Much has been written about the “Internet of Things”, and the promise of smart devices making our lives better and more efficient. One of the places most logical for this reality to transform our daily lives is in the home. There are a number of entrepreneurs who have devoted considerable time and attention to the possibility, like Nest CEO Tony Fadell who has been dubbed “a father of the iPod” dating back to his days at Apple, and who is now focused on home automation, designing and manufacturing sensor-driven, Wi-Fi-enabled, self-learning, programmable thermostats and smoke detectors.
Another entrepreneur devoted to smart home technology is Ion Cuervas-Mons, CEO of Think Big Factory, a Madrid-based product and strategic design consultancy that creates opportunities at the intersection between digital and physical realities. I recently caught up with Cuervas-Mons in Hong Kong, and I had a chance to get his perspectives on the smart house technology, to glean examples from his company and others who are thought leaders in this space, and to understand the differences in forms that smart technology might take in places like China and India versus the West.
Peter High: What are the barriers to this new reality? What will determine the pace of development of smart houses?
Ion Cuervas-Mons: The development of a dedicated network will be one of the keys: it will mean that there is a standard network. I don’t think that individual networks like ZigBee (smartthings) will work in the future; it is more complicated to make it compatible with every device. And 3G or Wi-Fi networks for example are too expensive in terms of the hardware and waste too much battery.
PH: How do you see the balance between touch technology versus voice-activated technology?
ICM: In terms of interfaces I believe it is going to be a mix of many technologies — not only touch and voice, and it will depend on the application itself. When you say touch technologies, you are probably referring to screens, I prefer to say tangible interfaces because we will be able to touch or move every domestic object (sofa, pillow, wall, window, table, fridge, etc.) in order to activate or interact with digital information. The interfaces are ready, the key now is to find applications that can give the user something important, useful and create the interactions accordingly. About voice recognition specifically I don’t see it as the main interface in the future, it will work for specific areas but not in general.
PH: Which companies will bring this to life?
ICM: There are a few examples that come to mind. You see our example with the Openarch video.
It is a different approach focusing on interfaces and visualization. User experience is our main goal so we have developed a global-domestic interface that helps the user to interact in a simple way with all the digital information. Openarch integrates gestural interfaces with NFC, RFID, and smartphones to control the house. Energy efficiency is also key at Openarch; according to the latest research knowing the energy consumption in real time allows us to act consequently and save up to 20-30% on our electricity bill. Therefore the way the information is displayed in the domestic environment is very important.
Another formidable player is Smartthings, which is developing many products that allow the user to control different elements of the house via smartphone. It is an interesting approach using a centralized network with ZigBee protocol.
Finally, Nest is another player that has made significant progress. Their CEO Tony Fadell was the lead inventor of the iPod, and you will see that design is the most important value of their products. They have two products: a thermostat and a smoke alarm. The most interesting feature of their products is that the software is developed to learn, so the thermostat learns your daily routines and make decisions automatically. They clearly have a lot planned beyond their current offering.
PH: Will there be companies that aggregate it for us, or will we have to purchase the relevant services from different companies piecemeal?
ICM: I see a different approach in western countries than for example China or India. In western countries, we are not building a lot of houses so products and services will be more plug-and-play with as little installation efforts as possible. So in this case the solution is fragmented. Countries like China and India, where new homes are being built at a much more rapid pace, holistic solutions will reign.
PH: What will house design change based on this vision?
ICM: At Openarch, we design both digital and physical parts, and I am sure that the transformation is all about flexibility. Some parts of the house are becoming digital (for example wall painting or decoration) allowing the user to take control of the physical environment. Imagine if we add to the possibility of using 3D printers to create customized furniture depending on the needs. Everything will be movable in this house.
PH: This suggests a significant hardware change away from televisions
and traditional computing. Do you see the manufacturers of these
products getting involved to a greater extent?
ICM: We are already working with some of them, and they are already
innovating in these areas, but new players will also appear. It is a new concept and the ability to innovate will be very important.
PH: What are the hardware versus the software implications, and what other steps are part of the process to build this?
ICM: Hardware is important but I believe that the key is to develop a software that learns to help the user to be more efficient and creates a very simple interaction. We cannot design a very complicated control panel like a spaceship, it must be a non-intrusive and more intuitively interactive. Interaction and user experience is always the most important part of the equation.
PH: Will this lead to more of a blending of personal and business lives, and what would be the pros and cons of that?
ICM: I believe so. We are already experimenting a lot of changes about that. In the future, we won’t separate between work and home environments.
PH: How long do you think will it be until some meaningful percentage of us live our lives this way?
ICM: It is difficult to say, but everything will go faster when we have a worldwide wireless network dedicated to Internet of things applications. A good example is SIGFOX, they are a network operator with a low cost transmission service dedicated to Internet of Things. They are implementing their network worldwide.
Peter High is the President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the Forum on World Class IT podcast series. Follow him on Twitter @WorldClassIT.