Each year I've been attending CES, I've watched the Connected Home TechZone grow in popularity. It started off as a small but interesting space to discuss this newfangled thing called an integrated wireless network to connect appliances and devices to an interface which tells you what on earth they're doing; but it has grown to a humming conversation among not just those in the Z-Wave, Zigbee and HomePlug booths but among companies all over CES.
I have never seen more people circulating through booths to find out how their electronics can hook up to one interface -- and not just things like televisions or lights, but things like door locks and window shades too. Basically, if it has an on-off switch, these days it can probably be controlled by your smart phone. And people are interested.
Samsung Says Just A Few Years From Everyone In a Connected Home
At Samsung's booth I got a tour of HEMS, or the Home Energy Management System. Samsung's solar panels on your roof send energy to a large Samsung battery, which talks to the gateway, and the gateway in turn talks to the Samsung washing machine or the Samsung refrigerator. You sit at the helm, deciding if you want to spend the money to wash a load of laundry at peak hours or if you want to wait until the price drops. Or maybe you want to use battery power gathered from your solar panel instead of grid power or vice versa. If you want to run the load, well you can go ahead and do that from afar, even selecting which cycles to use and monitoring how much time is left on the load. It's all there at your fingertips, even if you're nowhere near your home.
I spoke with Samsung's EVP of Corporate Strategy, David Steel, during the tour and mentioned that even though companies like Microsoft and Google have dropped out of the home energy management dashboard game, that it feels like it's just a matter of time until a connected home is a reality and people are measuring, monitoring, and managing their home's energy use on customized terms. He smiled, and nodded. When pressed for a time frame, he says that it could be just two to three years before we see everyone starting to get hooked up.
Two Steps To Connecting Everything to Everything
He noted that there are essentially two steps. First, individual devices need to be able to connect to a network within a home or smart grid. Five years ago, it was virtually unheard of to have a personal wifi network in every home or apartment, yet now it's commonplace. That is an important component to the success of these connected devices, as is making them plug-n-play without extra parts needed. Even now it isn't so easy to connect your home, as tapping into your appliances means buying another device like a smart plug or energy monitor (also items continually more present at CES) that can connect the appliance to a dashboard like PowerMeter.
Now, the ability to connect without extra components is a reality as companies manufacture electronics and appliances with this connective capability embedded. Hooking up your television to the internet to watch movies on Netflix is practically second nature (a Skype-eneabled TV by Panasonic was big talk at CES 2010). The same goes for larger items like refrigerators, washers and dryers, dishwashers, and so on -- or at least it will in the very near future. Everything is starting to be made with a home network in mind.
Step two, which is just a few years down the road, is creating the whole home solution. And we mean whole home. As each device can be connected, soon we will have everything hooked up to a home connected to the network, from lights to window shades, from water heaters to security cameras, from thermostats to dishwashers.
What is currently a significant investment in time and in extra gadgets will become cheaper and easier to create.
"People Want Anywhere, Anytime"
Motorola featured a new Connected Home Gateway this year, which is built on its 4Home platform for home automation and energy management. You bring it home, plug it into the wall, and it looks for different devices it can connect to, from lights to thermostats and even security systems. The app to control all the connected devices is free, though the service is hosted through Verizon and starts at $70, with pricing for adding connectable devices running at $20 or $30 each. Essentially, the rep stated, what costs thousands of dollars right now could cost just a couple hundred.
"People want anywhere, anytime access to their digital lives," Motorola Mobility president Dan Moloney said in a statement. "Our suite of award-winning products addresses the new ways that people are embracing their connected lifestyle in the home."
Changing Interest from Energy Savings to Control Over Electronics
Without a doubt, the connected home is a major topic among electronics manufactures. We're going well beyond just connecting our computers, TVs and cell phones to each other. We're moving rapidly toward connecting our entire homes. This is a breath of fresh air after the fall of promising projects like PowerMeter and Hohm. These projects centered around monitoring and managing energy use. A noble goal, but the interest of only a select sort of person so far. Someone has to care a whole lot about their energy use to connect up and pay attention to a home energy dashboard. We've seen that however much money it might save, most people aren't quite into it.
However, most people are into managing every aspect of their home from any location -- from climate control to security. And they are in to saving money in the process. The direction we're seeing the connected home going in will bring tech-loving people and energy-conscious people on the same path. It will be a way to truly get the masses on board since it doesn't revolve around saving a kilowatt hour here or there because it's green, but rather because it's useful to be able to turn on the washing machine when it is easiest and cheapest, even if that's at 11 am when you're away at the office. (Yes, this real time energy info isn't dependent only on electronics manufacturers, but on utilities and the implementation of a smart grid as well. But that too is only a matter of time.)
It also helps that we now have affordable tablet devices and touch screen cell phones everywhere that make it easy to interact with a dashboard for watching energy pricing and controlling lights and thermostats -- and our electricity bills.
As Steel noted, it's just a matter of time. But the time is coming fast.