In the near future, you may no longer need to remember to turn the oven off when the cake's done, switch on lights when you enter a room, or run the clothes dryer when electricity rates are cheapest. Your home will do it for you.
Dozens of IQ-boosting home gadgets debuted this week at the Consumer Electronics Show, which ended Friday. While some offer conveniences, such as waking you when your coffee is ready or remotely watering your plants, others have societal benefits such as helping to prevent power-grid blackouts.
These products are part of the "Internet of Things" concept, aimed at automating our lives by connecting mobile devices to appliances, lights, and just about everything—a shift that could improve efficiency if it works right, but compromise privacy if it doesn't.
They monitor behavior—via motion sensors, Bluetooth signals, or facial-recognition technology—to identify when we're home or away and make corresponding tweaks to room temperatures or lighting. They come from Kickstarter-funded startups as well as industry stalwarts such as Samsung.
"There's a lot of exciting potential out there," says Ben Artis, Whirlpool's senior category manager of smart homes. "For the first time, appliances can be better informed about when to run" so they avoid peak-hour pricing, he says. "We're in the early stages, but we're already seeing consumers seeking out these benefits."
The surge in innovation can be overwhelming, says Michael Wolf, chief analyst of Next Market Insights, a research firm that tracks emerging technologies. He says consumers are bombarded with so many choices that "it's kind of confusing, because you don't know which ones will work together."
At this year's CES in Las Vegas, an entire showcase was devoted to the "smart home" and exhibits featured at least 20 different kinds of connected light bulbs and ten kinds of door locks. In the next year or two, Wolf expects shakeouts in each category that will leave a few dominant players.
Can't We Just Get Along?
The smart-home industry's biggest challenge may be compatibility. Not all products can talk to each other, because there's no universal coding language or protocol. So tech behemoths are elbowing for market dominance. Last year alone, Apple launched its HomeKit app to connect home products to its smartphones; Google spent $3.2 billion to buy Learning Thermostat-maker Nest Labs, and Samsung acquired the maker of a hub—SmartThings—that can control and coordinate devices made by different firms. (See related story: "10 Energy Breakthroughs of 2014 That Could Change Your Life")
Since consumers will likely get frustrated if products don't work with each other, companies are now rallying to create one language.
"It's going to take time, but there's great momentum," says Mike Soucie, who leads Nest's partnership program, Works With Nest. In July, his company joined Samsung and others in launching Thread Group, aimed at building a new communication standard that all devices can use.
Companies must collaborate to make connectivity work, Samsung CEO Boo Keun Yoon said in a keynote CES speech. "The Internet of Things has the potential to transform our society, economy, and how we live our lives," he said, but to deliver on that promise, "it is our job to pull together."
Nest is working with more than a dozen big companies, including appliance makers LG and Whirlpool and lighting companies Osram and Philips, to ensure products can talk to each other. For example, unlocking or locking doors with the August Smart Lock will automatically put the Nest thermostat into "home" or "away" mode. If the thermostat indicates no one will be home for hours, it can tell a Whirlpool clothes dryer to use a slower, lower-heat setting or wait until off-peak hours when electricity rates are lower.
"It's reducing the load on the power grid and saving consumers money," Soucie says, noting that such a system spreads out the demand for electricity.
Can These Devices Keep Secrets?
Despite such benefits, smart homes face privacy concerns. This year could be the year that "smart-home hacking" becomes a realistic threat, according to a CES speech by Edith Ramirez, chair of the Federal Trade Commission. (See related story: "Who's Watching? Privacy Concerns Persist as Smart Meters Roll Out.")
"In the not-too-distant future, many, if not most, aspects of our everyday lives will be digitally observed and stored," she said in prepared remarks. "That data trove will contain a wealth of revealing information that, when patched together, will present a deeply personal and startlingly complete picture of each of us."
Smart-home makers say they know how much privacy means to their customers.
"We look at the house as a very sacred place," says Nest's Soucie. "We do everything we can to protect the information we collect." If a partner company is hacked, he says Nest data won't be divulged because it's not stored on other sites. He says smart devices offer convenience, but he adds: "There's a tradeoff."
To address privacy, the new facial-recognition camera Netatmo Welcome keeps track of which family members are home but doesn't store that information online, only on the device's memory card.
Whatever its challenges, smart-home gadgetry is expected to take off. One of every five U.S. homes with broadband access will buy at least one smart-home device within a year, pushing up sales of these devices from 20.7 million in 2014 to 35.9 by 2016, according to a survey released in October by the Consumer Electronics Association. Half of the surveyed buyers were under 35 years old.
Wolf's group also sees rapid expansion. It forecasts that the number of smart-home systems, which were in place in 1.5 million U.S. homes in 2013, will reach 15 million by 2019.
So far, Wolf says, many consumers are more apt to embrace single-focus items like smart locks or light bulbs than more encompassing devices. Yet in the next four to five years, he expects mass adoption of Jetsons-like home tech.
Soucie agrees: "We're just on that tipping point of this technology going mainstream."
Here are eight intriguing new smart-home devices:
1. Whirlpool Smart Top Load. This top-loading washer/dryer pair, expected to launch this spring for between $2,500 and $3,000, syncs with the Nest thermostat to trigger a quiet mode when you're at home and delay cycles for off-peak hours when electricity costs less.
2. Keen Smart Home Vent. By connecting to smart thermostats, these $85 vents open or close automatically by using built-in sensors that track a room's optimal temperature.
3. Ecovent. For about $200 a room, this device automatically adjusts vents via its own temperature, humidity, and motion-sensing wall plugs.
4. iDevices Switch. This $50 rectangular device, which plugs into an outlet, turns your iPhone into a remote on-off switch for lamps and appliances. It works with Apple's HomeKit app.
5. iHome SmartPlug. Also compatible with Apple's new app, this upcoming device enables users to control plugged-in smart devices simply by talking to Siri.
6. Incipio Smart Wall Outlet. This $60 HomeKit-based outlet—along with a $25 power strip—allows owners to control electronic devices from their smartphones.
7. Zuli Smartplug. This $50 product, which plugs into a wall socket, picks up Bluetooth signals from a nearby phone—rather than using motion sensors—to observe when someone walks by and when to turn on lamps, fans, and other devices.
8. First Alert Onelink. Inspired by Nest, this $249 smart thermostat allows owners to set temperature schedules in advance and alerts them when it's time to clean air filters or do other HVAC maintenance.