you really don’t, but the Internet of Things wants you to think that you do.
“This is a market that’s going to contract before it expands,” says Carter. “And I think what we’ll start to see are products that make a meaningful difference in our lives, devices that we look at and think: how did we ever live before this? We’re in the fledgling stages now, but at the moment it can be hard to see through the clutter, the smart egg timers and smart coffee mugs and everything else out there.
“Or maybe I’m wrong,” Carter concedes, “perhaps there’s a market out there for spending an extra £1,000 on a fridge that talks to you when you come home.”
Chris Herbert agrees that the IoT has a way to go yet before consumers are convinced. He’s is the co-founder of TrackR, a coin-shaped tag that can be attached to your most eminently loseable objects – keys, dogs, wallets, cars – to keep track of their last known locations. The idea, he tells me, came to him when he misplaced his keys on a beach and, with the rising tide rapidly engulfing his car, paid some men to find his belongings using metal detectors.
“The smart home industry needs to focus on actual problems people are having in their homes,” says Herbert. “The Nest thermostat hit a homerun in that regard, it saves people money on their bills. It’s automated heat control that you don’t have to interact with.”
Good smart home tech, says Herbert, should be invisible and seamlessly integrated. Consumers are put off by myriad incompatible platforms, but increasingly devices are signing up to one of a number of agreed upon base systems. At CES this year, one in three IoT companies – among them TrackR – announced a partnership with Amazon’s Alexa, a Siri-like personal assistant and smart home hub that responds to verbal commands.
“With TrackR and Alexa, you can ask your house where your keys are and it will reply, ‘they’re in the living room’. It’s all about offloading small responsibilities to computers, and once we’ve given a task to a computer, it’s really hard to take that task back. That’s the core of the smart home, it’s not about laziness, it’s about freeing up your time to focus on other things. And that moves humanity forwards, not backwards.”
So will spending less time searching for your keys lead directly to the betterment of all mankind?
Herbert laughs. “Hey, one small thing at a time, okay? Revolution doesn’t happen overnight. But being able to be organised and keep track of my things without much effort is a huge win for me. It’s a natural experience that occasionally saves me 10 or 15 minutes of stress.”
A futurist’s dream until recently, the smart home is now quietly arriving, driven by both trivial conveniences and money-saving energy overseers. Brits may not be on board today, but once the dust settles and memories of web-enabled doorknobs are far behind us, connected homes will be an inextricable part of everyday life.