This year’s CE Week is a wrap, and the consumer electronics world is still in a tizzy to connect with every part of our lives.
It was to be expected, this rise of devices beyond smartphones that share data wirelessly and learn about their users. But it finally seems manufacturers are embracing the notion that other gadgets do not have to imitate every single thing smartphones can do.
CE Week, an exhibition and conference hosted last week in New York by the Consumer Electronics Association, brought out a few eye-catching products. Sharp put on a glitzy show for its new Aquos 4K Ultra HD television, the promised next-generation of high-end video.
There were also clever toy robots from Ozobot and yet another player in 3D printing, RoBo 3D, on display (as seen in the slideshow above). But there was an underlying theme of connected devices that discover what people want. That also brought up a concern some have about exposing too much of their lives through their gadgets.
The discussion does not get more personal than in homes or cars, which can be hubs for technology use.
I chatted about the residential piece of the puzzle with Brad Paine, general manager for Honeywell’s Lyric platform, after a panel on the Internet of Things. Lyric is a new smart thermostat, and rival to Nest, that can automatically set temperatures for various conditions—say when someone is or is not at home.
Paine believes that innovation in this space should focus less on the gadgets themselves and more on what people need. There are small problems for everyone, he said, that collectively can be big problems for technology to solve. That can include knowing if a garage door is accidentally left open.
As more devices in the home get “smarter,” we begin to approach the automated future promised in “The Jetsons” and sci-fi movies. Does that mean homes may one day detect if squirrels are ripping up the insulation in the attic? It sounds a bit farfetched, but Paine did not totally dismiss the possibility. “That particular scenario is probably more on the 10 to 15-year horizon, I would guess,” he said. “As long as it makes sense for a consumer and solves problems, it’ll probably happen.”
In spite of the opportunity for connected devices to flourish in the home, it is not likely they will see the rapid replacement rate of other technology. For instance, when a new generation of smartphone gets released, a stampede of consumers typically follows. But Paine said home appliances are expected to be in place for five or more years. For its part, he said Honeywell has more ideas based on Lyric in the works for this year. The company also plans to get its smart devices that are already on the market functioning with the Lyric software platform.
During the panel, a question came up about the security of personal information in connected homes. Allowing the Internet of Things to spread into one’s house can create points of access for potential hacking, said speaker Andrew Brooks. He is co-founder and chief operating officer of SmartThings, which developed an app for controlling smart devices in the home. It is important for people to feel secure, he said, about the integrity of the networks that comprise their homes. “The consumer ultimately needs to know exactly what they’re exposing to any third party,” Brooks said during the discussion.
Others on the panel included Dave Wilson, vice president of technology and standards with the Consumer Electronics Association, and Virginia Moon, managing editor of HGTV’s smart home project. CNET executive editor Rich Brown moderated.
Rushing to connect every device in the house might not make sense for privacy, security, and common sense reasons. Wilson said it is getting noisy for consumers with so many options when they may want something simple, such as knowing when their kids get home from school.
“We have to be careful about forcing automation onto people,” Brooks said. “It can have a negative reaction.” For instance, he said a smart thermostat that knows to turn the heat off is a “real tangible, immediate use-case,” but having a coffee maker that can communicate with a washing machine is less so.
Aside from the convenience for consumers, Brooks believes connected homes can help companies and industries respond more effectively to their needs. “The bigger opportunity here is how can we take this data and know that your HVAC system is operating differently,” he said. That might include a “smart house” letting its owner know when an appliance may need servicing.
The home is not the only personal space getting connected by data. At one time there was marketing jargon about cars being the so-called ultimate mobile devices. That dynamic seems to be evolving, based on the Connected Car Conference portion of CE Week.
Joel “Tim” Nixon, CTO for General Motors, said during a panel on the Internet of Things for cars that a new electronic epicenter is emerging as people get used to wearable devices and smart thermostats. “All of that’s starting to fuse together into a digital life,” he said. However, throwing the same “smart” technology into all cars does not make sense because of variations in drivers’ needs. The owner of an all-electric, compact car, he said, likely has different wants in their driving experience than someone with a luxury vehicle.
Nixon spoke alongside Joel Hoffman, automotive strategist at Intel; Niall Berkery, executive director with TeleNav; Andreas Mai, director of smart connected vehicles with Cisco Systems; and Emanuel Brown, director of design strategy with +Citizen.
Brown spoke with me after the panel, and said a new cycle of innovation may be on the way for the car industry—if software development tools and practices get standardized. His work includes leading +Citizen’s metadata research program, which offers analysis on emerging sectors and shifts in technology. Because real world harm can happen if something goes wrong with a car, he said consistency, if not regulations, will be needed for third-party software developers. “This is not like the smartphone or PC eras,” he said. “You can’t just build stuff. Bad things happen. You’ve got to be really careful about who you let in.”
Brown believes that government should be kept in the loop by the industry as cars become more connected rather than wait for some sort of authoritarian backlash that stymies progress. “If they see innovation coming lightning-fast out of nowhere, their reaction is to go in and regulate to protect the public,” he said.