The Smart Home Revolution
A new era has arrived.
With the much-buzzed Internet of Things (IoT) model producing more wirelessly connected devices than ever before, the dream of a Jetsons-esque living space is no longer a distant fantasy; the age of the smart home is officially here.
For the past few years, companies like GE, Samsung, LG, Google, Cisco, Bosch, and Whirlpool have been rolling out home automation systems with appliances that can speak to your cell phone and to each other, making up a fully integrated smart home that operates at the touch of a button. But only recently have these appliances become affordable and available to the general public, so that anyone can walk in to Target or Walmart, buy a smart appliance and plug it in at home.
Of course, the foundation of any smart household is the plethora of smart technology that comprises its interactive and interconnected web, from washing machines, refrigerators and coffeemakers to HVAC controls, lights and security. How have these systems evolved, and what improvements continue to be made?
To answer questions about the past, present and future of these devices, appliance DESIGN reached out to Lou Lenzi, director of industrial design for GE; John Ouseph, GE’s technology manager for connected home; Yoon C. Lee, vice president, insight concept and portfolio group, Samsung Electronics; and John Taylor, vice president, public affairs and communications for LG Electronics USA.
What is the history of smart appliances? How did they come to be?
Lou Lenzi, GE:The idea of smart or “connected” appliances got started about five years ago. At the time, the objective was to establish a bidirectional connection between a homeowner’s appliances and their electrical utility provider through a “smart meter” that would replace the standard electrical meter mounted on the side of your home. With this communication link established, the utility provider could remotely manage functions like drying clothes, washing dishes, or defrosting a refrigerator, reducing energy costs through more efficient utilization of the existing electrical grid. This was the “Internet of Things” in its earliest and most basic form – a remote controlled energy management system for the home, smoothing out the peak loads on the electrical grid by shifting consumption to off-peak parts of the day.
John Ouseph, GE: Our initial projects with smart appliances were in partnership with the smart grid initiatives. Utility companies could reduce peak demand by communicating with appliances to reduce the electricity load by delaying some appliance functionality. We started doing pilots and demonstrations with utility companies as early as 2006, with much success. We were also able to add features to help the consumer in their daily lives. The problem was the U.S. utility market was too fragmented and required a unique system for each utility. So we took what we learned with the technology and focused on simplifying and enhancing the consumer’s experience with our appliances.
Yoon C. Lee, Samsung:At Samsung, the concept of “connected” or “smart” appliances started appearing on our drawing boards around the 2009-2010 timeframe. By then, the average consumer was well used to the connected lifestyle where information could be accessed anytime and from anywhere, thanks to the explosion of smart phones. This connected environment was rapidly changing the behavior of our everyday lives and people were constantly connected to the world around them. Our goal to make the home more relevant to a connected lifestyle drove our efforts to explore connected appliances. At Samsung, our first connected refrigerators were introduced in 2011.
What sparked the rise of smart appliances in present-day households?
Lenzi: As utility providers discovered ways to improve the efficiency of the electrical grid without the use of smart meters, the appliance industry turned its attention to consumer-focused ways of ensuring their home appliances would operate at peak performance. This shift in focus, coupled with the broad availability of broadband internet services, reliable and inexpensive wireless home networks, and the mass adoption of smartphones unlocked new possibilities in appliance design for the mass market.
Ouseph: The convergence of the “cloud” technology, the mobile phone and low cost wireless technology was a key factor to the rise of smart appliances. The rate of manufacturing smart appliances will further increase as the costs continue to fall, the technology continues to make applications easier to use and industry standards for common communications take hold. Today, these standards are needed to help devices talk to each other and create a home automation solution.
John Taylor, LG:With the ability to monitor every minute of cooking and easily determine the contents in your refrigerator, for example, smart appliances merge connectivity, convenience and performance for an ideal user experience. We see that consumers are responding positively to the smart products we currently offer. Once they spend time with the product, they see just how easy and convenient they are to use, and they understand the benefit of having these products in their own home.
How have manufacturers and designers adapted to meet the demand, while also satisfying the various needs of the consumer?
Lenzi: It all starts with understanding the consumer, their behavior patterns and lifestyle needs, and coupling those needs with the appropriate system solution. In some respects, the industry is still in the “flip-phone phase” of smart appliance design. We’re moving from “adding-on” the technology to “designing-in” the technology. The dynamics of consumer-friendly app development is being understood, and the underlying back-end infrastructure is being put in place. A successful smart appliance must be more than integrating the network technology into the appliance; it must encompass an entire system solution aimed at making the consumer’s life more convenient and enjoyable.
Taylor:For example, LG’s Smart ThinQ suite is easy for the everyday consumer to use, not just the tech-savvy early-adopter crowd. Any consumer can benefit from the technology offered by our Smart ThinQ suite, as it makes it easier to complete daily tasks. With just a text to your laundry pair, users can find out how much time is left on their load of laundry; or even with a text to the refrigerator, they can find out what they need while out grocery shopping.
Lee: In technology, there are usually two design approaches:
- Technology led design: When new technology introduces benefits to consumers that didn’t exist before. Once these are experienced and adopted by consumers, it becomes a part of their lifestyle. An example would be a backup sensor for cars.
- Consumer led design: When consumers actively identify needs for improvement and manufacturers and designers actively try to solve the known problems. These are typically incremental improvements or new features that enhance the existing product for better usability and convenience.
It is important for manufacturers to balance these two approaches. Even when exploring new technology and investments, designers need to consider the needs and wants of consumers at all times.
Where is the industry headed? And what can customers expect to see from smart appliances in the not-so-distant future?
Lenzi: From an end-consumer standpoint, we envision a lot of the “visual complexity” associated with today’s feature-rich appliance products becoming simplified through well-designed smartphone apps. The multiple hard-keys, LED indicators, and displays that can overwhelm an appliance user interface will eventually migrate to elegant and visually rich user interfaces, leveraging the processing power and high resolution screens found on even the most basic smartphone.
Ouseph: More and more appliances will be connected and have smart features. The consumer will have greater control and flexibility with the appliance. Appliance to appliance communication will occur to make them run better. A water heater will tell the washer when the best time to run is. A washer will tell the dryer what settings are best to use. The refrigerator can show you the contents in order to create a shopping list or to order groceries. Smart appliances are a platform to enable everyday enjoyable experiences.
Lee: The industry is working hard to establish common open protocols for manufacturers and developers when designing and developing connected devices. Samsung will continue to expand the smart product lineup with features that fulfill the needs of consumers. I believe 2015 will be the year where consumers will see a major uptake in real smart home solutions and 2016 will be the year where smart home will become mainstream. You will see small IoT products for domestic use such as door locks, smart sprinkler systems, etc. in 2015.
Taylor: We think it’s a great convenience feature to be able to text with your laundry pair to get an update on the status of the cycle, or text with your refrigerator to get a recommendation on what to cook based on what’s currently inside your refrigerator… At LG, we’re excited to be a part of the rapidly evolving home technology trends and pave the way for the future.