Navigant Research Blog

Are Smart Devices Too Smart for Their Own Good?

— February 22, 2018

There is so much promise around how smart devices will make our lives more comfortable, convenient, efficient, and automated. These devices are supposed to learn from our lifestyle patterns, analyze this information in real-time, and perform tasks seamlessly in the background, without it even occurring to the user that all of this smart stuff is happening. I have bought into this promise, having adopted several digital assistant-enabled devices and connected products, because I can see a future when all of this tech comes together to create truly smart homes. And I’m not the only one—these futuristic ideas about tech seamlessly, automatically operating in the background of our lives can be seen in popular media like Black Mirror and Her. This future is imaginable, lingering on the horizon.

The Problem with “Smarts”

However, we are still at the precipice of the technology revolution supporting the future scenarios as seen in pop culture. Don’t get me wrong, technologies emerging today really are smart, and are already making our lives significantly better. But at this time, many these devices are not actually delivering on their promise, and they don’t work that well in our everyday lives. For example, my colleague, who is also an early adopter of smart technology, has been having issues with his ecobee3 lite. His smart thermostat has started preheating at such early hours of the morning that he wakes up before his alarm clock, sweating. ecobee customer support has suggested that the problem may be because he likes to sleep cold, at 60°F, and wake up warm, at 70°F, and that the large variance in setpoint means the thermostat must kick on the heating system well in advance to make up the difference in temperature by the time my colleague is awake. The issue makes sense logically, but ultimately my colleague shouldn’t have to compromise on his desired temperatures. A smart thermostat should be smart enough to figure it out. And his Nest isn’t any better—when the cooling season comes around, his Nest sends him alerts that it is unable to activate his cooling system, when his home doesn’t even have a cooling system. I’ve heard countless stories of people tearing smart thermostats out of the wall to replace them with programmable thermostats, never opening the digital assistant device they got for Christmas because they don’t really know what smart things it can do, and returning smart plugs for plugs with a simple timer.

As a consumer, these examples have put doubts in my mind about how smart these products really are. As a research analyst, when I attend shows like CES where some of the most impressive and innovative products are on display, it makes me skeptical about how these devices will actually perform in the home. These devices are peddled to consumers as seamless, automatic, and easy to use, but sometimes it seems we are spending more time managing them than they are managing our lives. Perhaps these devices are too smart for their own good, and consumers are not ready for how advanced these products can be—we just want the old, dumb devices that we know will work. The learning curve for smart technology is steep and we are still in an early stage of piloting and innovation, but as these technologies reach the hands of mainstream consumers, vendors need to ensure that their smart products are delivering on their promises of being smart.

 

Hidden Nuggets among the CES Glitz

— January 30, 2018

Sometimes surprises hit you slowly—hidden nuggets overlooked at first glance but demonstrating some hidden or potential value upon further reflection. Such was the case for several companies I met with at the recent CES trade show in Las Vegas. My colleague, Paige Leuschner, covered the major themes at CES in a recent blog: artificial intelligence, home healthcare, and Google everywhere. By contrast, the following firms captured my mind not for hogging the spotlight, but for showing real promise in several technology areas:

iotaBEAM

This startup aims to solve one of the difficult challenges in the Internet of Things (IoT) world—how to secure sensing devices that have limited processing power and run on batteries. Think of a sensor on a remote area of a plant that monitors heat or temperature. Most solutions protect the gateways that gather sensor data, but miss that first hop from the sensor to the gateway. The company’s patent-pending StarDust offering secures that first hop from the sensor with a patented technology that fits into tiny sensors and uses a fraction of battery power. The solution should appeal to many firms deploying IoT technologies, from utilities to manufacturers to healthcare providers.

Kerlink

This French company is no startup. It has been around since 2004, toiling away in the geeky machine to machine space. Lately, however, the company has been riding the strong interest in LoRa technology (also mentioned in a previous blog). Kerlink offers a suite of networking equipment for low power wide area networks (WANs), the type of systems that enable IoT connections at scale. The company announced a nice win during CES, a deal for an additional 800 base stations to be supplied to Proximus, a Belgian telecom company building out its own LoRaWAN IoT network. Kerlink appears poised to take advantage of several IoT use cases, including smart cities, smart buildings, smart health, advanced transportation solutions, and connected agriculture.

Royole

With a larger booth area, Royole was not nearly as subdued at CES compared to the two above. Nonetheless, it could be overlooked among the hundreds of other showy vendors. What caught my eye was Royole’s flexible display and flexible sensor technologies. Royole’s displays are as thin as 0.01 mm, which is about one-fifth the thickness of a human hair; and the company claims its displays are the thinnest in the world. The ultra-slim sensors can be embedded in furniture or the console of a car for controlling a chair or the dashboard electronics. One can imagine other applications for these sensors in an IoT-connected world, such as in clothing, walls, or medical gear. Founded in 2012, the company is poised for growth with the recent completion of its $1.7 billion production facility in Shenzhen, China.

To be sure, these three represent only a handful of the many companies not hogging the spotlight at CES. Competitors could surely surface and outmaneuver them, or the market could simply go sour on their products. The point is that CES is not only a place for the latest gadgets or products from the big brands, but also a place where the wallflowers can take the floor and show off their potential diamonds in the rough.

 

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