When Bill Gates visited the Seattle World’s Fair as a 6-year-old in 1962, he claims to have visited every pavilion. At the General Electric Living pavilion, he would have seen a vision of a digitized residence, with home computers, electronic libraries and television programming projected on the interior walls.
Fifty-four years later, most of us are still awaiting the arrival of the “smart home” — a place where audio, video, lighting, temperature, window coverings and other features can be centrally controlled or, even better, remotely controlled through a portable device. There are signs, however, that the smart home market may finally take off, driven by the ubiquity of enabling technologies like Wi-Fi, voice recognition and smartphones.
According to the Consumer Technology Association, smart home technologies are in place in only 6.4 percent of homes nationwide today but are expected to reach 15.5 percent by 2021. Revenue from smart home technologies is expected to grow by more than 25 percent each year, reaching more than $32 billion in 2021.
IoT Analytics, a market analysis firm, identifies four primary drivers behind the growing smart- home market.
• Energy savings: more efficient use of lighting, heating and cooling through scheduling and sensing the presence of occupants.
• Convenience: centralized control of disparate services.
• Safety and security: Smart door locks, integrated video and motion detectors.
• Social status: Increasing adoption of the latest technologies by Generation Y as they purchase homes.
Silicon Valley is the acknowledged hotbed for smart home device development, but the Seattle region is quickly positioning itself as a leader in smart home technologies, especially for the development of operating systems that control the devices.
Microsoft and Amazon are clearly intent on becoming leaders in the sector.
Amazon has been integrating its voice-controlled Echo and Echo Dot devices with a growing array of smart home products to control lighting, thermostats and other home systems. In September, South Korea’s LG Electronics announced that it was partnering with Amazon to integrate its SmartThinQ hub, a device used to connect home appliances over the internet, to work with Echo. Ford Motor Co. said in early October that Echo will be integrated into three of its models — the Focus Electric, Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi — by the end of the year, allowing owners to do such things as adjust the heat in their homes from their cars.
Microsoft is reportedly positioning Windows 10 and Cortana, its voice-activated digital assistant, to be a controller of smart home devices. At a developer’s conference last April, the company announced that it would release protocols in 2017 to allow Windows 10 to work with a wide range of devices and applications allowing users to automate tasks using a PC, a mobile device or an Xbox console. According to the announcement, users will be able to control lights, air conditioning and door locks.
Other companies see opportunities here, too. The Los Angeles-based computer peripherals company Belkin recently moved its R&D office to Seattle, specifically to develop smart home technologies. Belkin’s move, not coincidentally, took place after the company bought Seattle-based Zensi in 2010. Zensi, which was founded by University of Washington Professor Shwetak Patel, focused on energy and water monitoring in the home. At the same time, Patel become Belkin’s chief scientist.
“We moved all of R&D to Seattle so it is convenient to the University of Washington,” says Patel, pointing out that the resources of the university and tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon give the region a huge pool of talent for developing hardware, software and machine learning. “It’s just a better fit.”
Derek Richardson, cofounder and CEO of Deako, a Seattle-based manufacturer of smart lighting systems, also established his company in Seattle to gain access to that talent pool. “It’s a tech city,” he says, adding that the mountains and beautiful lakes are a draw, too. “The venture community is growing here, and there are so many successful companies — Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, and the list goes on and on. It’s a great way to attract talent.”
Still, for all the media coverage of smart home technologies during the past half century, the pace of actually integrating those technologies into homes has been slower than some expected. For one thing, while the early generations of smart home technologies were fine for tech-savvy early adopters, they were not user-friendly enough for the average consumer. “How do you get the technology to the average person’s home, and how do you reduce the installation barrier?” asks Patel. “That is one of the big challenges the industry is facing right now.”
Aaron Crandall, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University, says that for all the advances in technology, expectations have always outpaced reality. About a year and half ago, Crandall and a student licensed technology they had developed for a “smart home in a box” — a system of sensors that detect movement, temperature, doors opening and closing — designed to help caregivers for the elderly, and launched a company to develop and market it. “We did about a year of pushing the boulder up the hill trying to get it funded,” says Crandall. “It didn’t come together in the soup that needs to make a startup go.”
Crandall says the market was not yet ripe for the technology. “The technologies are still there. It will happen,” he says. “It’s just a question of who is going to make it happen.”
Aaron Crandall, associate professor of electircal engineering and computer science at Washington State University, holds a small computer WSU researchers use as the "local brains" in their smart homes. The device collects sensor data and sends the information to WSU's main database for full processing later. Crandall and his team see a future in such devices for the elderly and their caregivers.
The market is being primed by specialized businesses taking on the tough and often costly job of integrating technologies to easily control lights, alarms and doorbells. Consumers and builders looking to integrate smart home technologies are turning to specialized system integrators.
Digital Home Northwest was launched by Jeffrey Thoren and his wife, Heather, in 2006 after they went through the experience of retrofitting their new home with smart lighting. “We honed a technique after doing a couple of remodels on our own house,” he says.