Navigant Research Blog

The Smart Home and the Invisible Hand

Noah Goldstein — February 7, 2014

So many activities in our lives have shifted from a specific location to any location, and smartphones are largely responsible.  Phones used to be a fixture in a home, now they are an appendage.  Turning on lights, heat, and the stereo used to mean that one had to walk over to that appliance and interact with it.  Now, of course, the line “there’s an app for that” has entered the home, with more and more smart devices being accessible through branded apps.

Apps that can control lights, stereos, door locks, home security cameras, and even individual outlets have been reported on in this blog before.  Together, they embody the emerging Internet of Things.  The biggest play is in energy management for consumers, which makes energy conservation and comfort staging (i.e., the preparation of a home’s temperature, lighting, etc. in time for its inhabitants’ arrival) easy.  Navigant Research’s recent report, Home Energy Management, provides an informed look at trends in this growing market and the challenges it faces.

Enough Already

There are two main challenges.  First is the wild west of wireless communication standards.  From Wi-Fi to ZigBee and Z-Wave, there is no uniform standard or consortia of participants zeroing in on one protocol or pathway.  (This is unlike the automotive industry, which has recently embraced the Android OS for the Open Automotive Alliance by leading car manufacturers, including GM and Honda.)  In the absence of a single or even a consistent set of communication standards, individual appliance makers will have to choose a standard to pursue.

The other challenge is the interface.  Simply put, there are just too many apps.  From the consumer’s perspective, there could be some app fatigue, as users who admittedly embrace these devices have to find each individual app on their phone to control each device.

A few new players have entered the market to address these challenges.  The most notable is Revolv, which has made a physical hub (in an attractive cherry color) that can communicate with seven different wireless signals in 10 different languages.  Accompanying the hub is an app that integrates all of the wireless devices in the home in a single interface.  This makes home automation much easier from the start.  Added features include a proximity indicator that aids in comfort staging and profiles that incorporate a suite of settings for specific occasions (including song choices, lighting, and temperature.)

Now You See It

Other interesting approaches include Insteon, which has essentially set up its own communication standard, and Arrayent, which has created a common platform for the most common communication platforms.  The cable and ISPs have also jumped in the game.  Comcast (Xfinity) and Time Warner are bundling digital home management into triple-play offerings.  It makes sense; they already supply the cable and wireless for the home.

Where is all this home app explosion headed?  First, the consumer demand for smart meters is growing, and a recent Navigant Research survey indicates that consumers view these technologies favorably.  Clearly, the standards must coalesce to make using and installing smart devices easier for the consumer.  The apps will no doubt improve as well, and be corralled in platforms like those provided by pure-play companies, like Arrayent or Revolv, or by Internet/cable/telecom providers.

But the secret sauce may lie in making these devices smarter.  The Nest thermostat purports to learn the patterns of home heating and adjust its settings accordingly.  And with Nest’s owner, Google, purchasing the artificial intelligence and machine-learning firm DeepMind, we can expect those predictions to become more profound, or at least seem that way.  The irony is that the ultimate vision of the smart home lies in making these apps, platforms, standards, and devices all invisible to the consumer.  A truly smart home needs no interface or no manual.  It just performs optimally, according to its users’ current and anticipated needs and behaviors.  So, in the end, for the ultimate smart home, you might say, “There’s no app for that.”

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