Home & Garden

Consumers still warming up to idea of ‘smart’ homes

SELF TAUGHT: The Nest Learning Thermostat learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone.
SELF TAUGHT: The Nest Learning Thermostat learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Nest Labs

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, LG unveiled a series of household appliances that can receive, interpret and send texts: a washing machine that, when asked, reports how much time is left in a cycle; or a refrigerator that alerts the owner when food is about to expire.

These are among several recent product announcements surrounding the “smart home” — a futuristic vision of households constantly monitoring their own activity, alerting the owner’s smartphone when windows are opened, electricity left on, or clothes are done drying.

In the past year, start-ups, technology giants and telecommunications companies have made their own smart-home bids, according to Fernando Elizalde, a Gartner analyst. But compared with the rapid development of new products, consumer adoption has been slow as people gradually become more comfortable with the smart home, he added in an e-mail.

That hasn’t stopped companies from jumping in.

At CES, Lowe’s promoted Iris, a network that lets customers manage the data generated by disparate WiFi-enabled devices, such as thermostats or appliances. Whirlpool showed off a washing machine hooked up to an app that lets people donate to a charity — such as Habitat for Humanity — every time they do laundry.

This past February, Google acquired Nest — a start-up selling thermostats that can adjust to a user’s preferences — for $3.2 billion.

In November, French telecommunications company Orange announced Homelive, a solution letting customers manage their appliances remotely. And in June, Apple announced HomeKit, an operating system framework on which software and hardware developers can build smart-home systems.

It could be years before consumers have a real digital household, according to recent reports, and progress is likely to be incremental.

A Gartner consumer survey from the summer found that 20 percent of respondents have one or more smart-home devices. About 16 percent of these had only one device, while just about 4 percent had two or more. A Nielsen survey conducted in the second quarter of 2014 found about 6 percent of respondents used smart-home technology: Within these, about 61 percent used wireless home security, 54 percent used it for automating some function (such as adjusting heat or lights), 25 percent used connected appliances and 27 percent used wireless speaker systems.

Still, home technology sales are increasing, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group that organizes CES. Home technologies generated an estimated $1.9 billion in sales in 2014, up from $1.7 billion in 2013, according to the association.

Once users become comfortable with smart-home technology, they start customizing their own solutions, said Alex Hawkinson, chief executive of SmartThings, a start-up selling kits of motion detectors and other sensors that homeowners can install throughout their homes, as well as “smart hubs” that aggregate the data collected by each of these sensors. (The start-up was acquired by Samsung in August for a sum that wasn’t disclosed.)

Last year, for instance, the majority of SmartThings customers were buying the sensor kit. Today, a little more than 50 percent buy just the smart hub, so that they can connect smart-home devices sold by other manufacturers, Hawkinson said.

Most new customers still come to SmartThings looking for solutions to specific problems — cutting down on energy bills by automating their light switches or monitoring their home while they’re on vacation, among others, he said.

“There’s very few that come in and say, ‘I want a smart home,’” he said.

That will probably change over time. Belkin, which showcased a set of sensors at CES — including one that detects when doors and windows open, and one that can locate a keychain – has evolved its smart-home offerings in response to customer requests, said Ohad Zeira, director of product management for Belkin’s home automation line, called WeMo. As customers get more comfortable with home automation, they start asking for additional features, he said.

About a year ago, customers reported that they were setting Belkin’s automated porchlight to turn on and off based on sunlight, Zeira said — so about a year ago, the company integrated sunlight detection into the light.

“Our job is to refine that message and bring that to consumers,” he said.

Still, concerns about privacy could be holding consumers back, according to a recent survey conducted by the International Data Corp. and the Internet of Things Consortium, a group dedicated to promoting awareness about connected devices. About two thirds of consumers surveyed said they were concerned about the privacy implications of smart-home devices, the survey showed — which data it was collecting and who was able to access it.

During a speech at CES, Edith Ramirez, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, warned against some of those risks and encouraged businesses to take steps to prevent them. The agency last year hosted a summit about the privacy and security risks of an increasingly connected network of devices.

“In the not too distant future, many, if not most, aspects of our everyday lives will leave a digital trail. 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 — one that includes details about our financial circumstances, our health, our religious preferences, and our family and friends,” she said in prepared remarks.