At CES, CNET's panel of experts makes sense of the smart home

Heads of industry representing Nest, Samsung, Amazon and more joined our yearly Smart Home Panel to assess the state of the connected living space and answer questions about its future.

CNET's CES 2016 Smart Home Panel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It doesn't matter if you're a smart home skeptic or a rabid enthusiast -- the chances are good that you've got questions on the subject. After all, for all of its potential, the connected home is still a confusing and uncertain landscape, and even with tech titans like Apple and Google finally getting into the fight, the future is anything but clear.

That's why I wasn't surprised to see a sell-out crowd at CNET's yearly CES Smart Home Panel, where a group of industry leaders gathered to discuss where the smart home is headed and how it might get there. Moderated by CNET Reviews Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Turrentine, the panel included leaders from Amazon, Intel, Nest, Samsung, and upstart manufacturer Big Ass Solutions, all of whom shared their insights on the state of the smart home.

The lively, hour-long discussion covered a wide range of topics, and addressed some excellent questions from the audience. Here are some of the highlights:

The smartest way forward

The smart home continues to grow and evolve, but it's still not nearly as seamless as it needs to be, the panel agreed. Much of the discussion focused on the large number of competing standards and protocols, and what it might take to simplify things. Yoon C. Lee, Samsung's Vice President of Insight Concept and Portfolio, suggested that a convergence of smart home standards will likely be product-driven, and offered up the example of VHS and Beta, saying that, "eventually, whoever creates the best product experience, that protocol will win."

Yoon C. Lee, Vice President of Innovation Concept and Portfolio for Samsung and Greg Hu, head of Product Marketing Apps and Services for the Nest Learning Thermostat's Developer Program.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Lee discussed hubs, too, calling them "a necessary evil." Eric Free, Vice President of Intel's Internet of Things Group agreed.

"You can't have the Internet of Things without the Internet," Free said, "and you can't have a smart home without connectivity."

According to Lee, Samsung's strategy is to incorporate the smart home control functionality you get with a hub into its other products, citing the Korean conglomerate's new Family Hub Refrigerator, which offers touchscreen controls of SmartThings-compatible gadgets, as a prime example. "The refrigerator is the only appliance that's always on," he explained, "so that's a good candidate for a hub."

Lee also suggested that a new generation of housing might be better equipped to handle smart home tech, just as past generations of homes weren't able to take full advantage of utilities like electricity and running water until they had proper plumbing and wiring.

CNET Reviews Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Turrentine and Intel's Eric Free.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The utility analogy contrasted with others on the panel, who saw benefits to an approach that's more oriented towards the do-it-yourself mentality. "DIY is still important," said Greg Hu, the head of Product Marketing Apps and Services for the Nest Learning Thermostat's Developer Program. "You go to the store, you see a beautiful product, you want to install it as soon as you get it. If you can make it DIY, the customer feels more in control."

CNET Executive Editor Rich Brown referenced CNET's experiences in the CNET Smart Home, and claimed that there are advantages to both the DIY and the smart-home-as-a-service approach. "We've had AT&T come by and install their home security and automation system, and it's been great, particularly for someone who wanted to go deep into the smart home," he explained. "That said, they don't have voice [control] yet. If you go the DIY route, I think you get access to some more experimental things."

The discussion also turned to cyber-security, with Hu calling it the crux of the Nest's efforts to implement enhanced Wi-Fi protocols like Google Weave and Thread. "It was very important to us to have that foundational layer that's very secure," he explained.

The panel agreed that security needs to be a strong point of focus for manufacturers as the connected home continues to grow. "Imagine 50 billion devices connected to the cloud, twenty to thirty per home," Free said, using Intel's internal projections to paint a picture of the not-so-distant future. "The good news is that many companies are working very hard to make these devices secure. But it's an ongoing issue, and it's one that we as an industry have to work together on."

The Amazon Echo smart speaker.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Let's talk about voice

The Amazon Echo smart speaker was arguably the biggest smart home breakout of 2015, and it was everywhere we looked at CES, with a bounty of new third-party products and services announcing compatibility with 'Alexa,' Echo's cloud-connected, voice-activated AI. The panel had a lot to say about the emergence of smart home voice controls, with Charlie Kindel, Amazon's Director of Amazon Echo and Alexa, offering his thoughts on what makes Alexa tick.

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Charlie Kindel, Director of Amazon Echo and Alexa.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"The reality is that we're finally there," Kindel said, pointing to the numerous innovations that it's taken to get smart home voice control ready for prime time. He went on to tout Echo's ability to grow with the smart home by way of those cloud-based third-party integrations.

"Almost everything Alexa does happens in the cloud," Kindel explained. "There's very little that happens in the device itself, and that allows us to move very fast."

Other panelists agreed that voice controls have become a compelling part of the smart home's story, with Brown citing it as his "a-ha moment" for the connected living space.

"My three-year-old gets it," said Brown, referring to Echo.

Big Ass Solutions CEO Carey Smith and CNET Executive Editor Rich Brown.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Carey Smith, CEO of Kentucky-based manufacturer and recent smart home upstart Big Ass Solutions, also had praise for Echo. That's not too surprising, considering that the company's new Haiku Home division announced compatibility with Alexa for its lineup of connected products just this week. But Smith also warned that voice isn't the be-all-end-all for the smart home. "You're not going to solve all of the problems all of the time with one method," he said.

More than one audience member had questions about voice control's role in the smart home. One wanted to know how Amazon would address quiet, reserved users who don't talk very much to begin with, and who might not enjoy a voice-controlled smart home.

While Lee jokingly suggested a "clap on, clap off" approach, Kindel pointed to Echo's reviews, where he says that the response to Alexa's voice-activated controls has been overwhelmingly positive.

"The top three or four are from people with disabilities," Kindel said. "They tell stories in these reviews about how with voice, they can control their homes in ways they couldn't before. This is the difference today in the home automation space. We're now at the point in time where we can deliver the kinds of experiences that cause goosebumps."

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