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The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing

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If confirmation were really needed, the events of two weeks in January catapulted a previously niche area of home-connected tech into the forefront. At the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, big-name manufacturers jostled for media coverage with no-name, start-ups as they threw their hats into the Internet of Things arena with high-concept appliances and apps designed to show what the very near future would look like. Benefits such as convenience and energy savings were touted as paramount, while the more nefarious novelty-value was shoved under the carpet as the ugly child of the market.

The biggest headlines of the show were grabbed by Whirlpool’s concept Interactive Cooktop – an touch-controlled, Internet- enabled hob.Touted as providing a range of information, including recipes, task scheduling and social networking capabilities, its main target appeared to be enthusiastic home entertainers who wanted to be able to ‘bring a sense of surprise to the kitchen through approachable, cutting-edge and intuitive design’.

Also previewed at the show was LG’s SMS-based HomeChat, currently only available in the US. Dave VanderWaal, director of Brand Marketing — LG Home Appliances, told visitors that consumers will have the ability to use natural language to engage in a text ‘conversation’ with their appliances, for instance, to ask your fridge if you need milk.

Just three days after CES closed up shop, one of the most high-profile participants, smart thermostat and smoke detector company Nest, was swallowed up by Google for a cool £1.83bn, in a move that industry insiders interpreted as the brand making it’s first foray into the nascent field of Internet-connected home products.

As if to put the icing on the IoT cake, Samsung’s co-CEO Yoon Boo-Keun unveiled the first in a series of ‘smarter’ appliances, a smartphone-controlled washing machine, at the manufacturer’s European Forum in Malaga.“Connectivity is dramatically changing our world. It’s hard to find a place today not touched by the Internet,” he said. “We need a home that makes us more productive and helps us enjoy more time with our families.And we need homes that understand our needs and put us in control.”

To put the growth in Internet-connected ‘things’ in perspective: in 2008 the amount exceeded the number of people on Earth. According to Cisco, by 2020 there will be 50 billion, amounting to a £11.5 trillion “opportunity”, according to CEO John Chambers. And it would appear that the UK government agrees – speaking at the Hannover CeBIT technology trade fair in March, Prime Minister David Cameron described the IoT as nothing short of a new “ industrial revolution”. At the annual event, Cameron announced a new tranche of research funding worth £45m to be made available to technology firms, bringing the total currently dedicated to government-backed R&D to £73m.

“Fridge sends spam emails as attack hits smart gadgets”
January also saw the above headline on the BBC news website – an example of media hype and hysteria surrounding connected home appliances. More is likely.

At CES the co-founder of home automation developers Revolv, Mike Soucie, described the current state of the market as “the wild west”, perhaps inadvertently referencing a potential drawback that some in the industry believe has yet to be addressed.

As our homes become increasingly Internet-enabled, are consumers in danger of creating a large security hole in the one place they expect to feel safe? David Bryan and Daniel Crowley, security researchers at cybercrime specialist consultancy Trustwave Holdings Inc, regard the new class of connected home products as multiple opportunities for electronic ingress by opportunistic hackers.“It varies from device to device, but a common thread with a lot of these devices is they don’t require any authentication at all,” Crowley said.

However much was made in the press of the potential for what The Daily Mail gleefully described as “commode chaos”. Should an owner of the Satis automated WC not change the default 0000 pin for the Bluetooth app, “this could leave toilet users open to attacks by mischievous technophiles”.Typically, the newspaper did not mention that the merry-makers would have to be within the home at the time.

However as Bryan and Crowley pointed out, hackers could not only create considerable discomfort if done on a wide scale, the potential for eavesdropping is perhaps the biggest elephant in the room. As homes become more connected, there is no reason to imagine that that won’t be the next big target for hackers. If your Twitter feed is updating the world on when your home’s lights have been deactivated, is that not a very real, real-world security issue? The accumulation of meta data – our digital footprint of interactions such as when, where and to whom we send emails rather than the content itself – are tiny tiles that seen as a whole, become a very information-heavy mosaic.

Pete Mersh, director of Digital at bathroom manufacturer Crosswater agrees that in the rush to sell inter-connected devices and appliances, there is a degree of push and pull between usability and security. Which is why, he says, Crosswater’s designers intentionally limited controllability for its digital range of bath fillers and shower controllers to within the users’ home, over the WiFi network.

“There are a lot of products out there that are more accessible but we wanted to make sure our users were protected.We get a lot of people who are thinking that because you can fill your bath up with our product via an app, that you can do that while you are on the M25.”

The first smart fridge was introduced by Electrolux in 1998 but it is only recently that the phenomenon has become mainstream. Mersh believes the KBB industry and consumers are now ready for the next stage of interconnectivity: “Thanks to the the television market for instance, people are a lot more relaxed than they were four or five years ago. With tablets and smartphones everything is becoming a lot more accessible at the flick of a switch. So I see this as moving that usability into another sector.”

Retailers have a unique opportunity, says Mersh, to take advantage of the upsell potential.“For me it’s all about finding out what the consumers don’t like about their current products. Is it that every morning that you have to put your arm in the shower to turn it on and you get your arm wet and cold?”

Juliana Sado, senior brand marketing manager for Whirlpool Northern Europe believes that consumers are being swayed by both the cost and the environmental impact of their home appliances.“Innovation and improved energy efficiency in eco appliances as isolated entities has greatly reduced energy consumption, however to improve further in these fields manufacturers have recognised the need to take the next step, while continuing to simplify everyday tasks.”

Whirlpool’s high-profile concept cooktop at CES, says Sado, “illustrated the future possibilities of appliances equipped with connectivity.While these might seem novel and futuristic in such early stages, connected appliances also hold the potential to take our resource saving to the next level through facilitating the possibility of functions that allow the appliance to ‘self-select’.”

“Just as the consumer lifestyle is constantly evolving, so to must the functionality of our household appliances, while continuing to relieve the strain placed on our resources and our wallets.”

Sado firmly believes that the IoT is much more than a gimmick: “Far from just a novelty therefore, adaptive, connected appliances offer innovation that offers genuine lifestyle benefits and crucial eco improvements that are genuine upsell opportunities for the retailer.”

This is an article I wrote for the UK’s top trade kitchen and bathroom magazine – Essential Kitchens and Bathrooms Business.

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