Smart homes in a post-pandemic world

By Dannielle Furness
Tuesday, 01 June, 2021

Smart homes in a post-pandemic world

Plenty has been written about the life after COVID-19 and what it will mean for work, travel, entertainment and our day-to-day lives. So, what changes will ‘the new normal’ bring for the home automation industry?

Once upon a time, control and automation was reserved for high-end homes — luxury residences complete with home theatre, access controls and intelligent lighting systems that were the exception, rather than the rule.

Pulling all those elements together took some serious integration capability and a reasonable amount of money. While the technology may not have been in the mainstream then, there was continual promise that the smart home would soon be within reach of everyone.

Flash forward to 2021 and home automation technology is easily available to the average consumer, but how does the ever-increasing range of affordable, disparate wireless devices stack up against an engineered solution comprising a dedicated wired network full of intelligent devices capable of complex conditional logic? Are they chalk and cheese, or does one inevitably lead to the other... and does it even matter?

Home, sweet home

Collectively, we’ve obviously all spent more time at home throughout the last year and a half. That’s been good news for suppliers of smart products at the lower end of the automation scale — devices including smart plugs, lightbulbs and cameras, along with mini speaker/automation hubs like the Amazon Echo Dot or Google Nest Mini. Combined with a smart phone and a voice-activated AI assistant, consumers can use these devices to initiate low-level home automation and control music, lighting and implement a basic security set-up.

For plenty of people, that’s enough... for now.

But that’s not really how things generally play out in the longer term. Once we’ve had a taste of additional lifestyle benefits or increased convenience, we humans tend to stick with labour-saving devices and technologies that deliver better outcomes. No-one went back to the horse and buggy or doing laundry by hand once the alternatives arrived, after all.

Can I help you?

The ‘traditional’ smart home market has always been fragmented, with vendors typically offering solutions that operate within their own discrete ecosystem. As the market matured, it became more commonplace for these vendors to make APIs available to other solution providers to make interoperability easier to achieve, but it’s still pretty much every man for himself at the foundation.

That situation still applies to today’s entry level automation options, with massive tech companies like Google, Apple and Amazon (I think we can agree Amazon is no longer a ‘retailer’) centring their smart home hub products around their virtual assistants. Your choice of smart home solution is now driven by the phone you already own along with the assistant and ecosystem you are accustomed to or are willing to adopt.

The AI-powered virtual assistants are the strength of these products and their increasing capability will begin to rival the ‘scene setting’ functionality offered by more mature automation solutions, where multiple actions can be carried out by a single command — where a phrase like “Goodbye House” can initiate lights off/on, security armed and blinds down, for example. Beyond that, the real hope for AI is the pre-emptive capability the assistants will offer. As they become more familiar with the behaviours and habits of users, they put those learnings to work and make system adjustments without any intervention.

In making these virtual assistants indispensable, tech vendors are ensuring their products are relatively sticky in the hope of fostering a long-term connection with users. Traditional home automation systems are also inherently sticky, though not necessarily for the same reason — it’s more likely because they are hard-wired in and are expensive enough to make changing to another system a bridge too far for many homeowners.

Topping out device numbers

One of downsides of the ‘hub and smart-plug’ approach is a reliance on wireless technology, which can exhibit significant limitations when it comes to device numbers and reliability — an area where wired alternatives tend to have an edge.

For many homeowners, wireless networks were stretched to the limit through COVID-19, with parents and kids competing for bandwidth while working and studying at home. Privacy and security concerns subsequently also rose in recognition of the fact that every connected device increases network vulnerability. Throw a proliferation of smart home devices into the mix and things start getting messy.

The devices themselves are often the cause of privacy concerns, with consumers questioning the security of speakers and hub devices that are programmed to continually listen for trigger words.

This combination of issues makes a wired network solution a compelling option for concerned homeowners, particularly in the face of an increasing number of smart device options including appliances like fridges, washing machines and microwaves.

Blending lifestyle improvement with environmental concerns

Early smart home systems were basically adaptations of lighting control and building management systems, where sales arguments were heavily skewed towards the energy-saving benefit offered by these solutions and their substantial impact on the bottom line — something close to the heart of commercial building owners, operators and tenants.

In residential environments, energy saving may have been a concern for some consumers but it was usually overshadowed by the lifestyle benefits offered by smart homes — convenience, aesthetics and prestige.

Things look a little different in 2021, with climate change and environmental concerns top of mind for many consumers. While more likely to incorporate climate control in their homes, today’s homeowners are equally keen to ensure they are environmentally responsible. Consumers are as interested in where the power they use comes from as they are in how much they are using — it’s a notably different mindset from, say, 20 years ago and has helped Australia achieve one of the highest uptakes of rooftop solar systems in the world.

This new attitude is driving expectation around monitoring and reporting from smart home systems, whereby energy consumption is tracked and reported.

Convenience, connectivity and sanctuary

While COVID-19 lockdowns drove many workers and homeowners to ‘simpler’ distractions — like baking bread or learning an instrument — they also heightened the benefit of smart home technology backed by reliable connectivity.

With homes designated the epicentre of pandemic existence, many of us were obliged to use — and share — the same space for work, health, rest and entertainment. Wanting to improve that space was an obvious effect, with sales of homewares, appliances and electronics soaring in the early days of lockdown.

As long as international travel remains off the table (for the most part) and our vaccination programs suffer fits and starts, it’s still hard to estimate when things will officially be ‘back to normal’ — or if they ever really will.

For the home automation industry, this isn’t such a bad thing. As consumers learn to trust and rely on existing devices and assistants, and to venture into the automation space with entry-level products, the market potential grows. We know that ‘nice to have’ eventually becomes ‘can’t live without’ and that consumers will seek the solutions that offer the best alternative for their particular set of concerns, including convenience, connectivity and security. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that uncertain times cause us to seek comfort, connection and sanctuary... which sound like ideal conditions for the smart home industry.

Image credit: © Grinvalds

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