Homes are getting smarter every day. Throughout the pandemic, consumer adoption of “smart” devices – those with connectivity and remote monitoring and management features – has risen steadily. By the end of 2020, 40 percent of U.S. broadband households had at least one smart device. The right push could accelerate the category’s steady growth of the past few years into a period of rapid adoption and proliferation. Smart consumer electronics are already powerful and capable; the push they need is increased convenience.
Convenience is a powerful motivator. Once consumers have found an easier way of doing something, they won’t willingly go back to doing it the hard way. The litany of recent announcements from the makers of leading AI assistants are compelling not only because they’re cool, but also because they dramatically increase the convenience of smart devices. For example, the Ring Doorbell’s quick replies can screen visitors, accept packages, and thank delivery people without the homeowner even needing to tap on the app. The Echo Show 10’s mechanized screen robotically follows the user around a room. Given that recipes are a top use case for the device, this convenient feature saves home chefs from having to wash their hands in order to turn the screen towards them as they move from the cutting board to the stove.
Features like these can compel consumers to adopt a device, but the same logic could be extended to inspire homeowners to adopt an ecosystem. In 2021, look for the following convenience-led AI trends to spur and capitalize on growth in the integrated smart home market:
1. AI will train users.
Smart device capabilities are always growing, but users can’t be expected to proactively seek out and try them. As a result, AI-powered virtual assistants will increasingly present innovative new features to users without their even having to ask. For example, the “smart hunches” feature from Amazon learns users’ habits – turning off lights at night, setting an alarm when leaving the house, adjusting the thermostat in the afternoon – and then converts those actions into automated routines. While obviously helpful and convenient, this type of automation subtly trains users to believe that smart devices are easier to own than “dumb” ones. The more users believe that their devices are easier to deal with when connected, the more connected devices they will adopt.
Paradoxically, as users interact with virtual assistants less, they rely on them more. When users have to repeat their instructions, or verbally confirm instructions once given, it erodes their confidence in the ecosystem. On the flip side, when AI silently and correctly responds to commands, or performs them without having to be asked, it has the opposite effect: Users begin to take the assistants’ help for granted, which resets their baseline for the level of convenience they expect within their homes. The Orro system exemplifies this concept: Through a combination of motion sensing, sound detection, and AI, it learns users’ habits and controls their lights automatically. As the user trains the system through their behavior, they are also being trained to rely on the system to manage their environment and energy usage.
2. Smart home devices will promote savings through sustainability.
Today, energy efficiency that reduces bills is a growing consideration for consumers when they purchase electronics and appliances. Money is often a more effective motivator than virtue, though – over half of consumers aren’t willing to pay more for a more efficient device, according to a recent Morning Consult survey. Virtual assistants with automated energy monitoring and management features could change that equation. By tracking energy consumption, proactively designing and suggesting routines to reduce power usage, and organizing the resulting data for users in a visual dashboard, AI assistants can clarify the return on investment of energy-efficient devices. If a more expensive smart device has a demonstrably lower cost of ownership than its unmanaged counterparts, its appeal to consumers grows.
3. Virtual assistants will look for long-term relationships.
Siri, Alexa, Josh, Bixby, and Google Assistant don’t just want to be the friend consumers occasionally ask for a favor; they want to be one of the most important relationships in their lives. This year will bring increasing efforts from virtual assistant developers to make their AIs an essential embedded feature of systems users will keep for decades. Google’s recently announced co-branded thermostat with Goodman exemplifies this trend. Homeowners may replace a smart speaker, or even a thermostat, in a couple of years – but they won’t replace the AI that makes their HVAC system easier to use and manage.
Other companies are looking to embed their AI into the structure of the home itself. Lennar’s Connected Homes are built from the ground up as Alexa environments, preloaded with Echo devices, Ring doorbells and security systems, and eero Wi-Fi extenders throughout the home. The Josh Nano from Josh.ai leverages no-compromises interior design to embed itself fully throughout a building. By blending invisibly into the walls or ceiling of each room, Josh’s coin-sized smart mics truly become part of the home.
Notably, all of these long-term relationships involve professional integration services. As smart homes rise in popularity and complexity, professional services will be essential to preserving convenience.
4. Rising device density will require more networking expertise.
The previous trends will drive more connected devices into peoples’ homes. Thus far, Wi-Fi has been a convenient and reliable network connectivity strategy for many smart technology adopters. As the number of devices per household proliferates, however, or as consumers increasingly wish to extend smart home capabilities to outdoor entertainment spaces, its weaknesses are revealed. If the Wi-Fi signal band is crowded with interference from dozens of devices, all the Wi-Fi repeaters on earth won’t solve the resulting connectivity problems. Consumers will need to get smarter about how they set up their home networks – or hire someone with the expertise to manage these complexities on their behalf.
Professional integrators can educate consumers about their options. For example: Many of the “long-term commitment” devices that anchor the AI assistant ecosystem are essentially static. HVAC systems and even televisions don’t really move once they’ve been installed – why should such devices be on Wi-Fi when they could instead get better reliability and bandwidth from a wired connection? Consumers may also be unaware that they have other wireless network options for controlling home automation devices, some of which, like Z Wave, operate outside of the crowded Wi-Fi band.
5. Homeowners will invest in privacy and security.
The rising number of devices on the network also means a significant expansion of network vulnerabilities. Because of the number of people working and learning from home, those vulnerabilities now represent a higher risk. Home networks now carry not just the homeowners’ personal data, but their children’s, companies’, and clients’ information as well. In a recent presentation at the TecHome Builder Online Summit, Parks Associates shared data showing that more than three quarters of U.S. broadband households are concerned about security and privacy. Given the value of the assets being protected, there is no reason to approach home network security any differently from enterprise network security – except that most homeowners lack the time and the knowledge to do so. Fortunately, there is an emerging class of AI-powered tools that can bridge this gap. For example, Guarddog’s cloud-based and on-premises hardware tools work together to assess the vulnerability of connected devices, manage security updates and monitor for attacks in real time. Providing such network security tools and monitoring could be a key ongoing revenue opportunity for custom technology integrators.
On top of security breaches by hackers or bots, homeowners are concerned about losing privacy to the smart devices they are inviting in. There is an opportunity here for privacy-first home automation designs. Josh.ai is leading the way on this trend. The Josh Core performs natural language processing for voice commands on the local network instead of sending information to the cloud. For added reassurance, each Josh Nano mic has a physical privacy switch. Features like this allow consumers to gain the convenience of a smart home without sacrificing privacy.
The baseline of consumer expectations is moving towards more connectivity. This isn’t happening by accident – virtual assistant developers are consciously adding features that encourage the adoption of more smart devices and reward deeper integration among them. Whole-home integration is starting to look convenient, indeed – and the convenient quickly becomes the essential. These desirable conveniences have hidden complexities, however, especially with respect to networking, security, and privacy. Integrators can realize opportunity from this environment by meeting the expectation for privacy and convenience with an elevated experience that makes consumers feel at ease in their smart homes.