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What’s Next for Smart Home: Simplicity Trumps Smarts

Between smart thermostats like the Nest and Ecobee, and security cameras like the Nest Cam, there's no question that there's demand for smart-home gadgets. In fact, according to technology research firm Strategy Analytics, consumer spending on smart-home-related hardware, services and installation fees will reach $22 billion in 2015, and grow to $45 billion by 2020. By then, more than 40 percent of homes should have at least one type of smart-home system installed.

Credit: Nest

(Image credit: Nest)

"The ability to adopt this technology is drastically different than it was 15 or 20 years ago," said Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Technology Association. "[Then,] if you wanted to have a smart home, you'd have to hire an installer; you'd have to cut drywall and you'd have to run cables. It was a pretty big task. Today, you can do something as simple as take your 9-volt battery out of your smoke alarm and put in one that's connected ─ we saw one launch last year at CES."

Credit: Roost

(Image credit: Roost)

DuBravac is referring to the Roost Smart Battery ($34.99), which we reviewed and rated 9/10 because of its utility and simplicity. There is also a growing number of devices that are tacking on smart-home features, such as Amazon's Echo speaker. For example, it lets you control Philips Hue lights using just your voice.

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If you look at a device like the Nest Learning Thermostat, there's a reason why the company doesn't even use words like "smart home" to market it. "A smart home is defined as having connected devices that can be remotely controlled with your smartphone, tablet or PC," said Mike Soucie, Nest's product partnership lead. "And it sort of becomes this glorified remote control for a connected object. We really emphasized the idea that a connected device can learn and automate over time through use and data collection in order to create a better experience. So you're not tied to your screen."

In 2016, expect to see smarter appliances, including a refrigerator that lets you see what's inside when you're at the grocery store.

Soucie said a big trend of 2016 will be consumers trying their first connected product. Assuming it's a good experience, they'll likely move on to the next one, at which point connectivity or interoperability between products would be ideal.

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However, for most home owners, there's not much incentive yet for having various gadgets talking to each other.

"We're not even close to people seeing the value in multiple devices being connected," NPD's Stephen Baker said. "So many of the pieces that are in there don't have a lot of value to people ─ Wi-Fi garage-door openers, video doorbells, sensors on your water main, and stuff like that."

One obstacle for mainstream adoption of multiple smart-home devices is that there's confusion around what products work with others. It certainly doesn't help that there are many competing wireless standards, from Zigbee and Z-wave to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The idea behind the Thread Group is to combine multiple technologies to create a networking protocol that makes it easier for the Internet of Things to talk to each other. The group has more than 220 members, including Nest. 

In the end, the consumer doesn't care about the underlying technology, and they shouldn't have to care," Soucie said. "When you see the Works with Nest badge you know that it's going to work within the network regardless of protocol.”

For now, products that solve a specific problem are resonating most with shoppers. In 2016, you can expect to see smarter appliances, including a refrigerator that lets you see what's inside when you're at the grocery store, and stoves that send you an alert on your smartphone to let you know when your roast is done. Also expect to see dozens of connected LED light bulbs with secondary features, such as built-in speakers.

A Mercedes-Benz can now communicate with your Nest thermostat and start to cool your abode when you're on your way home.

"A lot of pitches I've been getting are looking at interconnectivity and trying to create really meaningful and robust use-case scenarios that make sense," DuBravac said. "I think you'll start to see an expansion of that."

For Nest's Soucie, the future will be less about individually controlled devices and more about the smart home revolving around you and your family and your comings and goings. For instance, a Mercedes-Benz can now communicate with your Nest thermostat and start to cool your abode when you're on your way home based on your ETA.

"That's going to be a trend: using data and intelligence in smarter ways in order to make a more seamless consumer experience that just works where the consumer doesn't have to think about it," Soucie said.

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