MarketingData-Driven MarketingThe Smart Home: The Last Frontier

The Smart Home: The Last Frontier

Just what exactly is a "smart" home? Columnist Stephen Hay explains the relationship between a house and the Internet, and how marketers stand to benefit.

The smart home is up there with smart clothes and smart cars as one of the new frontiers that’s going to change people’s lives. It is an area that has been quietly making good progress under the radar, while we all get excited about “new” phones and smart watches. 

What Is It? 

Broadly, smart homes bring together home automation and smart devices with intelligent decision support and networking capabilities to make your life at home more efficient, more convenient, more personal, safer, more fun, and perhaps, for somebody, more profitable. 

Where Are We At? 

The not so sexy sounding HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) is where it all starts. Intelligent management of these services is common in commercial buildings and is now finding its way into the home. It is probably a good starting point, as the potential energy savings justifies the investment in tools and networks, which makes it a little easier for people to get used to systems running their lives. Smart systems can adjust temperature and lighting as people move around in the house. Settings can be personalized, so say if the dad likes the temperature a little cooler, the system would go easy on the heating when it is just him in the room. 

Health, Wellness, and Security 

Security and access control devices for the home already exist along with some pretty smart security management applications. And smarter homes offer surreal opportunities for the ill or disabled to live more independently. Sensors that can track a retiree’s movements around the home, summoning help if they fall or if their vital signs dip below a certain range, could give peace of mind to everyone. And having addressed physical wellbeing, the smart home potentially addresses emotional needs as well. Paro the baby harp seal robot is more than 10 years old now, so it is hardly a pup, but is said to be replacing messy, organic cats and dogs as a source of comfort to the elderly in Japan.

As unpleasant as this sounds, your smart toilet will do a quick analysis of your last visit and make some helpful suggestions to your phone, your fridge, or even straight to your grocery store, for some recommended dietary changes. 

Everyday Appliances Come to Life 

With our wired (actually wireless) homes, all sorts of previously inanimate objects spring to life, although hopefully not in the way envisaged in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with the ensuing chaos. An early commercial entrant was the cute, robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba that zips around your home cleaning carpets, avoiding the cat and recharging itself when it is done. A sign of its cultural acceptability, Roomba has a following of innovative and creative hackers that have taught their Roombas to work as a printer or even to play basketball.

Other intelligent devices are following: Smart TVs are now standard in many homes, changing from passive heat sources to active displays with which we interact, choose content, and from which we buy. The concept of second screen at home is now common as people multitask and consume content in new and interactive ways.

Microwaves and traditional ovens will talk to you, making hopefully helpful suggestions about how to cook food, and your refrigerator will keep its own inventory and help with your shopping list.

For those of us that have always struggled with washing machines and the sinister sounding mysteries of mixing coloreds with non-coloreds, smart clothes of the future will work out for themselves just how dirty they are, tell the machine just how they want to be washed, and with whom they would rather not be sharing the tub. And hopefully, the washing machine will be smart enough to tell you that your smartphone is still in your trouser pocket. 

The Usual Challenge 

As you can imagine, a house full of devices all trying to squawk instructions at each other could become a United Nations of chaotic languages and misunderstandings. If we are going to trust these devices to do something like run the bath for the kids, we really want make sure they get the temperature right. There needs to be standardization.

Like many technological advances, there is potential for format wars as different vested interests slug it out for supremacy. Apple and Google are rumored to be working on their own smart home architecture and there are plenty more standards out there. Without trying to pick winners, one of my favorites (if only for their cheeky URL) is the start up IFTTT. It is a simple end user protocol that lets you set up conditional instructions for different things.

For example, if the recipe on my tablet calls for eggs, check with my smart fridge that I have some. Or perhaps, if my wristband detects that I am a bit stressed, turn the mood lighting to a soothing green and play some whale song music. IFTTT extends well beyond the home to let you establish rules for the rest of your online life, usefully helping to manage the clutter of social media content. Probably important, if you consider that the smart home does not end when you go out the front door.

As with any format war, it slows progress and acceptance; no one wants to be stuck living in a Betamax enabled home. 

Brave New World of Marketing 

Advertisers have for decades worked hard and paid good money to get into people’s homes. That is after all how commercial television came about. And the marketing industry wants to ride the smart home wave all the way to your living room, kitchen, and bathroom. 

We are seeing the acceleration of electronic, social, and mobile commerce as it becomes more seamless and easier to shop and spend. With all these home devices tweeting real-time data about your behavior, consumption, and needs, there is a risk that this could be a little overwhelming.

  • Your smart TV is cleverly substituting network ads with targeted content just for you 
  • Your tablet is pinging you information about some cool shoes just like the ones being worn right now on the TV
  •  Your fridge is quietly talking to the supermarket to compile a shopping list of things that they collectively think you need to buy 
  • Your washing machine is demanding that those jeans really do need a different type of soap powder 
  • And that cute little vacuum cleaner has just worked out your carpet is really getting quite old and you really should get a new one 

With all these intelligent devices telling you what to buy and what to do, there has to be a quid pro quo. In return for consciously trading off a little bit of privacy, in return for a little bit more commercial intrusion, consumers should expect, even demand, something in return. That might be better products, cheaper prices, faster or more personal service, or perhaps more reward points.

It is up to each consumer to decide what’s more important for them and demand that more personalized, customized relationship that makes this trade off worthwhile and beneficial. It is up to the brands to fulfill on that. Home sweet home! 

Image via Shutterstock.

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