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Intelligent Machines

CES 2014: Smart Homes Open Their Doors

Smart home appliances could become more common thanks to efforts by major companies including Lowe’s and Staples to make gadgets compatible.

Home automation will likely prove too complicated if connected devices can’t work together.

When I interviewed Tony Fadell, the inventor of the iPod and now CEO of Nest, two years ago, he told me that he started the company, which sells smart thermostats and alarms, because existing products for taking control of your home over the Internet were clunky and appealed only to the technically minded (see “Nest’s Control Freaks”). “Home automation is for single geeky guys. It’s not for families,” he said.

Goji smart lock
Door stopper: The Goji smart lock is just one of many Internet-connected home appliances that launched at CES.

The devices on show at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas suggest that Fadell’s assessment no longer holds true. A deluge of Internet-ready home devices and appliances launched at the event. Many appear to be easy to use, and can be combined into larger systems that let someone take command of his home using a single phone app.

Smart home products that got their public debut in Las Vegas included washing machines and ovens from electronics giant LG that respond to voice or text queries, an Internet-connected crockpot from Belkin, and a Wi-Fi-, Bluetooth- and camera-packing door lock from startup Goji.

Potentially more significant in the long run, several companies demonstrated progress in getting smart home devices from different manufacturers to link up and work together. A lack of compatibility between devices has previously forced people to either buy all their kit from one company, or to juggle separate control systems.

One effort comes from office supplies retailer Staples, which used CES to show a significantly expanded number of companies whose products work with the Staples Connect system for home automation, which it launched late in 2013. The system centers on a $99 “hub” that connects to a person’s Internet router and allows a Staples smartphone app to control thermostats, light bulbs, and security systems.

At CES, Staples announced that products from an additional nine companies’ products would be compatible with the system. They include the Goji’s smart door lock and one from Withings, a company that makes Internet-connected health devices such as scales, and which at CES launched a new sleep-monitoring system called Aura.

Such consolidation is in part enabled by the fact that most connected devices use standard protocols such as Wi-Fi to link up. But Mike Harris, CEO of Zonoff, which built the underlying technology for Staples, said that even devices using proprietary standards should be able to interoperate. “We envision a home in which open standards like Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and others work seamlessly alongside traditionally proprietary standards like Lutron’s Clear Connect,” he said. Lutron is a company that was amongst the first to launch wireless control systems for home lighting and other appliances and developed its own technology to do so.

Lowe’s showed an improved version of its own smart home control system, known as Iris, at CES. Iris launched late in 2013 and has a similar design to Staples’. At CES, the company boasted of new partnerships with connected-device companies First Alert, Honeywell, Schlage, and Whirlpool. Lowe’s also announced new moisture sensors and water valve controllers, so that a person can be alerted of a flood in his home, and can shut off the main water supply remotely.

Lowe’s said that its system is compatible with a voice-activated assistant that looks like a bedside alarm clock, called the Ivee. Using it, a person can issue commands to his home such as “Turn on the lights.”

However, most of the connected home products on show at CES and available on the market today aren’t yet able to link up to those systems. And other companies made announcements at the show suggesting they plan to go it alone, releasing ranges of smart home gadgets only compatible with each other. Samsung, for example, used its main CES press conference to announce a system that links up washing machines, air conditioners, and kitchen appliances with its TVs, phones, tablets, and smart watch. The company said it would allow other companies to program their gadgets to work with that system, but didn’t say whether the devices would be compatible with any efforts to unify connected home devices.

Shane Dyer, CEO of Arrayent, which develops connected home technology used in products from brands including Maytag and Whirlpool, told MIT Technology Review he believed that pressure from consumers would ensure that it becomes easier to use connected devices from different companies together.

“There’s a lot of big siloed systems right now, but that’s just how it will start out,” he said. “People get frustrated if there are five, six, or seven apps to control their home.”

Dyer’s company is committed to making it possible to hook up different products and systems in the interest of making home automation widely used, he said.

Another major challenge for home automation is security, with researchers having demonstrated sometimes spectacular failings in the security of smart home products (see “More Connected Homes, More Problems”). None of the companies—bar those peddling door locks—were keen to discuss the issue at CES, and integrating multiple devices into control hubs potentially worsens the risks of a security breach having serious consequences.

Dyer acknowledges those risks, saying that one way of reducing them is to make connected devices relatively simple, so there is less for attackers to target, and so successful attacks have limited impact. Some high-profile companies are heading in a different direction. For example, the founders of Nest boast that their Wi-Fi connected thermostat has similar internals to a smartphone (see “Nest’s Control Freaks”).

“We’re the anti-Nest,” says Dyer. “We tell our customers that a thing should remain a thing and have just enough connectivity to talk to the cloud, not be a full computer, because those are not easy to secure.”

As if to illustrate the problems that increased complexity can bring, Nest recently had to rush out a new version of the software for its thermostats after an update sent out to its customers’ devices caused some to stop working correctly. However, building devices to rely on the cloud for all their intelligence also has its drawbacks, since they can’t stay “smart” if a home’s Internet connection stops working.

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