Activity in the smart-home business has accelerated so fast in the past few years, it's hard to pinpoint the most salient trends in the category. Even so, in preparation for CES 2018 and the IoT showdown there, we narrowed the list of trends down to seven … not including some of the important happenings in lighting controls, energy management and storage, home security and cybersecurity (and the convergence of the two), as welll as new business models in selling, installing, supporting and otherwises monetizing smart-home technologies.
All of these categories and more will be covered during CE Pro's Ultimate CES 2018 Preview, Wed., Dec. 20, 2:00 pm ET. Because we always go long on this most popular Webinar of the year, we're allotting 1.5 hours for the event, hopefully allowing time for Q&A along the way. (Why wait? Send your CES 2018 questions now.)
Not to worry, we didn't forget audio, video, and the very important category of “really cool things.”
1. Security is still the key driver.
All research and anecdotal evidence still points to security as the key driver for smart-home adoption, usually followed by “convenience” as a key reason for consumers to add smart things to their home.
The security sector has a couple of things going for it. First, it includes a whole lot of subsystems besides the usual alarm systems, life-saftey sensors, and professional monitoring. The category also includes smart locks, cameras, video doorbells and even lighting.
Secondly, the traditional alarm industry has a long history, a whole lot of big companies, armies of installers and an almost universal appeal … at least a universal understanding. Everyone knows what a security system does and why they might need one.
Also, security is just about the only home-technology category that comes with an attractive business model built in — cheap installs in return for years of predictable recurring revenue — encouraging service providers to market and sell their offerings more aggressively than, say, sellers of smart lights or thermostats. And then there's the fact that security systems tend to be more urgently required than other smart-home devices, and as the need arises, consumers know exactly who to call.
Of course, the traditional alarm business is changing quickly with the onslaught of DIY solutions and flexible service plans, and some very atractive smart-home devices are emerging as the next Trojan horses for home automation.
2. Voice assistants drive IoT adoption, too.
Look out security, voice assistants are moving in. They're landing in millions of households for use as timers, weather reporters, and music machines. When unwitting consumers realize how simple voice control can be for building shopping lists, they imagine other things they can do with these wonders … like turning off the lights or adusting the thermostat.
A 2017 study by the research firm NPD found that voice assistants most definitely drive the adoption of connected devices. Among Amazon Echo owners, 48% bought their first home-automation product only after acquiring the Echo. Among Google Home owners, 57% purchased their first IoT device after the smart speaker entered their lives.
3. AI arrives, along with new sensor technologies.
Call it AI, machine learning, predictive analytics … it's gotten really big in the consumer market over the past couple of years. Perhaps the momentum started with the Nest thermostat, which learned the user's preferences and behaviors, and then automated the temperature control without intervention. Amazon Alexa famously improved its speech-recognition over time, as it learned from mistakes made at the household level … and universally, based on data from millions of users.
Now, there's no stopping the movement. Cameras use AI to identify a person, possibly by matching the live face with images from Facebook. Security systems no longer alert homeowners only when a sensor is tripped, but also when something doesn't look or sound right. Literally.
Today's security devices, like Cocoon, might moniter super-low-frequency (subsonic) sounds; others, like CES Innovations honoree Lisnr, might moniter super-high-frequency (ultrasonic) sounds. Both establish benchmarks for “normal” based on household sound patterns and alert users if something sounds amiss. In this way, otherwise inaudible sounds, like a slow water leak or termite activity behind the walls, could be discovered before calamity strikes.
Those nascent termite colonies may as well be computer hackers, poking around a network in search of digital vulnerabilities. Today's cybersecurity solutions would recognize the unusual traffic, report it to the user, and possibly shut down a port until the issue was addressed. Back in the day, a digital intrusion would be detected after the breach occurred, at which point a bunch of IT specialists would isolate the problem, create a patch, and hope the end users updated their software.
Enabling this AI goodness is a wealth of new sensors that capture everything from images and sounds, to the minutest pollutants, to exact color temperature of natural light at any given time and place, to distance and direction of movement, to the displacement of invisible RF waves, to so many medical conditions and other industry-specific attributes.
4. Return from the cloud to the edge
In the old days of home automation, there was no such thing as “cloud processing.” It all happened locally on servers or within particularly intelligent devices. Over the past few years, however, as providers added more intelligence to connected devices and ecosystems, they offloaded much of the heavy lifting to the cloud, where giant servers could aggregate oodles of data from millions of users to make smarter decisions for any given household.
New Chipsets Take Devices to the Edge
The new Google Clips video camera stays on all day, but only keeps images it deems interesting in order to optimize storage and battery life. It learns and recognizes familar faces, analyzes expressions to snap at just the right moment, and learns what kind of pics you like, based on what you keep, share or delete.
In the good old days when the cloud was king, the camera might have processed all that data in the ether, wasting battery life from all those Wi-Fi exchanges, and possibly scaring off users concerned about privacy.
As Google declares in big bold text: “100% private. No Internet needed to capture.“
Google, like many of its peers these day, opted to keep most processing on the device itself … at the edge … in the fog, as the cool kids say, made possible with efficient new platforms built for high performance and ultra-low power. Google's uses Intel's Movidius VPU (vision processing unit), which packs, AI, imaging and computer vision into one very compact SoC.
Additionally, cloud-based operations could make it simpler for users to enroll new systems and devices without having to mess with the home network. Product developers could deploy new services and patches to all users in one fell swoop. They could facilitate integration with other cloud-enabled systems. They could provide enterprise-grade cybersecurity not available to most end users. And they could do this rather efficiently compared to building and maintaining power-hungry devices at the customer premises.
But almost as quickly as it began, the move to cloud-centric architectures is trending back to the edge, or the “fog.”
The IoT onslaught, as it happened, introduced too much latency into the ecosystem. It also exacerbated the pain (and sometimes real danger) of an Internet outage that cripples the system.
So product developers are now putting more intelligence and processing power back into the end devices, or at least hubs that reside at the user's premises.
As a bonus, a more localized ecosystem might, just might, enhance privacy and network security … or at least that's the perception of a buying public that grows increasingly fearful of IoT with each new high-profile hack.
Technology developers are up to the task. Today's multipurpose chipsets pack multiple radios, storage, powerful CPUs, VPUs, and GPUs, cybersecurity provisions, complete IoT stacks and more, crunching 0s and 1s with astonishing speed and finesse for such efficient little things.
5. No real prospects for a smart-home 'standard'
The bad news is that we're nowhere closer to a smart-home standard today than we were five, 10 or 20 years ago. The good news is we keep getting more and more good ones to choose from.
Try to follow:
Bluetooth LE is now Bluetooth Mesh, and we mean it for real. The latest iteration quashes the main objection to BLE as a home automation standard: limited wireless range. … Z-Wave's S2 security framework is now mandatory for new Z-Wave products, and the Alliance is launching SmartSmart to dramatically simplify device commissioning. Z-Wave, owner Sigma Designs, meanwhile, was just acquired by Silicon Labs, which also makes silicon for ZigBee, Thread, and Bluetooth. … ZigBee 3.0, meanwhile, finally brings real interoperability to that popular protocol, and we'll see several of the first certified 3.0 products at CES. Moving forward, if you want a big “Z” on your product, it must comply with 3.0. … Don't like the full ZigBee stack? Just use the application layer, known as DotDot as of last year, on top of Thread or other lower-level protocol. … Or instead of DotDot, use the open-source IoTivity interoperability framework promulgated by the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF). Just in time for CES, the group is unveiling IoTivity 1.3.1, the first fully certifiable release since the 2016 merger of the OCF and its erstwhile competitor AllSeen Alliance from Qualcomm. … But wait, there's more. Nest is still hoping Thread adopters will embrace its Weave protocol instead of DotDot or IoTivity because Weave is already deployed in the millions of Thread-enabled thermostats, smoke detectors, cameras and soon security systems sold by Nest since inception. In 2015, Nest opened up Weave (aptly, OpenWeave), which enables local communications sans cloud. Yale was the first (and only) taker, but its Weave-enabled Linus lock, now called the Nest Yale Lock, has been delayed until 2018.
And then there's DECT ULE (ultra low energy), which technically could be an awesome IoT standard because of its large installed base (DECT is the cordless-phone standard), long range, and telephony roots. There's a lot to love about it, but as they say … love the one you're with.
6. Rethinking the ecosystem: open, closed or curated?
We've already spent plenty of energy on this conundrum: Go with a wide-open platform and ecosystem to include the most devices in the most categories from the most suppliers … potentially exposing the most vulnerabilities and losing control of the user experience? Or keep the ecosystem somewhat protected, allowing only select products from a single vendor or close partners to join the IoT party?
Ambi: The IAQ Machine
Ambi Labs bills its Ambi Climate system as an “AI-enhanced air conditioner,” that learns a user's comfort preferences and adjusts their AC units accordingly, via a bank of IR blasters.
Unlike other IR-enabled AC controllers, though, Ambi doesn't just consider temperature. The device utilizes environmental sensors and Web-based data to analyze other comfort-related factors like humidity, sunlight, outdoor weather, and time of day to account for a user's metabolic cycle.
Ambi Climate continuously adjusts the AC for “ultimate personalized comfort,” while lopping 30% off a typical utility bill.
During the sleeping hours, when body temperatures and room temperatures fluctuate, most AC controllers remain static. Ambi learns your sleep patners and middle-of-the-night temperature preferences to modulate the settings throughout the night.
Or do you go for some compromise, beginning with a solid foundation of interoperable products and meticulously vetting other would-be participants?
We have the pros and cons of these very real paradigms, all of which might look good on paper, but often disappoint in the real world of user experience and corporate profits.
It's hard to say which came first in this growing fascination with “well living”: an organic movement perhaps inspired by corporate health initiatives or insurance incentives … or all that research about the little things that can dramatically improve quality of life, and the product developments that followed.
We now know well the vital role sleep plays in our mental and physiological health, and sure enough at CES 2018 we'll see a sea of solutions for monitoring sleep, falling asleep, improving sleep, waking up from sleep, and more. We also are coming to understand how lighting plays into sleep, productivity and moods. Exhibitors at the 2018 event will demonstrate a record number of tunable white lights that can glow cooler in the early part of the day for wake-up and work, and warmer in the evening on the way to sleep.
It's not just lighting that can be used to simulate natural Circadian rhythms when we spend 90% of time indoors. Temperature and indoor air quality plays a role as well. Anyone on a paleo diet, eating what the cavement ate, would appreciate that our ancestors went to sleep as the sun set and the temperatures cooled, and arose with the warm sun. Scientists say we should program our thermostats to simulate these conditions.
And while we're at it, we should monitor and “fix” indoor air quality (IAQ), and supplement that freshness with sounds and smells from our days in the bush. Quite seriously, these revelations in wellness are driving many of the technological developments we'll see at CES and beyond. Besides a large number of tunable white lighting solutions, we'll see lots of IAQ sensors and algorithms, aroma delivery systems, and of course things that you put on your head to stimulate your brainwaves just so.
And other IoT Trends at CES 2018
These other IoT trends will be discussed during the Dec. 20 Webinar, along with audio and video trends, and just weird and interesting stuff.
- Convergence of physical security (protecting people and property) with digital security ( data and privacy)
- Smarter water and fire detection/mitigation systems
- Audio analytics
- Unobtrusive computer vision
- Crowd-sourced IoT data
- Power monitoring (disaggregation) and energy storage systems
- New types of user interfaces
- Smarter Internet gateways and routers with IoT and cybersecurity built in
- Trends in security and home automation hubs
- Go-to-market strategies