The smart home revolution has been touted as being just around the corner for several years now. Yet, it has generally “failed to launch.” Why? There is no one single reason but the most overarching opinion is that it has just been too complicated and devices fraught with poor performance.
Lately, I have seen numerous reports that the smart home is expected to explode in the next few years. Some attribute that to the pandemic and the new level of activities in the home. Others simply think the time has come. However, as sluggish as the smart home market has been, I am a bit skeptical. This is mainly because of what I have experienced as I have implemented smart home technology. I also have seen other homes that have some level of smartness being implemented.
In my home, I have a decent smattering of smart technology. Alexa is my interface, and I have to say, I am not impressed with the performance of her “smarts.” Let me drill down on that a bit.
First of all, I have a half-dozen or so Echo Dot smart speakers scattered throughout the house. Most are far enough apart that the unit I am nearest acknowledges me unless I am in competition with the cats “training” our new dog.
If more than one hears me, it can get confusing for poor Alexa. Even if the one I am addressing responds, it still can get confusing. The Alexa algorithms are supposed to be able to work that out. However, they have not proven to be that effective for me.
For example, and one of my foremost aggravations, is when I tell Alexa to “play my likes.” More often than not I end up hearing the Beatles song, “My Life” (and Alexa is what suggested I name the playlist “my likes).
Next, if I do not annunciate clearly, or do not wait for Alexa to signal it is ready, nothing happens. Or Alexa comes up with the most ridiculous, and sometime hilarious, interpretations of what it thinks I said.
There are other similar situations where Alexa fails. Obviously, Alexa is not exactly a Rhodes Scholar.
As well, Alexa has difficulty if there is any background noise. (TV, stereo, other people conversing, for example.)
Then there is the hardware. For the most part, things like Wi-Fi bulbs and plug-in switches work OK. There is too much of a delay, IMHO, from the time I issue the command until the device responds. If I kept walking into a dark room, as I issue a light-on command entering the room, I am likely to do a face plant before the light comes on (or at least, mash a toe).
With embedded devices such as replacement wall light switches and outlets, I have had terrible luck regardless of the brand. I have been unable to make any of them work.
As well, the conditions for Alexa understanding what is said vary between my GF and myself. To comprehend a simple common phrase, such as “Alexa, TV on,” should be a no-brainer no matter who it comes from, as long as it resembles the phrase. The AI should be smart enough to recognize simple phrases such as these with a solid five-nines reliability.
Other features such as alarms, timers and music are hit and miss. One thing that I cannot figure out is why some of my Echo’s cannot find my playlists, while others can.
I am not alone. The number one complaint from friends is the smart assistant’s interpretation of what was said. I have not used Siri or Google Home, but I cannot imagine they are any better. From what I read, Alexa is supposed to be the best, anyway. And, for me to buy into “talking” to a machine, it will need to have “HAL” computer-level communication capability (from the 2001 A Space Odyssey movie) and be able to tell the difference between “all” and “oil” when a Texan says them.
Ok, ‘nuff said. Based upon my experiences with smart assistants there are a number of metrics that will need to evolve, and be in place, to get users off the dime and find them accurate, efficient, and, the most importantly, simple and reliable.
One of the major functions is the smart device’s ability to not only to hear and respond, they must do it with understanding. Gadgetry is nice, such as the Ring Always Home Cam camera from Amazon, available in 2021. It is a $250 Ring camera that is also a drone and can fly around your house recording what it sees.
Of course, there’s an app for that, which can notify you of various activities. But in the end, if it cannot figure out that there is an intruder running around the house and shoot a missile at their head, what good is it?
Another feature that must become standard is contextual awareness. So far, that is not well developed. These smart assistants have to have some awareness of what is being used in the smart home to be able to analyze that with respect to the home. They must, as well, be able to recognize changes, especially with people (Especially if you have the missile capability. Oops, it was the wife coming home early!).
There are some changes coming, though. For example, the ZigBee Alliance is coming out with the Project Connected Home over IP (CHIP) standards initiative.
The buzz is that open standards will up the ante for intelligence with frustration-free ease of use, security and interoperability — regardless of the platform. Hmmm… we will see if the industry can pull off interoperability here. If the interoperability in the past is any indicator of the interoperability in the future, it has an uphill battle.
And much depends upon how Covid evolves. If it really does get handled by next year and things get back to some semblance of normalcy, it might start gaining traction by 2022. Plus, I would not bet on Apple being a team player anywhere here.
There are other things, such as wearables, that will come into play down the road. As wearable technologies reach the next level (bioactive inks, flexible fabrics, integrated power generators, and more) they will integrate with smart home technologies.
Then there is security. Without a trusted, five-nines reliable, security screen, “it ain’t gonna happen, people!” If the industry cannot come up with ground-level, native, and no-hassle security scheme all bets are off because if breaches occur, well, such news travels fast in the Twitter and Facebook universes.
Next is ease of use. Considering the fact that half of the population thinks 5G will replace 4G, it would be foolish to think they will take the time, or even have the skills to connect a device if it is not just simple “plug and pray.”
I take this argument from my GF. She is of the opinion that she better be able to take it out of the box, plug it in, and if it takes a bunch of tweaking to make it work it goes right back in the box and back to the vendor (three cheers for Amazon’s return policy).
There is more, but these are the major issues the smart home is facing. My intuition tells me that, while the technology may ramp up dramatically in the next few years, it will be the consumer that will determine this segment’s growth.
Some also say the enterprise will move this segment forward. Well, that is what they have started saying about most segments. Do not forget that the enterprise depends, to a large degree, on consumer spending. We do not really know what a post-Covid universe will look like.
I can tell you that a large majority of the collective consumer wealth has taken a big hit and that will take some time to recover. Some have lost it all. I see a cautious and conservative consumer emerging on the other side once we see light.
That means for smart home technology and devices to gain traction, they must add value. Whether it be efficiency, functionality or features. For the consumer to buy into them, they need to prove their value. Then, perhaps, the post-Covid, cautious consumer will appreciate them and invest.