Pop the oven on to cook your dinner before you return from work. Lock or unlock your front door from anywhere. Adjust the ambiance of a room with an app that finely balances lighting, temperature, sound and even the tint of the walls. Thanks to the Internet of Things, none of these things are that ‘futuristic’: they’re emerging now on a wave of creative disruption that could radically alter existing business models in the electronics, appliance and retail sectors.
Cisco estimates that by the end of this decade there could be some 50 billion ‘things’ connected to the web. BI Intelligence predicts a 67% compound annual growth rate in devices such as smart appliances (washers, dryers, refrigerators), safety and security systems (internet-connected sensors, monitors, cameras and alarm systems), and smart energy equipment.
The transformation, says BI Intelligence, will affect the home energy and security sectors first. The Nest Thermostat already has a substantial following, with over one million sold by January 2014: a statistic that no doubt played a part in Google’s decision to buy the company for a cool $3.2 billion. This device can learn from your behaviour what temperatures you like within a week, and create a personalised schedule for when the heating should be on. It can also sense when you leave the house and turn down the heat, and show you how much heat you use each day. An additional voice control feature is planned for the device, which users can interact with from almost any smartphone or tablet.
The rapid adoption of smartphones and tablets is the key that has finally unlocked the automated home concept, which has been promised as the ‘next big thing’ for some time. With the addition of a few apps, smartphones effectively become an all-in-one controller and monitoring system for smart fridges, TVs, lights, doors, robot vacuum cleaners and other devices.
Some of the most exciting tools in the home automation space originate from the crowd-funding and start-up sector. Companies like Sense offer home automation kits that can turn a chair, toothbrush, pet or even a person into a smart device, alerting you to movement and temperature changes. Neurio uses sensors and pattern detection algorithms to monitor your household appliances and cut energy usage, as well as remind you of any domestic tasks that need to be done; if it detects the power signature for the washing machine, for example, and doesn’t see one for the dryer immediately afterwards, it tell you that your clothes still need drying. Devices like Lockitron sit on top of a door’s deadbolt, allowing you to unlock it remotely to grant friends and family members access to your home (or a delivery person to your garage), and could have a disruptive effect on the lock and key industry.
Many home automation devices aim to be as unobtrusive as possible, picking up on people’s habits and actions to deliver a more subtle experience than you might experience through an app or internet browser. Take the Google Latitude doorbell, which allows you to monitor the location of your loved ones in a less obtrusive way than many of the mobile-based tracker apps currently available. It chimes with a different ringtone for each family member when they’re approaching the house, alleviating the need for texts or phone calls to find out when people will be home for dinner.
The rapid growth of the home automation sector points toward a future of services rather than products. “2015 is the year we will see…businesses start to plan how they can move from a manufacturing business model to a service provision one”, says Matt Hatton, the founder and CEO of Machina Research and chair of the 2014 Internet of Things World Forum.
Mobile phone networks already use this model, typically giving away handsets for free, or at reduced cost, and earning profit from call and data packages. In future the same logic could be applied to smart washing machines, say, with the user receiving the machine for ‘free’ and being billed every month for the amount of washes they’ve done. Just like a phone, the washing machine would be replaced at no cost to the user after a certain contract period, and repairs and services could theoretically be included in the package. Updates to the washing machine’s software – perhaps improving its energy efficiency – could be pushed over the internet in the interim, as happens with phones today, extending its lifespan.
This kind of service plan is already starting to emerge. Comcast now offers an automated home package that charges customers a monthly fee for real-time notifications from their smart appliances, lights, thermostat, intruder alarm and more, and allows them to control them remotely. And Lefónica is planning to bring a trial of US carrier AT&T’s connected home platform, Digital Life, to Europe in the near future.
The world’s biggest electronics companies are also jostling for a slice of automated home services market, which could be worth $10.9 billion by 2017 according to a recent report from NextMarket Insights. In June, Apple launched a service called HomeKit, a smart home platform which allows iOS devices to work with Phillip’s remote-controlled Hue light bulbs and the iBaby monitor. And Samsung has introduced an app that allows homeowners to control Samsung-branded appliances such as Smart TVs, fridges and washing machines. It recently acquired SmartThings, an IoT ecosystem and community, for $200 million to help open the system up to third-party developers and devices.
Samsung, Google and others have launched Thread, a new standard protocol for the Internet of Things, which is already used by Nest. The Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), setup by Intel, Samsung and Dell to “define connectivity requirements” will also ensure that the billions of devices predicted to be connected to the internet by the end of the decade are able to communicate. The infrastructure that will support this explosion of IoT devices also developing at pace – BT, for example, will soon start rolling out a dedicated Internet of Things network using ultra-narrowband, which is ideal for sending small amounts of data over great distances.
The data provided by smart devices could prove to be highly valuable for businesses, allowing them unprecedented insights into the way consumers use their devices. Product Health already sells product intelligence as a service to manufacturers and distributors of smart products, including off-grid solar systems. “The growth of ‘smart, connected products, able to send data about themselves, is already having a disruptive impact on markets in developing economies”, says Tamara Giltsoff, Product Health’s VP of Business Development. “Many of the business models, such as access to off-grid power as a pay-as-you-go service, would not be possible without a connected device able to be controlled remotely or unlocked once a mobile payment is made.”
Will the next frontier for smart service provision be home ownership itself? Rather than buy a property, perhaps we will rent intelligent spaces, earning credits for good behaviour – from low energy use to good neighbour ratings – to resize or relocate in future.
Amanda Saint is a freelance writer focused on engineering and technology solutions for sustainability. Duncan Jefferies is a freelance writer and editor specialising in innovation and technology.
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