If the likes of Amazon and Google are to be believed, a ‘connected world’ is just around the corner. But how useful will the new technology really be?
For some, the idea of your fridge speaking to your cooker, then informing you – while you’re at work – that there’s not enough milk for the planned baking exercise is the stuff of sci-fi dreams. For others, it’s more of a dystopian nightmare – tech intruding into an otherwise already over-cluttered day. And yet, the connected life for consumers has been heralded for some years now – each promising that it’s just around the corner.
“But we are at a tipping point,” insists Lionel Guicherd-Callin, European head of product management for Nest, a market leader in connected thermostats and security devices. “There are more efficient ways to get products into the home now, and the products are that much better, too. If you look at the time it took tablets to become widespread, uptake for connected devices for the home is very good, especially given that many home appliances typically have a 10-year life cycle. Those early adopters aside, we don’t tend to upgrade these things like we do our phones.”
Certainly, the last year or so has seen a proliferation of new ‘smart’ additions to the sphere of connectivity, many from start-up companies: Amazon’s Echo/Alexa and Google’s Google Home hubs, Belkin’s WeMo switch, August’s lock, Emerson Sensi’s thermostat, Ring’s doorbell, SleepNumber’s It Bed, Neato’s Botvac cleaner, Kuna Toucan’s camera, Lifx’s colour-changing bulbs and BeOn’s security smart ones, WeMo’s slow cooker and June’s oven, to name just a few. And, yes, Samsung’s Family Hub refrigerator will display its contents via your smartphone.
LG will go one further – its latest fridge, launched in January, is powered by the Amazon hub. Rather than just use the door, this fridge not only allows you to use touchscreen or an app to see – via panoramic camera – what’s inside your fridge, but will also warn you if products are near their expiry date. Going one further, the dreams of the technophile will be realised: at last they will even be able to talk to a kitchen appliance. This is the first fridge with voice recognition. It will remind you of birthdays and anniversaries. A device for chilling foods has become a kind of virtual assistant, a chilled Robbie the Robot.
Not that the advent of the connected home – or, for that matter, the connected person, car, aircraft, drone, factory or city – is without its obstacles. Certainly many providers of such products have, says Guicherd-Callin, made a crucial step-change in starting to think like consumers rather than like engineers. “Building in simplicity has been essential,” he says. “If a device is linked to your smartphone, the first question can’t be whether it’s compatible with Apple or Android, for example. It’s very easy for the tech industry to get carried away with the tech.”
Indeed, the industry’s enthusiasm for a wholesale digital overhaul of our homes is, in the medium term, likely to appeal primarily to those early adopters. Guicherd-Callin insists that, beyond these tech-savvy kinds, most consumers remain both confused by what the market has to offer, and a little suspicious of the supposed appeal of “a Jetsons house, the idea of which can feel a little gimmicky.” Rather, he says, take up is likely to be slow, steady but incremental – only as each system proves its benefits. “That may be to save energy, or to allow someone to monitor their home while they’re away,” he says.
the digitally-assisted life may be just around the corner. But that’s just a first step. What most people imagine is some way off
Dr. Marwan Fayed
How feasible is it?
The advent of 5G is predicted to offer a 100-fold throughput over 4G, making a connected life at least feasible. But even then there are big picture concerns – the lack of interoperability, security, privacy, safety, ownership of the data these devices will generate, decipherability of that data, connectivity issues and, on a day-to-day basis, just trust in reliability. These are huge concerns, even to a consumer segment – into which many of us fall – used to devices of all sorts freezing or crashing, and that blithely allows faceless corporations to monitor its movements and access some of its most private information. How comfortable, for instance, might you be with your life or medical insurer rating its charge to you based on its assessment of the food you eat, as reported to it by that fridge?
Then there is the issue of energy. Remarkably, the internet already accounts for 10 per cent of global energy usage. Yet the internet of things has been predicted to put an additional 50 billion devices into the world, all dependent on it for operation. The electricity grid itself may not have capacity – ironically, given that connected products often claim to bring in improved energy efficiencies; for the moment there remains a stark disconnect between the environmental savings claimed by the connected life, and the energy that will be required by so many extra (rather than replacement) gadgets.
Furthermore, the digital world may be ethereal, but here we’re ultimately talking about hardware – machines that need to be well-designed and are expensive to develop. “Before we put planes in the sky or cars on the road they go through immense testing, because the consequences are serious,” says Dr. Marwan Fayed, a lecturer in computer science and leading researcher into the allocation of wireless resources at Stirling University, UK. “The need is the same for connected devices. Yet the industry has yet to agree on so many things to make this possible.”
What could go wrong?
It’s a distrust in half-cocked products rushed to market, Fayed further argues, that means a connected life could be two generations away – one to make the shift, a second to fully embrace it. “I desperately want my life to be more autonomous than it is now – I want to be able to ask my coffee machine, from my bed, to get making my latte. But such a system would only have to go wrong rarely for the amount of energy I’d have to invest to correct that small failure to spoil the whole benefit for me,” he says. “At the end of the day, I might just as easily get up and switch the coffee machine on myself. It’s the same with tablets. We still use pen and paper because sometimes that’s just easier. Yes, the digitally-assisted life – connectivity to help you do what you already do – may be just around the corner. But that’s just a first step. What most people imagine is some way off.”
Fayed is not alone in his frustration. A 2015 survey of the North American market conducted by software developers Icontrol revealed that almost half of consumers already found that their current devices not working together caused more stress in their lives. Whether anyone really wants a fully connected life in the first place is still up for debate, too, largely because what has already become a reality has yet to offer a benefit convincing enough to warrant replacing, for example, expensive home hardware that seems to do its job adequately well as it is – the same survey showed a major gap between everyday consumers and early (and typically younger) adopters wowed by what it calls the ‘cool factor’ of new gadgets.
The problem for the former was, as yet, an inability to see a real advantage in the ‘internet of things’ – something that for most remains a rather nebulous term despite hopes that, the survey says, in the long term it might bring greater productivity and a better work/leisure balance, an increased ease of access to entertainment anywhere in the house, a better anticipation of one’s needs and better connectivity with friends and family; arguably all things we have enough of already.
In the meantime, though, small wonder that those connected devices that most appeal tend to be of the more mundane kind: home security systems (monitoring and remote locking), for example, adjustable outdoor lighting, or intelligent thermostats. It is hard not to chuckle – given the plethora of gizmos we may take up – that the survey revealed 68 per cent of respondents most of all want a master remote control for all the household preferences. It won’t be one to misplace down the back of the sofa.
How could it work in the long term?
In the long term, we might well need a central hub – a master gadget, that we understand best, and that understands us – to tend to all of the other gadgets. We will need, in effect, a real Robbie the Robot. Jibo, a start-up company backed by LG and Samsung and launching a home robot by the same name this year, sees its product as being a step towards just that. “I have three home automation devices at home and the interfaces are all different,” says Jibo’s CEO Steve Chambers. “If I got knocked down by a bus today they’d never be used again. There are so many opportunities in this world of connectivity, but a major issue is whether they can be made more human, whether, at their most sophisticated, they can have personality and agency – not just switch the house lights on when you get in, but tell you you’ve left the iron on before you go out.”
Yet demand for even more basic forms of connectivity, anecdotally at least, is there – there’s an expectation of, and a latent longing for our technological lives to be better streamlined and more seamless. Extrapolated, the Icontrol survey found that half of the North American population was likely to buy a home connected device over the coming year – a figure that seems hard to accept at face value. “But consumers are loving our products,” says a confident Guicherd-Callin. “Revenue year on year has grown by 50 per cent and there’s no sign of it slowing down. The realisation for us is that consumers are not thinking about ‘smart products’ per se, but for devices that solve specific problems. That’s what the connected life will really bring.”
Indeed, when that properly comes, the effects could be far more radical than the ability, sitting in the office, to find out that you’re short of cornflakes at home – and not least for the sheer amount of tech we will surround ourselves with. Tech market research company Gartner predicts – somewhat over-enthusiastically – that within five years, the average home could contain 500 smart devices (but just try even listing 500 distinct devices, let alone smart ones).
What could the other applications be?
Peter Cochrane, ex-chief technologist for BT and now a consultant to the tech industries, sees greater connectivity and its information feedback as transforming first world macro concerns. He cites improvements to personal health, for example, with connectivity likely to also usher in easier, happier lives for the growing numbers of elderly – the demographic time bomb that is set to transform many nations for the worse over the coming decades unless action is taken now. He also argues that, gazing more deeply into the crystal ball, connectivity could change society’s operation on a more profound level still.
“Healthcare is moving into more of a DIY model – people are going to assume greater responsibility for their bodies, and connectivity, the internet of things, is ideally placed to help that. Constant feedback, which is what it gives, is what you need to moderate your behaviour,” he argues. “But in the longer run the effects of connectivity could be much more wide reaching. Imagine a chip in an old car being able to ‘talk’ to a new tyre in order to improve a car’s performance, for example – I think this flow of data, this constant data exchange, could transform the way we maintain many of the things we use. It’s going to be a major boost to just-in-time manufacturing too, since manufacturers will be able to better predict what’s actually needed and when.
“But the fact is that, as beneficial as these advances may prove to be, they are not going to come in a hurry,” he adds. “We’ve been saying the connected world is just around the corner for 20 years. It’s more a question of it crawling into view. But then it will really change the way we live.”