The Smart Home Takes Center Stage at CES 2016

Cameron Kinney for Zondits, January 14, 2016. Image credit: Chris Potter

Last week at CES 2016 in Las Vegas, some 3,600 companies descended upon the desert city to unveil and behold the latest and greatest in consumer electronics technology with hopes of finding the next big thing. While drones, electric cars, and virtual reality headsets were at the forefront of the trade show, there was another area of technology that had the crowd buzzing all the same. The smart home, a concept that was once thought to be possible only in the far off, Jetsons-era future, was front and center at the international expo, complete with its own designated exhibition area and panel session with industry leaders. Often mentioned alongside the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT), the smart home will usher in an era where one can remotely control and communicate with every electronic device in their home (and then some).

Did you remember to lock the front door when you left this morning? Maybe you left the garage door open? What if you forgot to turn on the dryer full of wet clothing? Or perhaps you just need a little bit of ambience for movie night. Well thanks to more affordable smartphones and tablets along with the increasing connectivity capabilities of Internet-enabled devices, the solutions to all of these problems exist and are readily available to consumers.

Better understood as building automation at the residential level, the idea aims to unify the controls of lighting, HVAC equipment, appliances, and security infrastructure (among other end uses) into one sleek system that delivers enhanced comfort, convenience, security, and energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is mentioned last in the list of benefits because it is regularly marketed to consumers as an afterthought, an added value on top of the security/convenience features they had already intended to pay for. This is not to say that there aren’t devices aimed specifically at increasing how efficient one’s home is with energy; products like advanced power strips and learning thermostats are leading the charge against bloated energy bills. However, the majority of these smart products being unveiled today offer little value outside of comfort or convenience.

Among the products showcased at CES 2016, Samsung unveiled a refrigerator with a 21.5” touchscreen on the door and a set of cameras on the interior, making it possible for one to stream music, create a grocery list, and even check the contents of your fridge remotely while at the grocery store. LG introduced a refrigerator of their own that has a floor-level sensor to allow users to open it with their feet along with a feature that makes the door transparent when a user knocks on it. While there may be some benefit from these space-age features, many find it hard to see any real value in such products, especially considering that Samsung’s model, for instance, fetches a suggested retail price of $5,000.

But the price of a refrigerator isn’t what is currently holding the industry back. The obstacles include navigating myriad competing interoperability standards, consumer fears about privacy and data security, and a general lack of awareness of the technology. As it stands, the protocol will most likely be born out of the product that creates the best user experience. On the other hand, data security is very much up in the air, with companies being forced into a juggling act where they must be transparent about the data they collect while also protecting customers from hackers and external threats. And in terms of getting people into the know, while something like a thermostat that learns user habits on its own doesn’t exactly sound captivating to the average consumer, it gets the early adopters talking – and that is certainly a start.