Right around the time that KBIS was happening, there was also another show happening in Vegas: the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).
A few years ago, this show didn’t mean anything for us kitchen and bath designers, but now, more than ever, it does. Every year at CES, some of the largest companies in the world show off their latest smart home gadgets.
Before we dive into some of the gadgets themselves, I think it’s worth digging into why the smart home is shaping up to be a whole new form of computing.
SMART HOME DRIVERS
Apple, Amazon and Google are making a huge push to help you take control of your home. I think these companies have a somewhat similar vision of what a smart home should look and act like, but the way each of them gets there is very different.
So, what is that vision? Ambient computing. That means computing that you do without tapping a screen or keyboard. Right now, that means talking to a speaker powered by artificial intelligence. Basically, what I’m getting at is the computer in Star Trek.
In Star Trek, the crew members could talk to the computer anywhere. They could ask it conversational questions, have the computer help them solve problems and control their environment with it. The computer could alert the doctor if your health was declining, it could anticipate your needs and if you wanted an ice cream sundae, it could materialize it out of thin air.
In the Trek universe, people didn’t have to worry about money and built things like this to better humanity. In our universe, we have capitalism to deal with, so as much as I’m sure every nerd at Apple, Amazon and Google very much wants the Trek computer (and spaceship), the way they go about it is very much money driven.
Apple, for instance, is really a hardware company. It wants to sell you that iPhone or iPad (and now some services to go along with it). The more valuable the company can make your primary Apple device to you, the more likely you will upgrade it over time. Apple has created “HomeKit,” which allows your iPhone to serve as a universal remote control for your home. The firm also has its Siri voice control that you can use on just about any Apple device. These are the company’s first steps into artificial intelligence.
Amazon makes a smart speaker, Alexa, that you can speak to in a very human way. You can ask the speaker to play music, order things from Amazon and even enhance its abilities with “skills.” (It makes a fantastic kitchen timer, too!). Amazon realizes that it sells a huge number of products that end up in your home, so why not build something that would let you order toilet paper from just shouting in the bathroom that you’re running low?
Then there’s Google, which sells the most advertisements on the internet. The more Google knows about you, the more it can tailor its ads. Don’t ever forget this: Google is an advertising company. It also makes a smart speaker that contains Google’s “Assistant.” Like Alexa and Siri, you can ask it all kinds of questions, order things and play music. Google makes these speakers incredibly cheap and, in a lot of cases, free. Why does Google do this? Because with speakers in your home, the company can build an even more detailed profile on the people they want to advertise to.
With all of that out of the way, let’s dig into some gadgets!
Amazon bought the Ring company a few years ago. They make smart doorbells and security cameras. If you haven’t seen the Ring doorbells, they have a video camera on them so that when someone comes to your door, they can video chat directly to your phone so you can decide to let the person in or not. They also serve as a security camera. After Amazon bought them, they started rolling out a service that will allow Amazon to unlock your door and put your packages inside your house! While you might find that an unsettling idea, it makes sense given Amazon’s motivation to sell you more things.
Speaking of Amazon, they showed up in a toilet at CES. I’m not even kidding – Kohler’s Numi 2.0 toilet features Amazon Alexa, so you can ask it to raise and lower the seat, or literally order toilet paper for you. Remember that example of the Star Trek computer monitoring your health? We’re heading toward that quicker than you think…
Google was at CES, but again, not with a specific new product. So many of these smart home gadget makers – those that make locks, toilets, refrigerators and ovens – want them to be voice enabled. Assistant is arguably one of the smarter voice assistants, and it showed up in a lot of new smart home products. This is a win for Google as it can continue to build out that advertising profile for you the more places they show up.
Apple, wanting to have your iPhone at the center of your home, has made a big privacy play. Apple will happily point out that Amazon and Google send all of your smart home data to the cloud, while Apple keeps your data safe and secure (and in a lot of cases, it never even goes to Apple). Apple has been playing catch up in the smart home space, but with some recent privacy gaffes from both Amazon and Google, people are starting to pay more attention and are integrating HomeKit into smart devices for those that are a little more privacy conscious.
Gadgets are pretty easy to make. Their real performance comes with what powers them. It’s easy to get caught up in the shiniest new gadgets. And honestly, you should get caught up in the shiniest new gadgets. Consumers want these in their homes, now more than ever. We’re right at the beginning of the ambient computing age, and guess what: Since we design the most used parts of the home, we’re going to be the ones who are specifying these systems soon.
The lens that I looked at all of these gadgets through is the service and companies behind them. Can I trust a smart lock that’s being powered by Google? Do I want Amazon to be able to unlock my doors? Do I want my only privacy-focused choice to be Apple devices?
As designers, we need to make informed choices about the products that we put in our customers’ homes. I encourage you to go look up your favorite tech blog and see what it covered at CES, and then start to really think about the ramifications of putting those products in your customers’ homes. ▪