The Future Comes Home

Smart home picks up the pace at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show and Las Vegas Market.

Kimberley Wray
03/27/2019
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Ask any technophile (and for that matter many consumers) about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — the annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association — and they’ll tell you that the show is famous both for sheer size and whiz-bang presentations of futuristic products. The most recent event in Las Vegas proved no exception with more than two million square feet packed with gadgets, true innovation and plenty of breathless reporting about air taxis, self-driving cars and requisite references to “The Jetsons.” 

On the home front at least, the future is, in many ways, here. According to new research presented at the show by Brad Russell of Dallas-based Parks Associates, approximately 32 percent of U.S. broadband homes own at least one connected device (a category which includes smart phones and tablets), while 24 percent own a smart home-specific device. And, the average number of connected devices per household is now 10.4, a number that might actually seem low to any parent who has had to ban the use of electronics at the family dinner table. According to Parks Associates, the stats will only continue to rise: By 2021, U.S. consumers are expected to purchase more than 485 million connected devices.

Not surprisingly, much of the conversation in the smart home category at CES centered on the Internet of Things (IoT), which is the concept of connecting devices to the internet or to each other, to deliver what Parks described as “a delightful, unified experience” for consumers. With the leading tech manufacturers promising fully IoT-ready intelligent products by 2020, what this means in plain English is that the time is fast approaching when everything from refrigerators to window shades to the family car will be linked, while housekeeping robots and next-generation digital assistants will likely facilitate our day-to-day activities. 

Alexa, Order a ‘Get Smart Quick’ Guide 

Enabling all this progress are the so-called smart speakers activated by artificial intelligence like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, which let users search the internet via voice. They also double as the central hub for apps and smart devices. For now, smart home is dominated by products that control lights, locks and thermostats. 

Relates Kevin Weirich, Director of Global Product Management at Resideo, which was recently spun off from Honeywell, “Smart home is about products that recognize when you’re home and away automatically. My wife and I have four small kids, so when we leave the house, it’s very hectic in the mud room and it’s a game to get to the car as fast as we can. The last thing that we want to think about is whether we remembered to set the thermostat back or whether we remembered to close the garage door when we leave. My wife gets in the car and pulls away and the lights shut off and the blinds close, and when we’re all out to dinner and the kids ask if the dog is okay, Dad can pull out his phone and show them that the dog is not barking. Smart home is not about the technology. It’s about consumers looking for simplified solutions. They want comfort while they are home and peace of mind while they are away. Smart home is about living a less stressful life.”

37 Degree Smart Home table
Smart features like the ability to play music are subtly integrated into this coffee table design from 37 Degree Smart Home. Tap the table three times to turn on the sound system and connect to your music via bluetooth. 

Inside the Resideo space in Las Vegas, it was clear that the company is setting its sights on the entire home, with comfort and security solutions on the exterior, on the wall, behind the wall and in the Cloud. Indeed, one of the key words in the smart home realm now is “interoperability,” the opportunity for everything to interact and work to make a connected home truly smart. In other words, that smart thermostat may just be a gateway drug destined to lure an ever-growing number of consumers far deeper into the smart home universe, where they will have greater expectations than ever before about every single product that goes into it. 

“A lot of people think of connectivity as this futuristic trend that the masses are moving toward, and that’s true, but it’s also true that the real power of a smart home is that connectivity can have real, tangible benefits in your daily life,” said Whirlpool’s Philip Rynearson inside the show-stopping WLabs space. Here, demonstrations were taking place of the Smart Countertop Oven (coming this spring) which uses food recognition software based on algorithms to identify what you want to prepare and then bakes, broils, roasts, slow cooks, dehydrates or air dries it to perfection. 

Also at Whirlpool, the Zera Food Recycler, a breakthrough new kitchen appliance that converts food scraps to fertilizer in as little as 24 hours, will likely encourage consumers to grow more fruits, vegetables and ingredients to use with Yummly, a free recipe discovery app that the company acquired as a start-up in 2017. The app currently boasts some two million recipes and more than 30 million users. The Pro version comes complete with a feature called “ingredient recognition.” Using the camera on your phone to scan items in your refrigerator (it can read packaging) and identify what you’ve got on hand, the app will suggest recipes that use them. Then the app’s celebrity chefs can walk you step by step through getting dinner on the table via your Google Home Hub screen. In the concept stage: The Whirlpool Connected Hub Wall Oven with augmented reality will one day further automate the whole process. 

Google, Show Me the Furniture 

Of all the ground-breaking categories displayed under the smart home umbrella at CES, furniture was scarce. The notable exception was 37 Degree Smart Home, a year-old newcomer headquartered in Guangzhou, China, which showed its smart sofa, a piece already garnering recognition in the global design award arena. Along with benefits like temperature adjustment, intelligent sensor light and a wireless charging dock, the sofa will remind sedentary couch potatoes to actually get up.

“Furniture has not gone through any real evolution in terms of appearance, functionality and upgrade to the user experience for decades,” says CEO James Guan. “We aim to revolutionize furniture to make it smart, beautiful and interconnected, combining technology and aesthetics to make life more enjoyable.” At the moment, the company is mainly selling its smart furniture designs on JD and Youzan, two of the largest e-commerce platforms in China, but its appearance at CES signals the company’s active intent to enter the U.S. market. Stay tuned. 

Len Burke, Vice President of Marketing at Klaussner walked the show. “People ask me why I go, and I go because the timing in early January means we can work on prepping the showroom here for the Vegas market later in the month and because it’s so inspirational. I’ve always thought our industry follows automotive, and this year, with more automotive companies like Infinity and Acura, CES actually felt a lot like a car show to me. And if they can make it so you can just lay your phone down to charge in a car, why can’t we?”

He continued: “The technology being developed is incredible, and it’s already a way of life for younger consumers. It’s an experience. Did you see the big roll-up screen at LG? [The company revealed a sexy, paper-thin, 65-inch screen at CES that’s so flexible it can roll away on voice command.] It has amazed me how many people I’ve spoken to since that have already seen that TV on the news. Not one person I’ve showed the video to has said, ‘Gosh, I haven’t seen that yet.’” Additionally, though LG has yet to name a price for the eye-popping product, Burke has no doubt there will be consumers ready and willing to step up.

“In our industry, there is not a lot to talk about, and the message consumers hear most often about furniture is ‘It’s 50 percent off, and by the way, you don’t have to pay for it for five years.’ I don’t know how this smart home technology is going to work its way into furniture if we remain so price driven.”

Abbyson iTable
Abbyson has introduced the flip-down iTable, where consumers can charge devices and listen to music through the bluetooth speaker system.

Certainly, for now, technological innovation news in the furniture sector is largely found in the motion category, where smart home connectivity is not part of the conversation … yet. At the Las Vegas Market Abbyson Living pushed the envelope in power motion with the introduction of its new flip-down iTable, made to be integrated into any of the company’s three-seat sofa silhouettes. With power plugs, USB auxiliary ports and wireless contact charging, users can connect their phone, relax and play music through the Bluetooth speaker system. Abbyson also unveiled Coco, a voice-activated recliner with massage and heat and an under-glow to keep consumers from tripping on their way to the kitchen for a refill during movie nights in a darkened room. Like a high-end car, Coco’s settings can be personalized for the driver. 

Also at the Vegas market, Jackson Furniture’s Catnapper brand unveiled its first two styles of voice command interactive reclining furniture. An activation button, followed by the sound of your voice, will fulfill a wish to lift your feet, recline, activate the headrest, expand or contract lumbar support or close all the features simultaneously, returning to “home position” smoothly and quietly. 

Jackson Furniture Catnapper
The Catnapper from Jackson Furniture allows for voice command to activate sofa positions.

“I don’t think we’ll see smart home truly intersecting with furniture within the next 12 months, but I think that people need to start thinking about the concept and about product development because it’s going to take a little time to figure that out,” says Lisa Cody, Vice President of Marketing at Twin Star Home. “I think we’re taking some good baby steps with the ability for people to have furniture that meets their needs above and beyond looking nice with multifunction. For us, that means lift desks that go up and down and include technology that will let you know that it’s time to stand up. That makes sense. So is the inclusion of sound in furniture with Bluetooth capabilities, and we’re starting to see that. I do, however, think that it’s really important that as an industry, if we do decide to move into the IoT space in furniture, we’ve got to get it right the first time because consumers have very high expectations. When we think about innovation, it has to delight, but it also has to deliver on expectations.”

At least one well-known industry veteran believes that all the whiz-bang technology may actually be beside the point. “Here’s the opportunity with smart home,” says marketing guru Ed Tashjian, Tashjian Marketing. “The stuff actually works, and it’s great, but in order to get the products to work together, you have to buy certain hardware and you have to be able to set it up. So there was a time when people wanted to decorate their homes and they didn’t know how to do it, and they hired an interior designer to come meet with them, who asked them what their goals were, about their travels and personal tastes and then helped them buy all the things they needed from the paint to the carpet to the sofas and lamps. Now, there will be a new kind of interior designer, and they will come and make your home smart. 

“When you’re selling drills, you’re selling the promise of holes,” he posits. “We don’t sell furniture. What we sell is the promise of a beautiful, comfortable home. Smart home is a zeitgeist, and from ‘The Flintstones’ to ‘The Jetsons,’ that hasn’t changed. We just have nicer stuff now. It’s about feathering the nest and having a warm and comfy haven to come home to, and all of the smart home tools make it more comfortable and more secure. What our industry needs, and what designers need to do now, is to reimagine their concept of home.” 

At The Forefront of Smart Home

Adobestock smart home smart phone
(Photo: zhu difeng - stock.adobe.com)

Still not quite sure yet what any of this means for interior designers, retailers and manufacturers in the home furnishings business today? 

At the Philips space at CES, viewers stopped to take a good, long look into the company’s Smart Mirror concept for the bathroom, designed to connect to a portfolio of Philips devices. The mirror automatically pairs with one of your devices when you set up it and uses location, motion and pressure sensors to provide feedback on a variety of activities via an integrated app. This takes multi-tasking to an entirely new level, enabling the viewer to keep tabs on everything from how much pressure you’re using while brushing to spikes in blood pressure. While brushing, shaving or applying eyelashes (there’s a built-in make-up selector to help test different looks), the mirror is of course broadcasting your favorite music and news stations, should you so desire.  

FOCUSED ON WELL-BEING

Kohler, a global leader in kitchen and bath products, took home a CES 2019 Best of Innovation Award for its Sensate touchless kitchen faucet in the smart home category. It allows users to turn the water on or off and dispense measured amounts of water through simple voice commands or motion-based interactions. Beyond the sanitary benefits from keeping dirty hands off the faucet during food prep (think raw chicken breasts), there is also conservation to consider. A sensor on the faucet valve monitors water usage, displayed on the Kohler Konnect app and will alert the homeowner if unusual usage is detected. 

Attendees in the Kohler space also ooh-and-aahed over an intelligent, Alexa-compatible toilet (just let that sit a minute), and the Veil Lighted Bathroom Collection featuring a freestanding bath, lighted mirror and vanity, which work together as a system. The modern design aesthetic is combined with automated, synchronized lighting options that work off circadian rhythms to more naturally enhance well-being.  

Ergomotion Alexa

Moen meanwhile partnered with Flo Technologies to introduce Flo by Moen, a water monitoring and leak detection system that gets installed on the main water supply of a home and can detect a leak anywhere within as small as a single drop of water per minute. That’s behind the walls, in the foundation, the toilet, sink, whatever. Companies like South Korea-based Coway focused on indoor air quality. Along with a number of sleek product intros, their app allows one to check real-time air quality indoors as well as out. 

A SMART NIGHT’S SLEEP

This is where the smart-home revolution begins to intersect with concepts of personal health and wellness. Just ask bedding companies like Sleep Number and Ergomotion, both of which stood out among the plethora of sleep-related technologies designed to improve your life by improving your sleep. At Sleep Number, the 360 smart bed experience enabled visitors to see, hear and feel their bed intuitively sensing and automatically adjusting under the largest horizontal LED screen at the show, while Ergomotion tested its EI or Ergomotion Intelligence. 

“At this point, we’re launching one product, a Wi-Fi device that attaches to the base of your Ergomotion adjustable bed, but it’s not just about telling Alexa to raise the head of the bed,” explained Lisa Kelly, who heads up marketing. “From a long-term perspective, our vision is to become the preeminent health and wellness sleep technology company, one that moves beyond countering snoring and acid reflux, to actually start saving peoples’ lives. To be able to say, you need to pay attention to the fact that your heart is not beating correctly at night, or it’s time to take your medicine. As consumers, we want our drapes to just move and our coffee to turn on in the morning, and certainly that’s part of smart home, but our focus is much more visceral and transformative.”

Downstairs at Eureka Park, the section at CES devoted to start-ups, attendees could experience the motion of the patent-pending Rocking Bed or a Smart Sofa prototype from French company Miliboo, an Innovation Award-winning product that is not actually in production just yet.

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