The Impact Of The Digital Revolution On The Smart Home Industry

26/09/2018

The Impact Of The Digital Revolution On The Smart Home Industry

“Recent years have seen a rapid increase in the use of home automation technology in the U.S. The digital revolution (especially in the world of IoT) has fueled an exciting new phase with companies in the home automation industry, offering consumers new and improved smart home technologies and giving rise to a totally interconnected, easy-to-control environment termed the “smart home.” These devices offer consumers remote control monitoring of common household devices and improved utility savings.

Research from Statista predicts that by the end of 2018, more than 45 million smart home devices will be installed in U.S. homes, making the average revenue per home around $490. This is an annual growth rate for the home automation industry of 22% year over year to nearly $20 billion in the U.S.

This growth is attributed to a number of factors, including the continuing rise in energy costs, decreasing cost of smart home technologies, current government policies and incentives regarding energy consumption, and increasing customer awareness of the impact of their consumptive activities on the environment. Statistics show that, currently, only 12-16% of U.S. homes own smart devices, leaving entire segments of the market untouched, due to the fact that mass adoption has its challenges.” – by Michael Cavvale

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Amazon updates Alexa with important new smart home powers

1/11/2017

Amazon updates Alexa with important new smart home powers

Alexa has long been a favorite of ours in the smart home. Over the weekend, Amazon rolled out an update to the company’s popular digital assistant, which makes the Alexa app a more intuitive tool for controlling your connected devices.

Alexa is a voice assistant built into smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo. With a command, you can ask Alexa to play music, set a reminder, search the internet, or control your smart home devices. The latest update includes three new features that allow you to do much more than control a single device with your voice:

  • Routines lets you create customized commands to control multiple devices at once.
  • Room awareness lets you group a certain smart speaker with specific devices, so it can be contextually aware of which connected devices it’s near.
  • Schedules lets you program automations in the future.

My favorite of the new features, routines, lets you control multiple devices at once with a single command such as “Alexa, good night.” Similar to scenes on Apple‘s HomeKit smart home platform, one command can turn off your lights and turn on the fan by your bed.

screen-shot-2017-10-24-at-2-17-18-pm
You can now use the Alexa app to create custom commands that control multiple devices.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

Alexa could previously initiate scenes set up in another app. For example, you could set up a scene involving the compatible Philips Hue bulbs in the Philips Hue app, and Alexa could import that scene so you could initiate it with a voice command. Now, you can set up routines in the Alexa app directly, and use devices from multiple companies — so one command will trigger your Philips bulbs and your Belkin switches. Better yet, you can create your own command, so you don’t have to pick from a predefined list.

Amazon’s Alexa Is A Real Smart Home Platform Now

2/10/2017

Amazon’s Alexa Is A Real Smart Home Platform Now

In the battle over smart homes, Amazon steps up from its supporting role.

Alongside all the new Echo devices Amazon announced on Wednesday, the company also revealed a subtle but significant shift in its smart-home strategy.

Alexa is no longer just a layer of voice controls that supplements other smart home systems such as Samsung SmartThings, Alphabet’s Nest, Philips Hue, and Lowe’s Iris. Instead, it’s becoming a full-blown smart-home platform, replacing many of the functions that those other systems provide.

The implication is that Amazon doesn’t want to play a supporting role in smart homes anymore. Instead, it wants a hand in every interaction, even if voice isn’t always involved.

ALEXA’S NEW SMART HOME SKILLS

Part of Amazon’s shift comes from the tools it’s now offering to device makers. In a press release, Amazon describes a new version of its Alexa Smart Home API as “the largest improvement … since it was launched in April 2016.”

The most notable change is support for routines that trigger several actions at once. This allows a user to say “Alexa, goodnight,” and have the system lock the doors, turn off the lights, and lower the thermostat. Alexa will also provide more feedback on device state, so users can check on the thermostat temperature or ask if any lights are on. Meanwhile, the Alexa app will serve as a central dashboard, where users can monitor and control their devices.

These are not new concepts for smart-home systems, and they’re not even new to Alexa. Samsung’s SmartThings platform, for instance, already supports multi-device routines that users can trigger through Alexa voice commands, as does Wink. But that’s the point: Instead of leaning on those companies for home automation, Amazon now wants to handle the automation itself.

[Photo: courtesy of Amazon]

A BIG BET ON PROTOCOLS

Still, Amazon can’t fully replace other smart-home hubs without offering one of its own. To that end, the company announced a new connected speaker called the Echo Plus. It has the same design as the original Echo, but adds a ZigBee radio inside.

Although ZigBee isn’t a household name, its energy efficiency and long range have made it a popular wireless protocol for smart lights, switches, sensors, cameras, and locks. The Echo Plus can communicate with those devices directly, eliminating or at least minimizing the need for additional hubs and bridges. (To drive the point home, Amazon has a promo that throws in one Philips Hue bulb with each Echo Plus.)

Amazon’s fellow tech titans have been reluctant to take this step. Apple has avoided building a HomeKit hub, content to let users deal with third-party bridges instead. And while Google’s OnHub and Wi-Fi routers both include ZigBee radios, they can only control Philips Hue bulbs through a smartphone app. Google hasn’t used those radios to build a broader smart-home hub.

By comparison, Amazon’s going all-in on ZigBee. In a blog post, the company says existing ZigBee smar- home devices should support Alexa voice commands “with little or no additional development,” and Ars Technica reports that more than 100 devices will work at the outset. To connect them, users just need to say “Alexa, discover devices.”

ENTER GADGETS

Some smart-home vendors might argue that their own hubs and bridges are still necessary. For instance, George Yianni, Philips Lighting’s head of technology for home systems, told me in a previous interview that the Hue Bridge has tighter integration with the company’s light bulbs compared to third-party bridges. He reiterated that point in an email this week.

“The Philips Hue bridge isn’t going anywhere; it enables us to keep adding to this experience,” Yianni said. “Consumers can enjoy the 700 third-party apps, Hue sensors and switches, custom scenes, new entertainment capabilities, and much more with the Philips Hue bridge.”

But Amazon may have an answer to this as well, buried within the strangest announcement from its Wednesday press event: Later this year, Amazon will launch a new category of “Alexa Gadgets” that can send and receive commands from devices like the Echo. The first of these gadgets will be a smart button that lights up and serves as a buzzer for trivia games.

For now, Amazon is pitching Alexa Gadgets as a fun diversion. Still, the underlying tools include the ability to move motors, react to Alexa notifications, synchronize with sounds or music, and send commands back to Alexa. In theory, these capabilities could power a wave of new smart-home triggers such as light switches, door locks, and motion sensors–all with deep ties to Alexa. This in turn could fill in the one missing piece in Amazon’s smart-home platform, which is the ability to have one device prompt an action on another.

All of this should put Amazon on a level playing field with Apple, whose HomeKit framework already includes both the voice interaction layer (through Siri) and the underlying routines and triggers (through the Home app). The new strategy also turns Samsung’s SmartThings and Alphabet’s Nest into more direct competitors, even as they support Alexa voice commands on their own platforms.

In other words, Alexa is no longer just a benign voice assistant that plays nicely with other smart-home platforms. With millions of Echos in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, and a year-and-a-half of accrued knowledge about how smart-home devices should work, Amazon’s going to war.

Advancements in virtual-assistant technology will likely spur growth in home automation

1/05/2017

Advancements in virtual-assistant technology will likely spur growth in home automation

Will Virtual Assistants Revolutionize Home Automation?

By Danny Vena

Advancements in virtual-assistant technology will likely spur growth in home automation. Deciding which digital assistant works best for your smart-home use really depends on individual preference.

Almost everyone with a smartphone is familiar with some of the capabilities of voice-controlled virtual assistants. Siri from Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) was the first out of the gate and may be the most well known. Google Assistant from Alphabet, Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL)(NASDAQ:GOOG) is the search giant’s latest version of Google Now. Amazon.com, Inc.(NASDAQ:AMZN) gave us Alexa, though she is mostly limited to home speakers.

Until the release of these virtual helpers, home automation was primarily the dominion of expensive professionally installed systems that controlled everything, or managed services that provided monthly monitoring of things like alarm systems. Both are still available, but the revolution in the smart-home market is playing out in the individual components and smart devices that homeowners can purchase and control with these ubiquitous virtual assistants.

One thing to be aware of: Each virtual assistant has advantages and drawbacks, with no clear winner — yet.

Circular futuristic interface of smart home automation assistant.

VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS WILL DRIVE SMART-HOME ADOPTION. IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Apple HomeKit

Siri is the backbone for Apple’s HomeKit, the smartphone app that can be used to control a variety of smart-home products. This platform provides a variety of helpful features to simplify the process of adding devices and labeling “Favorites.” You can also organize the various components by “Rooms” and create “Scenes” that will control multiple devices with one command.

Another feature is that you can automate certain functions to occur at a specific time of day, or when you leave home. The best feature of HomeKit, in typical Apple fashion, is its ease of operation — and it can be controlled by the app, or using voice control.

A key point is that HomeKit-compatible devices have been reviewed and vetted by Apple, providing end-to-end security. This limits the number of available devices, but will likely prevent you from being hacked. On the downside, Apple lacks a home speaker system.

Amazon Alexa and Echo

Amazon’s Alexa powers the Echo, Echo Dot, and Tap smart-home speakers, but lacks a dedicated smartphone app. Amazon has integrated access to Alexa via its Amazon shopping app on the iPhone by tapping the microphone button in the app. Alexa’s advantage is in the number of things she can do — she accepts over 10,000 commands, called “skills,” though they require remembering the very specific wording of each command.

These skills address a variety of areas, not just the smart home, though the system integrates with dozens of smart-home devices that work directly with Alexa, and hundreds that operate using a variety of manufacturer-specific apps. Integrating many of these products requires a special If This Then That (IFTTT) device to connect them and to set up routines to control multiple components with a single command. There’s also no independent verification regarding device security.

Animated image of home surrounded by icons representing home automation devices.

SMART HOMES POWERED BY VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS. IMAGE SOURCE: PIXABAY.

Google Home and Home Control

Google recently introduced Home, a smart-home speaker similar to Amazon’s Echo. It’s powered by a Google Assistant, though not the same Assistant that operates on Google’s Android phones or the Allo messaging app — and they aren’t integrated as of this writing.

The Assistant on Home works with components from four smart-home partners currently (Nest, Philips Hue, IFTTT, and SmartThings) — far fewer than Alexa. Google plans to add additional partners over time, though those currently available cover the most used home-automation components.

Integrating multiple smart-home products through Home requires an IFTTT device to connect them to each other and set up routines, similar to Alexa. Also similar to Alexa, there’s no independent verification of device security, which varies by manufacturer. Home has Google search at its heart, so it understands detailed questions and requests rather than the specific skills commands required by Alexa.

Some consumers will be drawn to Echo or Home by the novelty factor, or for the variety of other capabilities, and adding smart-home products will be an unintended result of ownership.

Something for investors

Each system has advantages and downfalls regarding its home-automation capabilities. No one has yet developed a “killer app.” At this point, smart-home products seem to represent more of a hobby than something designed to produce significant revenue growth for any of these companies. However, the team of Alexa and Echo has an advantage for Amazon not available to Apple or Google.

A recent analyst note by Jim Shaughnessy and Mark Mahaney of RBC Capital Markets reported that 17% of current users of the Echo family of products placed orders to Amazon.com with their devices, which could result in additional sales of $10 billion in both products and devices annually by 2020.

While the hardware war is being waged, Amazon might enjoy a nice little boost on the e-commerce side.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Danny Vena owns shares of Alphabet (A shares), Amazon, and Apple. Danny Vena has the following options: long January 2018 $640 calls on Alphabet (C shares), short January 2018 $650 calls on Alphabet (C shares), long January 2018 $85 calls on Apple, and short January 2018 $90 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, and Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Smart home model integrates Amazon’s Alexa technology

17/04/2017

Smart home model integrates Amazon’s Alexa technology

Entering a model home always feels a bit like opening the door into a fantasy world where every surface is pristine and every room is decorated to a level of perfection impossible for most of us to achieve. But when you open the door to a model home and it talks back to you, you’ve entered the realm of science fiction.

Smart home technology, once the purview of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy homeowners, has spread to the masses with the availability of products that allow you to answer and unlock your front door remotely and adjust the temperature of your house before you get home from work. Now voice-controlled technology is transforming our homes into futuristic places that go far beyond the once cutting-edge yet laughable “clap-on, clap-off” light fixtures.

Brookfield Residential has collaborated with Amazon to design the Brookfield Residential Smart House, which integrates Amazon’s Alexa platform with a Kensington model single-family home at the Avendale community in Bristow in Prince William County, Va.

“We wanted to do something cool to differentiate ourselves from other builders and to anticipate how people will be living moving forward,” says Gregg Hughes, vice president of sales and marketing for Brookfield Residential. “We reached out to someone at Amazon who had worked with builders on a voice-activated custom home, but this is the first time this technology is being used in a production home.”

Amazon’s Alexa platform is part of the Echo voice-recognition system introduced by Amazon in late 2014. The Consumer Intelligence Research Partners estimates that 8.2 million Echo devices had been purchased by the end of 2016. (Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

“Voice automation means that everything in the house is controlled wirelessly by your voice, so anyone can use it to ask it to do something or ask a question,” says Hughes. “You can use it for safety to control lights and a security system, for audiovisual uses such as turning on music, and to do things like preheat your appliances and close or raise your blinds.”

Hughes says that Brookfield decided to build the smart house model at Avendale rather than at one of the company’s custom home communities to demonstrate that smart home technology isn’t reserved for expensive houses.

“We consciously chose a midpriced community where the model home would have the most impact,” he says. “We plan to roll it out in other new communities and will retrofit some of our existing communities by offering the technology on homes that have yet to be built.”

Hughes says the number of visitors to Avendale has increased by 80 percent since the smart house model opened.

“People are telling us they like to see how people will live in the future,” he says. “We’ve found that while some people who come in are very tech-savvy and are fluent in using Alexa, the technology seems to appeal to all ages. We’re planning to bring it to our active adult communities because we think it could be nice for older people to rely on using their voice to do things like shut the blinds and preheat the oven.”

The basic level of smart home technology is a standard feature on all new homes at Avendale. Brookfield plans to offer voice-activated technology at their homes in other communities as well.

Hughes says they offer “smart, smarter and smartest” packages, each of which will cost about $1,500 to $2,000. The lowest level will have the Alexa voice-activated system, a few voice-controlled dimmers for lights, a wireless thermostat and a video camera for the front door. Each additional package adds a few more items, such as more dimmers on lights and motorized blinds.

“Buyers can upgrade with a package or they can upgrade with a la carte choices,” Hughes says. “Buyers can also decide to wait and see what else will be added in the future. All our homes will be WiFi-enabled so buyers can buy plug-and-play upgrades whenever they want.”

Hughes says Brookfield upgraded the wiring at Avendale to “Category 6” and plans to upgrade to that level of wiring at all their new communities.

“Category 6 wiring has greater capabilities to provide wireless broadcast access,” he says. “Instead of having jacks all over the house, you can have a smart TV anywhere that uses WiFi from a router.”

The model home at Avendale has been programmed to make it easier for visitors to see Alexa in action. Homeowners can program their own system or use Alexa for individual commands, Hughes says.

Once visitors enter the model home, they use the command, “Alexa, turn on the smart home,” which lowers the shades on the windows and turns on the gas fireplace, the fan, the lights and the television. Visitors can also use the commands, “Alexa, ask Brookfield to tell me about the smart home” and “Alexa, ask Brookfield to tell me about Brookfield Residential” to listen to basic information about the home and the company. Other commands visitors can experiment with on the main level include asking for security cameras to be activated, raising and lowering the garage door, and requesting an explanation of the “Drop Zone,” a secure area of the garage where deliveries can be accepted even when no one is home.

“We set up themes to show how simple life could be with a voice-activated system,” says Hughes. “For example, you can say, ‘Alexa, good morning,’ and this will automatically start your coffee maker, turn on the shower so the water is the right temperature when you get in and raise your blinds. You can customize this to whatever you want it to do.”

Visitors to the model home can try out individual commands in the model home, too.

On the upper level, visitors can say, “Alexa, turn on the force,” in a Star Wars-themed bedroom to lower the shades, dim the lights and activate music and special lighting. Saying “Alexa, turn on relax” dims the lights, illuminates star panels and starts playing soothing music that you might hear in a spa.

“People can really see the potential of this technology to make their lives easier,” Hughes says. “Our model home starts a dialogue with buyers about how they want to live. This model home is just the tip of the iceberg. Technology is changing so rapidly that we are focused on future-proofing our homes to make them ready for the next phase.”

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