The Elusive Smart Home

With the annual Consumer Electronics Show starting next week, the news media is filled with marketing hype about the elusive Smart Home market, which is nearly as misdirected today as it was in 1957. Watch this video of the RCA-Whirlpool® Miracle Kitchen and ask how many of those products you can buy today.

Whirlpool was wrong 58 years ago when it introduced its Miracle Kitchen, and I think it’s wrong about home automation today too. All the company did was offer a Smart Home vision that never crossed the chasm to mass-market adoption. The problem wasn’t a lack of sensors, actuators, electronics, or network standards, but marketing and the inability to understand consumer needs and wants, or the ability to show a value proposition or deliver a solution with ease of use and affordability.

I still have seen no company that “gets it” or knows how to deliver the smart home vision — not Whirlpool and not Apple or Microsoft or Google or Philips or BestBuy. A lot of innovation has occurred in the last 50-some years that is getting us closer to that vision, including smartphones and the Internet of Things, but there are still many marketing barriers that these companies don’t seem to understand.

Whirlpool’s Vision Update from CES 2016

I find it interesting to contrast the 1957 Whirlpool vision above with the video shown here rom CES 2016. At least Whirlpool still “trying” to innovate, but they still don’t get the fallacy of integrating so much digital technology into appliances that otherwise would last 10-20 years, causing them to go obsolete much faster than they should. If that’s by design, just know that what seems good for profits is not always good for consumers.

My perspective & bias

Toward the end of my 30-year IBM career (in the early 1990s), I introduced the company to the Smart Home market, represented its interests in several industry standards initiatives, and later retired to start CAZITech, a connected home consulting firm. Smart Fridge Two years ago I wrote with skepticism about the Smart Refrigerator, and the video above reminded me of that. The problem with smart appliances is that rapid advancements in computer, networking and storage technology enable new features at lower cost each year, making slightly older products obsolete more quickly than ever before. But do you really need the latest features when appliances work fine for a decade or more? Do you really need to replace your perfectly good refrigerator with a new $9,000 model because it features a built-in, color touch-screen and wireless Internet access? What does it do differently or better to justify that cost? And wouldn’t you rather use a touch screen at the kitchen table than standing at the fridge? In my article I describe how to make an even smarter fridge with your existing iPad and less than $40 in parts. The lessons presented apply to medical devices, cars, and other smart home products too.

LG & Samsung continue to add unnecessary electronics

Also added to this article from CES 2016 is this video of the latest tricked-out refrigerators from LG and Samsung. (Click here is the embedded version won’t play, or just Google CES 2016 – fridges)

So what will it take?

BestBuy has the “potential” of becoming a big player in connected home products, but there’s still more work to do. On the plus side, having a large inventory and a website to help people choose is an advantage, as is having a dedicated section of the store. But still, appliances are in a different section, and consumer electronics are somewhere else, so it’s hard for consumers to actually experience the whole value proposition. I doubt that store sales staff will know much about home control systems, meaning consumers will be mostly left to explore on their own, so self-service point-of-sale education is key. I do like that their website includes buyer ratings and could evolve with instructional videos to show what automation can be done with little effort, or a lot. Those videos could even be made available in store kiosks.

A bigger problem for BestBuy, however, or anyone else trying to fulfill the Smart Home promise, will come when if-then-else automation evolves into smart agents with artificial intelligence that learn, because it will then be even harder to show the value of learned behavior that evolves with time.

Smart Homes versus Automated Homes

Consumers like the benefits of home automation but not the cost and effort to automate. No wonder this industry remains stalled, even after some 58 years. It just takes too much expertise to program the automation; there are too many different types of things to automate; and we rely too much on rules-based programs (e.g. “If this happens, then do that” or “Do this at this time”). Even the most skilled technicians can’t anticipate future needs, so adding new devices or making minor lifestyle changes can mean adding or changing the rules. While that ensures continued employment for technicians, it limits market expansion.

In contrast, a truly “SMART” home would learn on its own, discover new devices, notice changes in activity, and adjust without programming. That would need a sense of what’s going on, such as with human-like sensors that listen, see, feel, and smell. It may also need the ability to question occupants and carry on a conversation.

“I notice that you regularly do this,” the home may ask. “Do you want me to do that for you automatically?” Or, “I heard a strange noise (like a crash or glass break). Are you OK? Do you want me to call 911?”

Merasoft logoThis was exactly the vision of Merasoft, a small Utah-based company that ended up going out of business before completing its system. I was on their advisory board before retiring from IBM in 1999, and I saw their system in action. It worked well, but they had to invent technologies that were outside of their core competency. They needed help from big companies to fulfill their dream, which was based on neural networks and learning agents.

To listen, Merasoft invented room sensors with microphone arrays and digital signal processing code to distinguish between different sounds, such as door bell or glass break, and to better understand human speech — close up, far away, or around the corner. They also modified IBM’s ViaVoice speech recognition technology to be multi-user so people in different rooms could interact simultaneously.

To see, the company developed room nodes with CMOS image sensors that could recognize light or darkness, faces and even gestures. The house, for example, could notice that the husband seemed to sit on the sofa when he got home from work and turn on the TV to CNN. It could then ask if he wanted that task automated when he sat there at that time of day.

Merasoft also believed smart home sensors should include the ability to feel (temperature & humidity) and smell (smoke & CO2). And with the ability to sense surroundings and learn, there was no need to program new rules. The Merasoft project was nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve seen nothing since that even comes close.

Merasoft’s competency was in neural networks and learning agents, and most of their engineering talent was from Brigham Young University. IBM liked their use of CMOS image sensors for surveillance apps, gesture recognition, and facial recognition and had already done much work in those areas. IBM also liked their DSP-based microphone array, which could distinguish between different voice or various sounds and eliminate noise, echo and reverb to improve speech recognition. That way, voice commands could be clearly understood from a distance or distinguished from others in a party. Other sounds the microphone could recognize included glass break (a burglary?) and fall detection. And by knowing who else was at home, the system could act autonomously if the occupant didn’t answer voice inquiries. There was no longer a need to say, “Help. I’ve fallen and can’t get up.”

Merasoft became an IBM business partner and made extensive changes to IBM’s ViaVoice software to support multiple simultaneous conversations and to improve the text-to-speech voice quality so it didn’t sound like a robot. With just 30-minutes of capturing a specific voice pattern, the system could be made to sound like anyone, including me, and I’ve still not heard anything as good since.

The Challenge of Marketing Smart Homes

Think of the challenge of selling smart home technology, where potential customers need to “experience” the value proposition in order to understand the benefits. That can’t be done in retail stores like BestBuy. Consumers need to see it in a real home.

Merasoft had a brilliant marketing plan and choice of marketing channels, but I won’t discuss more here. Just think, however, about what it will take to move the Home Automation industry across the chasm separating early adopters and early majority customers and then toward the vision of a truly Smart Home. Who (what companies) might lead such a move? What partnerships would they need? How could they build a “camp” of partners supporting their technology? How could they make sure that their technology became standardized?

Understanding Market Requirements

Rather than develop products and then find markets for them, isn’t it better to first understand market needs? Now that doesn’t mean asking consumers what they want, because they may not even know. They almost certainly won’t know what’s technically possible or feasible. Instead, marketers should study what they do, enjoy doing, would like to do, hate doing, and wish they didn’t have to do.

A reason I joined the HomeRF Working Group as their marketing chairman back in the mid-1990s (before Wi-Fi) was because I was so impressed with Intel’s Ethnographic Market Research. They would send a team of (1) psychologist, (2) anthropologist, and (3) sociologist into homes to study their activities and values. They did NOT send technicians! And their research fed into a Market Requirements document that then fed into a Technical Requirements document and guided standards development and the HomeRF specification.

Another example of where NOT to get market requirements comes from IBM’s PC business. IBM had little success in consumer markets because it would ask retailers what features should be included in the next PCs, as if they knew. This meant that IBM got the same answers as all other PC manufacturers, from retailers that didn’t really know either.

So why did IBM have such great success with its ThinkPad line of laptop PCs? The ThinkPad team looked to IBM Research for product ideas (e.g. TrackPoint mouse replacement, Butterfly keyboard, and a hard disk with accelerometer to detect a fall and retract R/W heads before hitting the ground). ThinkPad market research all started with understanding user behavior and needs, followed by testing prototypes with customers to see if those needs were met.

2 thoughts on “The Elusive Smart Home

  1. RELATED ARTICLES:
    We’re Losing the War for the Smart Home
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    CES 2015: AllSeen Alliance to bring order to the Internet of Things (I commented with skepticism.)
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    Home Automation Report: Has the DIY Smart Home Bubble Burst? (CEPro Magazine, I commented)
    The Trouble With Home Automation in Retail (CEPro Magazine, I commented)
    Car History: Get a Horse (This is an interesting parallel with similar skepticism and showing the importance of understanding and meeting market demands, or at least creating them.)
    Ask the CNET Smart Home editors: What smart home tech would you want in your own home?
    CNET Smart Home They bought a house in Louisville dedicated solely to smart home product testing & reviews.
    Opinion: Why Apple needs a dedicated HomeKit app (I commented)
    The More Your Kitchen Evolves, The More It Stays The Same (DigitalTrends.com)
    The Most Over-Hyped Technologies in Healthcare (The Medical Futurist)

    IoT at home: 700 million smart connected homes expected by 2020

    DON’T BELIEVE WHAT YOU READ IN THIS ARTICLE.
    COMMENT: If one thing is clear to me here, it’s that Garner researchers have no clue what they’re talking about but are trying to sound like they do so they can sell their market research and consulting services.

    Just because something can be remotely operated or programmed to operate automatically doesn’t make it smart. To be truly “smart,” a device (or a home) must “learn,” but from what we’ve seen so far even learning devices can be quite stupid. Take the NEST thermostat as an example. It supposedly learns your habits & preferences to adjust temperature automatically, but it doesn’t know if you’re cold because you just ate ice cream or hot because you just vacuumed. So you have to adjust the temp manually – how stupid is that? You see, any change of behavior, however small, means smart home devices must be reprogrammed or retaught. That’s not very smart and an impediment to mass-market adoption.

    The reality of the Smart Home marketing hype, and the promise of this “next big thing,” has eluded us for over 50 years, and I see no sign that it’s much closer now than during the 1957 World’s Fair demo of the RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen. (See http://www.mhealthtalk.com/elusive-smart-home/.)

    The article speaks of smart appliances, but for the most part it makes no sense to put much electronics in white-goods home appliances that otherwise have a useful life of 10-15 years, because the electronics themselves will go obsolete every year or two, and there are far cheaper & better ways to add the functionality developers think we want. (See http://www.mhealthtalk.com/smart-refrigerator/.)

    The article also says, “the gateway is becoming the ‘centre’ for connecting the different devices and home appliances,” but that promise has also been around for more than 15 years. The first work to define gateway standards began with a whitepaper I helped write while still at IBM, and earlier gateways existed before that. (See http://www.slideshare.net/waynecaswell/intersection-gateways and http://mhealthtalk.com/cazitech/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/RG-report1.pdf).

    Some of the gateway standards of that era included TIA TR41.5 (a telecom standard), OSGI (Open Service Gateway initiative), and HomeRF (a now-defunct wireless standard that once dominated the home network market before being replaced by Wi-Fi. (see http://mhealthtalk.com/cazitech/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Gateways2.ppt).

  2. For baby boomers the RCA Whirlpool miracle kitchen was a step back in time listening to the sales woman talking about the domestic concerns of a housewife!!
    How times have changed, especially with all the ready made take out food that eliminates shopping for ingredients, keeping food fresh, cooking it, messing up the kitchen and dishes, and other concerns she covers e.g. bending down to get onions or potatoes out of the lower bin of a refrigerator. When you reach the age where you can’t bend down to pick up an onion, you’re probably not cooking at all. I got such a kick out of this youtube!! I cook and many of us do out of economic necessity (and because I like the food I cook), but then we’d be least likely to have the money for such elaborate technology. I can’t even imagine what someone would do when it starts to break down! And you know it would.
    The camera part does exist for parents with babies and the fast cooking reminded me of microwaves. Of course if someone wants a television in the kitchen, it’s not hard to do. I would give an eye tooth for something that cleaned the kitchen floor and I think the robotics are out there, but again how expensive is it.

    Your point is well made. We don’t live the way we once did and it is far more important to analyze what we do than to simply invent sophisticated technology in a vacuum, far removed from actual human behavior. An ala carte approach seems most likely as people care about different things and would probably want the option to pick and choose.

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