All change – The Evolving Smart Home

4 mins read

The relationship between people and their homes continues to evolve, so what are consumers demanding from products, services and environments?

The home environment has morphed over time to align with our changing, and digitally focused lifestyles. Once considered a humble dwelling for rest and socialising, the role of our homes has expanded and they are now a place of work and entertainment and, more recently, a place where we look after our health, fitness and wellbeing. 

Smart home technology has become more commonplace than ever over the last few years, as people spent significantly more time in their homes, carrying out tasks that would usually happen elsewhere. As a result, there is a shift in the relationship between people and their homes, the artefacts within them and the way in which they consume resources. People are increasingly demanding products, services and environments that support this new form of multi-modal living and allows them to seamlessly switch between modes.   

The quantified home

With technology now scattered across every corner of our home, data is everywhere. Our homes have become the ultimate monitoring hub, with everything from Ring video doorbells to sensory technology now on the market. People are now able to manage their resource consumption by detecting things such as sound pollution and air quality by using volatile organic compound (VOC) sensors and sound level meters. Our smart homes can even understand our behavioural patterns and monitor things that happen on the periphery, through devices like Amazon’s Echo and its voice assistant Alexa.

But what does all this data actually mean for people? We seem to be at the advent of the ‘quantified home’, where our connected surroundings are constantly gathering, hungerly eating up information on every aspect of our lives. But just like we saw with the quantified self some years ago, data on its own is meaningless. Devices and services gathering data from the home need to present it back to users in an accessible and tangible format and provide suggestions for people to optimise aspects of their life.

Data gathering devices also poses opportunities for healthcare at-home solutions. As hospital bed spaces continue to be a recurring issue in the healthcare system such devices can also help patients transition to the comfort of their own homes, and still receive medical attention within a comfortable environment. For example, wearable devices and home sensors can collect data through tracking changes in sleeping patterns, movement, and room temperatures.

Moreover, devices that have their own centralised smart hub within the home can allow connected devices to integrate. However, this introduces more challenges like interoperability, as some companies prevent other brands from being able to connect to them.

Behaviour change for better living

With the rising cost of living impacting consumer behaviour, it is predicted that household energy bills will place an even greater demand on smart home tech. The data collected by such devices should be able to translate into knowledge for users; offering useful tips for managing and lowering energy and water consumption, and helping to reduce costs, all while giving users a much-needed sense of control. According to research by Statista in 2022, over 50 percent of smart meters were in UK homes and small businesses. This could be due to the financial benefits provided by smart meters, as smart meter devices help to track electricity usage which can be sent to your utility company or can be used to understand how your energy is being used in order to make necessary changes to conserve electricity.

There is more to using smart technology in the home than having the ability to encourage responsible resource consumption for monetary value. There are also environmental benefits, as it can help consumer to reduce their carbon footprint by reducing emissions. 

Devices that require low-power will also be high on the agenda for consumers, from smart speakers and refrigerators, to smart thermostats. As the market is becoming increasingly competitive, these devices will have to work both harder and smarter to attract the attention of consumers. We are already seeing improvements in these areas, through the development of energy harvesting technology for low power devices that use wasted energy e.g. heat, light and other electromagnetic waves to power other electrical outlets.

Interoperability is key

Interoperability across various devices and platforms will be key to the future of the smart home. The current smart home can be difficult and messy for users to navigate, requiring them to select the right peripheral devices to connect to the right hub, resulting in consumers being tied into specific device ecosystems.

A potential solution to this problem is MATTER, a new smart home interoperability protocol with standard data models, designed to ensure that smart home devices can work across different ecosystems. Conceived as a joint effort by some of big players in the industry, over 170 companies are currently involved, including Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Google and the Zigbee Alliance.

But, what does this mean for users? In theory, interoperability protocols such as MATTER would mean that an Amazon Echo Show display should be able to work as seamlessly with a Google Nest doorbell as it does with Google’s own Ring product offering. In some ways, connectivity would transcend the brand and its own ecosystem, enabling users to freely mix-and-match smart home devices, services and platforms. That level of interoperability would also allow the different systems or software to exchange and make use of information they would otherwise gather and act on individually.

Getting our smart home devices to work together and understand each other poses numerous advantages for consumers and will go some way to relieve the confusion and frustration that many of us often experience from interacting with multiple interfaces.

The tricky business of control

It would be wrong to focus solely on the benefits that the future smart home poses, without acknowledging a darker side that lurks in the periphery. Concerns around hacking, data privacy, systems-down, power outage, loss of control, and exclusivity driven by price or tech literacy are all legitimate and real. Given these immediate concerns, smart tech within our homes, our sanctuaries so to speak, will continue to divide opinion. Will it truly revolutionise our daily lives for the better or will it become a hinderance? The cybersecurity risks involved does shed light on how data privacy can be protected, especially with the wide range of cameras available for purchase online. Some organisations are making changes to mitigate these risks, for example, the Connectivity Standards Alliance (CSA) has formed a data privacy working group to create a privacy certification for smart devices.

The scenario of smart homes ‘gone wrong’ certainly captures our imagination. From unnerving TV dramas, such as American techno-thriller Mr. Robot and, more recently, the British horror drama Red Rose, these dramatised portrayals of techno-dystopia continue to seed uncertainty and doubt. In that context, smart home devices and services need to address a deeper, more complex question – when are consumers going to have the confidence and trust needed to handover the control of their homes to smart technology? What would it take to alleviate the fear of giving up full control?

These are not technology questions; they are human questions that remind us of the fine balance of control and trust between people and machines.

Smart home brands need to look beyond technology and data and learn from other industries, such as mobility (autonomous vehicles) and medicine (robot-assisted surgery) to create experiences that people can trust.

Author details: Jamie Buckley, Creative Director at PDD, an innovation consultancy