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Up until recently, every company with a smart product forced you to use their app. You were staring down the barrel of a program to monitor your fridge, another one to turn off the lights and another for heat control. Proprietary systems still exist, but many brands such as LG, Whirlpool and Bosch, let users interact with their products via Google Home or Alexa. Now, you can control almost any connected device using a simple voice command.
This alone is a huge step forward, as these assistants bridge the gap between individual apps which made these systems so complex. Digging through multiple apps is frustrating when smart living is supposed to make life much more convenient.
It seems like the past twelve months have been all about Google Home and Alexa, but these digital assistants are starting to move beyond their original home. Sure, you can still use them, but more and more products are integrating Google and Alexa into their actual systems, on top of allowing them to connect. LG, for example, lets you control other devices in the home from your TV, using the remote's microphone.
Google has also unveiled a handful of smart displays built by third-party brands, which are basically Google Home with an inbuilt screen, so you can watch web content or interact with programs as well as issue voice commands. This is also helping bridge the gap between devices, as you can, say, use the screen to follow a recipe while controlling kitchen items such as the oven. These little boxes are bringing everything together.
However, Samsung is still incredibly insistent about consumers using their digital assistant, Bixby, as opposed to a company like LG that's totally cool with Google and Alexa. That's not to say that Samsung will force Bixby down your throat, but the company isn't doing itself any favours by trying to forge their own path in a world where Google and Alexa are popular because they work.
Getting to know you
Control is one thing, but these systems are able to become fully automated thanks to artificial intelligence and deep learning, which are just fancy words for monitoring. Over time, your devices will learn your habits and begin to adapt to your daily routines – for example, you could spend a month telling Google to stream jazz music in the kitchen at eight in the morning. Eventually, you could replace "OK Google, play some jazz in the kitchen," with "OK Google, play music." The system will know that it's 8am, which is when you play jazz in the kitchen, hence the need for reduced commands (though this is just an example). Of course, you have the freedom to override these settings at any point.
Every brand has a proprietary connection system. LG calls theirs ThinQ for example. But most support Google Home and Alexa, as well as offering their own voice commands system, and they generally work with a number of third-party devices as well.
This is possible due to the Internet of Things (IoT), a connectivity system that allows different smart products to communicate with one another, independent of proprietary systems. These are set up through partnerships – for example, a company like Samsung will allow Phillips products to connect through their proprietary network.
It remains to be seen whether the big name brands will play nice with each other (e.g a Samsung fridge and LG oven). That said, some companies are smart enough to know that people prefer to use Google Assistant or Alexa over their proprietary option, and they claim to believe in open networks, so this may change for the better over time, just don't hold your breath.
Powered for prevention
One interesting aspect of smart home tech is its ability to catch problems and alert you before it's too late. A thermostat on display, for example, can ping your app when it detects hidden faults in the system so you can repair it before a brutally cold winter hits. A company called Streamlabs has built a smart water system that helps you keep on top of your bills and identify irregularities in the flow, which could point towards plumbing problems.
Products from major brands, such as LG, have servers dedicated to sending system reports to repair centres, so technicians can also catch problems and suggest sending someone out. Your washing machine can alert you and an LG repairman, for example, early as opposed to a month later when you're standing knee-deep in water a day before going on holidays.
Connected devices, and smart speakers in particular, open up a world of possibilities for those living with reduced dexterity, tremors, limited accessibility, low vision and so on. Instead of fumbling with knobs and dials, it's now possible to say "OK Google, set the air conditioner to 20 degrees." Rather than reach for the faucet, a wheelchair user can say "Alexa, run a warm shower."
With broad integration of Google Assistant and Alexa, as well as a growing number of devices connected to the Internet of Thing, homes designed for assisted living can potentially move from something specialised to technology that anyone can access. Voice-controlled assistants are much easier to learn how to use, especially for those who aren't tech savvy.
But while the possibilities are there, the industry doesn't seem to be building connected devices with improving accessibility in mind. Instead, it's a positive by-product that's emerged from their drive to make people's lives more convenient. The next step is to integrate assistants and voice commands into niche assisted living products, to further improve their ease of use.
Other interesting examples
A few cool examples of smart home tech in action that popped up at CES include:
- Smart monitoring of dishwashing detergent: When the dishwasher detects that your system is running low, it can automatically order more online.
- TVs supporting assistants: You can control smart devices straight from your TV. Samsung demoed an interesting scenario – while watching TV, a doorbell rang, prompting the presenter to say "Bixby, show me the front door camera." His show paused, the camera feed popped up on screen (it was a pizza guy), at which point his show resumed without skipping a beat.
- Smart rooms: Samsung tech can also move active devices from one room to the next. If you're watching TV in the lounge room, you can say "go to bedroom" and all devices such as the TV, lights and aircon will power down in the lounge room while turning on in the bedroom. It even flicks over to the same show you were watching.
- Automated cooking: LG, Whirlpool and others can send cooking instructions to your oven if you select recipes using a connected smartphone or tablet. LG's smart fridge can even recommend meals based on the contents of your fridge and expiry dates.
- Downloadable updates: Head online and download new cycles for your washing machine or recipes for your fridge. This will tell devices to turn on specific settings best tailored to your lifestyle.
How far is too far?
Smart homes are an exciting prospect, but you need to open up your life to one or more companies in order to take advantage of the technology. Privacy and IoT devices don't go hand in hand, particularly when machines start to learn your daily habits. Getting on board with smart homes means knowing that there's a big database somewhere collecting all your commands, habits and interests, which is a prospect that may not sit well for some.
Also, think of a product and you can bet there's a smart version of it. Smart spatulas were even on display! The question is, is there a benefit in making everything smart? In some cases, it could have a negative impact on your life and mental health. For example, there were a number of baby monitoring stations with inbuilt cameras that sat above the bassinet or cot, and though these can be used for good, they can also play on the insecurities and concerns of stressed and nervous parents who could become hooked on watching their child 24 hours a day.
In the coming years, almost everything will likely be connected, or at least try to be. The thing is, while TVs, fridges, air conditioners and so on make sense, a world with smart toothbrushes may be a step too far.
More from the 2018 CES