Innovation in the Smart Home Segment

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Have you ever heard the expression “If these walls could talk…”?  Well, it’s starting to become a reality! The IoT space and in particular the smart home category has been very active in the last couple of years with innovation, alliances, and platform rollouts that are in fact enabling different features in your home to talk with each other.

In June 2014, Apple announced the Homekit framework that supports device discovery and communication and control of those devices and the first Homekit enabled devices started shipping in June this year. In November last year, GE partnered with Quirky to launch Wink, a smart hub that connects to several wink sensors as well as partner sensors and devices, which can be controlled with a single app. In June this year, Google launched the Brillo platform that enables an ecosystem of devices and apps around the connected home. Brillo allows both device manufacturers and app developers to contribute to the ecosystem without worrying about underlying protocol support or interoperability. They rolled out their own protocol called Weave that makes this possible. As of today, Nest is the only company with Brillo support but that will change in coming months. And most recently, in September this year, Samsung has announced a new SmartThings hub that will communicate with and control all the SmartThings sensors and devices through an open standard and system that will also enable interoperability with other manufacturers that support it.

 So with all these platforms and several other companies and startups operating in this space, where is the puck really headed and what would be a winning strategy in this scenario?

A winning strategy

We believe the following fundamental approaches define a winning strategy to stay ahead of this innovation curve.

Open and Interoperable standards

Most of the solutions in the market today are closed eco-systems with limited inter-operability with third party devices and sensors. Making two devices and systems from two different vendors talk to each other is almost impossible unless they are pre-certified. For an ordinary user, having to use and manage multiple smart systems inside a single home could be a nightmare. And without the ability for devices or independent solutions to talk to each other, much of the potential of the smart systems will remain untapped. This is where the open standards and design with interoperability plays a big role. It will, for example, allow an energy monitoring system from one vendor to talk to the washing machines from another vendor. This will be significant when one considers the scales and different geographies where these systems will be deployed.

Intelligence in the cloud

For the end-user most of the value of the system comes from the automation it can offer. At an individual device level this can be simple rules like altering the temperature in a room depending on whether any motion was sensed in the last 15 minutes and given the time of the year and day. Co-relating across devices for example, the camera could turn on and start recording when a window sensor indicates “window open” in the middle of the night. A very strong differentiator for a company could be to build a platform that has several such recipes baked into a rules engine that is based on device types and agnostic to specific devices.  The system should also allow advanced users to create custom recipes or download from a recipes marketplace – crowd source the innovation with an open recipe format, much like IFTTT.

 The next level of innovation of course is a system that LEARNS from the inhabitants of the house, both by their explicit actions and inferred behaviors. An example of explicit action is residents dimming the lights at certain times in the evening. An example of inferred behavior is that the system learns by observing motion sensor patterns that typically a family has retired to the bedrooms by 11:30 pm at latest. The system can use these learnings to optimize power usage in the house, or facilitate routine and repetitive tasks like re-ordering the usual detergent etc. Advanced versions of these systems can interface with the smart meters and negotiate variable pricing plans for power consumption with the utility company depending on the usage patterns. This type of financial incentives will be a strong magnet for adoption.

End-to-end solution

Companies with a pure hardware (sensors, devices, appliances) play or pure software play will find it hard to find traction. It is important to find a good balance between well-designed, unobtrusive, affordable and easy-to-setup hardware that is offered with an open ecosystem of protocols & APIs and analytics powered intelligence in the cloud.

Security

Encrypting all data and communications between the sensors, devices, gateway, and all the way into the cloud backend is no longer an optional thing (if it ever really was) but is basic hygiene. The challenge is to be able to do this on hardware with very little computing power and a pressing need to conserve battery power. Recent advances in low power cryptography make this a bit more tractable.

Plug and Play

To put it pithily, people expect things to just work. No one wants to spend time “configuring and setting up” a new appliance or sensors that they are installing. Hence a key strategy towards wider consumer adoption lies in making devices and sensors that can be auto-detected and configured by the gateway (and vice versa) using standard protocols. Doing this without compromising the security of your home network is a challenge (but doable), particularly when it comes to recognizing third party devices.

Mobile first for control and dashboard

Every major player in smart sensors and home automation has mobile apps to control the appliances and view sensor notifications. A mobile-first strategy is about creating a clutter-free, intuitive, action and/or insight oriented, and highly responsive user experience that is available on the go. It is used as a control interface, for monitoring and tracking and also for delivering just the right dose of informational and actionable alerts.

Summary

To summarize, the winning strategy in the smart and connected home technology segment is about creating end-to-end solutions (from sensors to analytics), interoperability with open standards based design, secure communication and an intuitive user experience.

Image Credits: FTI Consulting

Authors: Pandurang Kamat and Umesh Puranik, CTO Organization, Persistent Systems

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