Smart homes are evolving.
Turning to Technology
Howard Griffiths is a passionate and unapologetic armchair sports fan.
He’s an avid follower of the English Premier League and international tournaments like the football World Cup. While he wouldn’t describe himself as a technophile, the fear of missing key moments in matches has driven him to fill his home with technology.
“I used to constantly wait around for ‘dull moments’ during matches, waiting for the opportune moment to leave the room and then sprinting back in to make sure I didn’t miss anything,” says Griffiths, a TV presenter at Channel 5 in the UK.
However, by stepping away from the TV to do household tasks such as turning on the heating, answering the doorbell or taking his dinner out of the oven, he invariably did miss key moments in some of the biggest matches in Premier League history.
He says a 2001 match between Tottenham against Manchester United in particular still haunts him.
“Tottenham had dominated the first half, so I thought it was game over and I was safe to leave the room, turn the heating on and put something in the oven for later. I wasn’t away from the TV for long but I came back to find Man U had completely stolen the game. Everyone at work was talking about it and I still can’t believe I missed it.”
By embracing smart home technology, installing devices such as a camera on his front door, a thermostat and an internet-enabled oven, he’s making sure this never happens again.
“I always thought smart technology was complicated, expensive and something only ‘techies’ would have in their home, but now I’m totally dependent on it,” he says.
The devices around his home can be controlled via a smartphone app or a virtual assistant like Amazon Alexa – meaning he no longer needs to leave his armchair during a match.
Griffiths is not alone. Research by Berg Insight reveals that the number of households in Europe using some form of smart technology is expected to grow by 54% between now and 2020.
In North America, where a higher percentage of households already have smart home technology, the growth in adoption is expected to rise by 31% over the same period.
And as more and more people adopt smart home technology, the number of tasks and services that it will be used for is also expected to grow. To date, early adopters like Howard are still using smart home tech just for their own comfort. But we will soon see services emerge that are much more essential to the daily lives of many people.
Smart Homes Today
Today around 10% of homes in North America and 2.4% of European households have some form of smart home technology. The most commonly owned items are smart thermostats, lighting and speakers with virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
Anna Gustavsson, Global Head of Propositions at Hive, says that smart technology, including the use of smart meters, gives customers much greater control over their energy use.
With technology like smart thermostats maturing, their track record is encouraging more consumers to use them.
At the same time, the growth in popularity of virtual assistants, is helping encourage households to adopt more smart home technology, says Gustavsson.
“One of the things that has made a big difference in the last 12 months is the role that voice platforms are beginning to play, giving people a new interface to interact with their home,” she says.
She adds that this voice technology is “capturing the imagination” and “helping drive people to be more open to trying and experimenting with how the technology can help change their life.”
As consumers take up more smart home technology, these changes to people’s lives will become more noticeable. Companies like Hive have set about creating a smart home ecosystem of multiple devices capable of talking to each other and a platform which is capable of learning patterns of behaviour.
This interplay between devices makes it easier for them to learn user preferences, as well as to spot any anomalies in behaviour, such as the sound of broken glass or a dog barking during the day, or changes in the heat output of a boiler. These devices can also connect with external services such as those supplied by British Gas, meaning that if heating performance does drop, an engineer can be called to inspect and repair the boiler before it fails.
Peace of Mind
Whether they are like Howard, answering his front door from his armchair, or controlling their thermostat from a smartphone app to be more energy efficient, most people using smart home technology today do so for convenience.
However, there is a growing segment of the market using smart technology for more than mere convenience – it is helping them reduce worry and achieve peace of mind.
“One of the really exciting use cases to come out of the smart home is offering customers reassurance when they're outside of their homes,” says Gustavsson.
For working parents, this peace of mind could come in the form of sensors and cameras that alert them via their smartphone that their children have arrived safely home from school.
And for pet owners, says Gustavsson, cameras and sensors can help customers monitor their animals when they are away from the home.
“Our Hive Hub 360 product allows you to get an alert if your dog is barking,” says Gustavsson.
“You can go into the app and listen to see whether that seems to be an agitated bark.”
For people living in cities, the smart home can mean not only connecting with the home remotely but linking the home with services that make their busy lives easier.
For example, Hello Alfred is a digital concierge that allows busy urbanites in the US living in managed buildings to order everything from home repairs to laundry, cleaning and watering the plants via a smartphone app.
"This in-home service platform is a first," says Michael D'Aurizio, Investment Manager, Ventures in Centrica Innovations. "We invested in them because we love their fresh approach of combining intuitive technology with a very friendly, warm service for their customers."
“Hello Alfred is leading a new category of in-home commerce. They've really shown us that being a tech-driven company doesn't mean you're not a human one."
Being in Control
The expanding abilities of connected products and services hints at how the future home could be fully integrated with every element of a person’s life.
However, for that to happen, peoples’ fears and reservations about the technology need to be dispelled. Smart home technology is still very much at the ‘early adopter’ stage, with those using the technology in North America and European households still largely in the minority.
For the majority, the usual barriers such as price play a role. But there are added concerns. People worry about how smart technology might affect their privacy and they have concerns about losing control of smart devices that can take decisions autonomously.
A survey by Hive of more than 1,000 households in the US found that consumers prefer devices where they have more control to those able to operate on their own through artificial intelligence.
While 85% of the US households surveyed said they were comfortable with thermostats that can be controlled via a smartphone app, just 35% said they liked the idea of a smart home product that does what you want without asking.
Such technology employs artificial intelligence to analyse all the data that a device generates – for example, when lights are usually switched on in the house – to start doing this automatically.
Microsoft’s UK Chief Technology Officer, Michael Wignall, says that it will not be just our voices that smart devices in the future will be able to understand.
“It’ll be about you not having to press lots of buttons and use lots of remotes, but actually the whole home itself sensing, understanding and learning over time about you and your patterns.”
The head of Centrica Innovations’ Ideas Lab, Nicola McCheyne points to a future where smart homes will be able to automatically trade energy made by rooftop solar panels. The home will be able to do that by learning both the patterns of the house’s electricity generation, and the inhabitants’ energy usage habits.
With such all-consuming capabilities, it is up to technology vendors and service providers to reassure customers that their privacy is secure and their data is safe.
Anna Gustavsson says she recognises that currently many people’s fears over this next level of smart technology lie in concerns over companies having too much insight into their daily habits.
“There is definitely a concern about what data you give over to different providers,” she says.
“We take data protection very seriously. The industry as a whole is moving more towards offering that reassurance to consumers so that they can trust that their data is being used for their benefit and not misused in any way.”
She adds that if companies can demonstrate this to customers, the overwhelming advantages of smart homes will help convince the majority to follow early adopters and embrace the increasingly intelligent technology.
Microsoft’s Wignall agrees: “I think we do need to think about security and how that’s managed, but more and more I think it’ll make our lives easier.”
“We’ll just think it’s natural, and in 10 years’ time we’ll look back here and go, remember when I had to set the temperature and I had to turn the TV on when I got home?”