The race to create the coolest smart home devices is hotter than ever

Friday January 18 2019

Having a smart home boosts its value.

Having a smart home boosts its value. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

THE NEW YORK TIMES
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
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When 47-year-old Chris Petrock purchased a three-bedroom, three-story home in Norwalk, Connecticut, last March, he decided to make it a smart one — where he could control the lights, refrigerator, thermostat, televisions, security cameras and everything in between — with the sound of his voice or a click on his smartphone.

Some friends and family members were sceptical. “I think a lot of my friends are kind of scared of it,” he said. But he pressed ahead, purchasing a package of Samsung smart appliances and other gadgets; only the installation of the security alarm system required a technician’s help.

He said he likes checking his home remotely from his phone during the day. “I watch my dog. I like to see what she’s doing.” And he uses the touch screen and Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant on his smart refrigerator to play music, order an Uber, ask for recipes, and even see who’s ringing his doorbell.

HOME VALUE

But it was not the coolness factor that motivated Petrock. It was all about boosting the value of his home.

“It is the wave of the future. I know a lot of families will want it,” he said. “For resale value, it’s great!”

Indeed, 59 percent of American adults surveyed in 2018 said they were interested in using a smart home device, according to Forrester Research.

For many, the entry into the internet of things (IoT) world has been through the surging popularity of smart speakers, like Amazon Echo and Google Home, whose voice assistants can answer questions, play music, order food, read news, arrange an Uber ride, and control other connected smart devices.

Forrester predicts that more than 66 million households in the United States will have smart speakers by 2022, up from 26 million in 2018. The number of homes with other smart devices, like refrigerators, vacuums, yard irrigation systems, and door locks, will more than double to 26.7 million in 2022 — or about 20 percent of households in the United States — from 12.2 million in 2018, Forrester projects.

For many people, it’s about convenience and speed. “Consumers don’t just want this convenience, they expect it — they demand it,” said Charles Henderson, global head of X-Force Red, a professional hacking team at IBM Security.

But the road to mass adoption of the smart home will likely be a long and bumpy one. Although the number and nature of smart devices is surging by the day, people have been relatively slow to actually buy and install them.

“It’s a really messy space and there’s a lot of noise in this,” said Frank Gillett, principal analyst at Forrester.

Buying, setting up and connecting smart devices can be costly, cumbersome, and time-consuming. Indeed, as many as one-third of smart speakers are still in their boxes, according to Forrester.

“You need people to be patient and comfortable with working through multiple steps of instruction,” he said.

SECURITY

Security, privacy and trust remain a big concern among owners of smart speakers. It is that “big brother is listening” concern, said Charles Golvin, senior research director at Gartner, a research and advisory firm.

In a 2017 survey by Gartner of smart speaker owners in the United States, Britain and Germany, 44 percent said they would be more willing to use a virtual personal assistant app, like Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant, if all of their personal data stayed on the device rather than being stored in the cloud.

It is no surprise that familiar names like Google, Amazon and Apple have taken a lead in the smart speaker space, and big brands like Samsung are creating buzz in smart appliances. But the rest of the smart device universe is fragmented.

“Much of the innovation is coming from focused start-ups and midsize companies,” said Gillett.

In the smart appliances realm, Samsung has emerged as a leader.

With its Family Hub smart refrigerator, for example, you can view the contents of your refrigerator from a smartphone at work, use a grocery app like InstaCart or Amazon Prime Now to order any needed groceries for dinner, and have the food delivered before arriving home. The smart fridge also sends alerts about expiring food and offers recipes through Meal Planner for meals that include those expiring items.

The fridge features a large touch screen, speakers, and the Bixby voice assistant that allows someone to build shopping lists, post photos, play music — and even control the home’s other smart devices, like lights and thermostats, right from the fridge.

But demand for consumer smart devices goes far beyond smart appliances, lights, speakers and thermostats. Tech giants and start-ups alike are rolling out innovative IoT and artificial intelligence-enabled devices at a breathtaking pace — the quirkier and more eye-catching the better — as they jockey to stand out in an increasingly crowded market.

Among the newcomers is MassageRobotics, a company that offers body massages at home — only it’s done by a pair of robotic arms. Founder Christian Mackin came up with the idea after suffering back and neck injuries during a sandrail car accident in California in 2013. He underwent surgery — and then months of physical and massage therapy.

“I thought, I’d like to design a robot to do this at home,” he said.

So, Mackin, who owns an engineering firm, acquired a couple of collaborative robots, known as cobots, from Universal Robots, and brought in a physical therapist to program the so-called cobots to give 25 different massages with a robotic arm on each side of the massage table. The robots are artificial intelligence-enabled, responding to voice commands to change the speed, pressure and location of the massage from a light touch to deep tissue massage — depending on the person’s needs and injuries.

But it does not come cheap: A single massage robot will sell for $150,000 when it hits the market later this year, although Mackin expects the price to come down to between $50,000 and $75,000 within three years.

STYLISH, FUN AND COOL

Are you a fan of Jimmy Choo designer shoes? If so, there’s a smart designer shoe headed your way that’s not only stylish but can detect signs of chronic diseases, like Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s, just by measuring the way you walk. Jimmy Choo teamed up with ZhorTech to create the Voyager Boot, which features a Digitsole that measures cadence, speed, impact force, pronation, and other metrics as the person walks.

“There are more than 7,000 nerve endings in each foot directly connected to the brain,” said Karim Oumnia, chief executive and founder of ZhorTech and Digitsole. And medical studies show a direct relation between gait analysis and neurological diseases, he said. “We can even detect the severity level of the diseases” and track progression over time, he said. The Voyager Boot is available in three styles and is priced between $1,795 to $1,895.

Then there is the QUS washable smart sport shirt that collects body data like breathing rate, heart rate, and heart rate variability through sensor threads in the shirt and a device that is snapped onto the back of the shirt. It collects the data during workouts and compares it with previous exercise sessions.

There is also Hip’Safe which is a wearable air-bag belt for seniors priced at roughly $744, and B’Safe, an air-bag vest for cyclists, that automatically inflate when motion sensors detect the person is falling, which is priced at roughly $700.

Widex makes a smart hearing aid, which uses AI to learn and adjust the person’s hearing preferences in real time, and will soon be introducing a battery-free hearing aid.

For cat owners, there’s iKuddle, a smart cat litter box priced at $299, which detects when the feline enters the box, deodorizes the air, and packages the waste into small bags for easy disposal. And it can all be tracked through an app.

Out on the road, there’s EyeLights’ Eyedrive smart device, that allows a driver to see GPS directions, music playlists and incoming calls through a hologram that appears on the car’s window. A tablet like device sits on the car’s dashboard, and, once connected to the phone’s GPS and music apps, will project the directions or music track onto the windshield — large enough that everyone in the car can see it. Since it is activated by voice or gestures, the driver never has to look away from the road.

Romain Duflot, chief executive and co-founder of EyeLights, dismisses suggestions that the hologram could be a distraction for drivers, saying that taking your eye off the road to check a phone is far riskier. “Phone distraction occurs in 52 percent of all trips that ended in a crash,” he said. EyeLights expects Eyedrive to be available in February and retail for $299 (though it may currently be pre-ordered via its Indiegogo campaign for $199).

The choices of fun, cool, quirky smart devices is seemingly limitless — and continues expanding by the day. In the end, no single smart home will likely look the same. It will all come down to personal preferences.

Added Gillett: “There’s no all-dancing home that you can set up and now your home is magic like the Jetsons.”

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