The most popular topic at January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was home technology. A lot of gushing about this came in the tech press, with PC Magazine calling 2016 “the year of the smart home.” Leading technology researchers share that optimism—Gartner predicts 500 connected devices in the typical home by 2022.
How well those predictions play out will depend in part on how one counts the devices that most people already have: Do you tally every camera, window sensor, and controller in a typical home security system? It also will depend on growing demand for connected devices that a lot of people consider optional.
Many of the devices shown at CES fit into this latter category. They’re part of the much-heralded “Internet of Things” (IoT)—a world where large and small devices connect to the Internet. Growing the IoT will require easy-to-use products that offer clear benefits. “Simplicity and ease of use trump technological innovation,” according to iControl Networks’ 2015 State of the Smart Home Report, based on a survey of 1,600 U.S. and Canadian consumers. “Today’s consumers want devices that solve real, everyday problems.”
Not surprisingly, the most compelling value propositions had to do with enhancing security or peace of mind in ways that don’t require an electronics integrator or a full-scale security system. Three products stand out.
The battery-powered Delta Leak Detector (pictured, above) looks like a smoke detector and gets placed on the floor below a plumbing fixture, such as the kitchen sink or the main water shutoff. It uses the home’s Wi-Fi network to send an alert to the homeowner’s or plumber’s smartphone when it gets wet. (Of course if the pipes freeze during an electrical outage, no one gets an alert until the power goes back on.)
Halo and Halo+ smoke and carbon monoxide detectors from Halo Smart Labs will, according to the firm, discriminate between smoke from a fire and smoke from burned food on the stove. Halo+ also features an embedded weather radio. Both devices come in hardwired and battery-powered versions; if the battery is low, the device sends a notification to the homeowner’s phone—no more annoying chirps.
The Ring Stick Up Cam (pictured, above) lets the homeowner see who’s at the door from anywhere in the house. A motion detector inside the camera sends an alert to the homeowner’s smartphone and establishes a live connection. Like the leak detector, the battery-powered Stick Up Cam works virtually anywhere within range of the home’s Wi-Fi network. It includes night vision and two-way audio.
The value of some home products at the show had to do with convenience or lifestyle rather than security. These products showed how companies are looking to technology to solve simple problems.
Black and Decker’s Smartech 20V tool battery pairs with a smartphone app to indicate its current charge level. If you misplace the tool, you can signal it to flash and beep. You can even use the app to lock the battery remotely, to prevent the kids from playing with your power tools.
The Febreeze Home air freshener works with the home’s HVAC system to disperse scent evenly throughout a room. A phone app can schedule it to scent the air just before you get home.
The most talked-about home tech category at CES was refrigerators. Manufacturers have floated several high-tech fridges in recent years, with minimal market success, but the newest models are less about “smart” features than they are about solving specific user problems.
LG’s French door Signature Refrigerator (pictured, above) has an opaque glass panel on the right-hand door that goes transparent when you knock on it, saving energy by eliminating the need to open the door to view its contents. A sensor can also open the door if you stand in front of it to provide hands-free access. The sensor allegedly can distinguish between an adult and a small child or pet.
Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, another French door model, sports a vertically-oriented screen on the right-hand door that looks like a giant smartphone. But what’s drawn the most media attention are the three internal cameras that let someone see what’s in the fridge while at the grocery store. That’s a clear benefit for those of us with forgetful minds (“Do I really need butter?”).
Of course the ability to spy on your food from the grocery store will be compelling to some, but is it worth $5,000? If not, U.K.-based Smarter also announced a $100 Fridge Cam at CES. Whenever someone opens the door, it takes a shot of what’s inside. The homeowner then can access the photos from the store.
Impressive as these features may be, the pool of potential buyers looks relatively small. While 41% of respondents to the iControl smart home survey said they were interested in kitchen technology, only 31% of people contacted by Houzz.com for its 2016 Kitchen Trends Study expressed a similar interest.
Ken Burghardt, owner of Domicile San Francisco, confirmed these findings. In an interview for Houzz.com, he stressed that customers were prioritizing basic function and classic style, not high-tech features. “Programming ovens from an iPhone is not something people are doing, and people don’t care about a refrigerator that will send a message to your phone that it needs to be defrosted.”
Maybe not, but manufacturers have embraced the Internet of Things and are committed to putting more connected devices on the market. Simple, affordable products like smoke and water alarms may prove an easy sell, but getting buyers to warm to major appliances may take a bit more work.