Wireless and Digital Services

When is a Smart Home truly ‘smart’?

By Michal Gabrielczyk - Last updated: Friday, March 31, 2017

Room interiors and lifestyleTo date most connected home products have essentially been limited to souped-up remote controls, often only allowing users to control items in their home from an app. These are technical achievements, but it’s questionable whether we can really call this ‘smart’.

Many solutions focus on just a small set of specific features, resulting in a proliferation of apps for the connected home owner. For example, a typical connected home might consist of Philips Hue light bulbs, Scout security sensors and Nest heating control.

More extended platforms are, however, beginning to emerge which aim to bring multiple features into a single app. For example, Amazon’s Echo is compatible with connected devices from a multitude of systems (WeMo, Philips Hue, Hive and more). Similarly, Samsung’s SmartThings are compatible with hundreds of products including bulbs, locks and home entertainment systems. Deutsche Telekom’s Qivicon platform also brings together a large number of brands into a single app. This is the sort of broad platform play that larger tech firms tend to favour.

Like the disparate applications that they bring together, these platforms are innovative but they still have some way to go. The real step-change for consumers will be when these platforms learn how to meet their owner’s needs without intervention – dimming the living room lights when you put on a film but not when you put on the TV news, turning the heating up before you notice being a little cold, or automatically unlocking doors as you approach.

The Nest and tado thermostats are now capturing features along these lines, with heating control based on geolocation, but as yet no platform integrates an intelligent, learning service across an entire home. When your connected home platform operates sufficiently seamlessly that you don’t need to fiddle with the thermostat or any other control panels – then your home will be truly smart. This won’t merely free you up to concentrate on other productive and enjoyable activities; it will lead to more efficient use of energy and resources.

In common with other Internet of Things applications, this highlights that the most significant value arising from IoT is from the services that are enabled for end users. Truly smart digital services provide much more than the sum of their connectivity and tangible sensor/controller parts.

Whilst most value lies in providing a service, connectivity and devices are essential precursors and hence logical entry points into the smart home. For this reason, incumbent telcos and mobile operators are at a natural advantage. AT&T are making use of this edge with the launch of their Digital Life proposition, which offers home energy, security and automation on a single platform through a subscription model, rather than focusing on selling devices. It is marketed in terms of functionality; “View live or recorded video of your home” or “Remotely lock or unlock your door” rather than in terms of “Smart cameras” or “Smart locks”.

This service based approach is one that Cambridge Consultants continues to pursue in the UK with the ESC (Energy Systems Catapult) – exploring visions of how future energy companies might offer homeowners comfort, rather than electricity or gas, which are abstract commodities to many.

Moving from separate applications requiring user input, to combined, truly smart connected services in the home will be revolutionary. We appear to be right on the cusp of this transition and it will be fascinating to see which tech players will take advantage of this opportunity. Any company with connected devices in the home has a natural entry point already, but such is the prize at stake, and the opportunity for innovation, that I expect we’ll see completely new players emerge.