Commentary: For the first time, we're peering clearly into an automated future.
"In the living room the voice clock sang," reads the opening line of Ray Bradbury's seminal short story "There Will Come Soft Rains." At the time of its publication in 1950, the smart home was scarcely more than an idea, a narrative vehicle to explore a new-made, post-bomb reality. Yet in the ensuing decades, the idea of the smart home began to materialize, slowly at first, then with abandon, growing glass eyes, mesh skin and a plastic carapace, asserting its reality on an unprepared world in the form of smart speakers, TVs, lights, locks, doorbells, thermostats -- millions upon millions of devices.
2022 may well mark a final step toward incarnation for the smart home: Millions of people have been driven into their homes during the pandemic; millions more have begun building new homes according to the emergent needs of a world rewritten by COVID; average internet speeds can finally support connected homes, and those speeds will only continue to climb; a new communication protocol might finally unite a historically siloed industry; and, perhaps most importantly, people are more tech-literate, more tech-interested and readier to live in smart homes than ever before.
Taken individually, each of these trends is intriguing. Taken collectively, they paint a vivid picture of the smart home growing ever more solid, more real. 2022 is a hinge year for the market, and the changes that happen in the next few months could come to define the industry for years.
Anyone might've predicted the shift toward remote work and rise of at-home life given a global pandemic, but the effects of COVID-19 on the housing market in 2021 were more surprising to many. In markets across the country, buyers proliferated and sellers prospered.
In Louisville, Kentucky, where I was unfortunate enough to be house shopping in April of 2021, my family regularly watched houses sell for $60,000 above their estimated value, often with dozens of aggressive bidders. Every weekend was a feeding frenzy. Hundreds of homes would post on Zillow on Friday morning, and nearly every one of them would be under contract by Monday.
"I can tell you in general what happened with COVID," MIT professor of urban economics and real estate Albert Saiz told me a year later, in early 2022. "The interest rates came down lower, with the Federal Reserve being incredibly accommodating -- and that was a good thing for them to do, because it probably saved the American economy and the world's economy. That coupled with the fact that people were at home [for] longer periods of time and with an increased demand for housing amenities."
The result, according to Saiz, was higher demand for housing -- particularly for housing detached from urban centers and with more amenities for the homebound -- without the supply to match it.
One outcome of this housing shortage was rising numbers of new residential constructions. Building permits and construction starts saw significant gains in late 2020 and across 2021, far surpassing earlier years. Building completions? Not so much.
"When demand changes, it [tends to change] dramatically," said Saiz. "But supply is very, very slow to adjust. … In this case, that's even worse than in a usual boom, because in the supply side you also have all these constraints."
Emergent constraints range from bottlenecks on imports like wood and nails to labor shortages -- not to mention the delays that crop up at each stage of the house-building process each time another COVID variant sweeps the country.
In short, there continues to be demand for homes -- especially homes that people can imagine spending a greater deal of time in. That has led to high rates of home construction. Yet the lag is lengthening between extant demand and new supply, creating a unique opportunity for industrywide changes. Home builders are seizing that opportunity.
According to Conrad McCallum, a representative for The Continental Automated Buildings Association, a more service-based model for smart home tech is becoming increasingly popular in the multi-family housing sector.
"[The] shift from the user being responsible for managing individual smart devices to a scenario where services are enabled by ecosystems of devices," said McCallum, "can lead to cost savings for property managers … [including] reduced labor costs, insurance savings and risk displacement, and better customer satisfaction through managed-service offerings that are transparent."
A similar trend is happening in the higher end of the single-family residential sector. Toll Brothers, one of the largest luxury home construction companies in the United States, now includes select smart home devices -- such as locks, thermostats, garage openers, lights or irrigation -- in every new construction. The company operates in 60 markets across 24 states.
"I think we've reached a point where smart home control is expected in new home construction," Felicia Ratka, president of Toll Brothers Smart Home Technologies, told me. "It is no longer a novelty but rather a proven feature that home buyers want in their new home."
That demand is rapidly expanding and, like other builders, Toll Brothers is quickly adjusting its offerings to meet it -- from letting homeowners choose which voice assistant they want controlling their house to rolling out entirely new connected systems. In 2022, for instance, Toll Brothers introduced a partnership with Kohler to build whole-home leak detection and water usage monitoring into their homes.
"We find our home buyers want solutions that are open platforms and extend beyond just controlling lights and locks and the most common smart home features," said Ratka. "They also want to integrate control of their televisions and distributed audio systems, so we make sure that we are able to provide that level of control."
While home integration on this scale is still mostly limited to the luxury market -- which sometimes plays by its own rules -- it's unlikely to stay there.
"[Mass adoption] always starts … at the higher end of the market," said Saiz. "As the technology matures … and production techniques improve, in 10 years, every new homebuyer is going to want the house to at least have the audio system, the lighting, the temperature and the door to be operated by the cellphone."
"This," he said, "is a critical inflection point."
As we've learned from cellphones and personal computers, technology standards change quickly; old phones and laptops are often outmoded within a few years of launch, and smart home devices are no different.
Cory Sorice knows this as well as anyone: He worked at Chamberlain -- the largest manufacturer of garage door openers in America -- when it began installing MyQ-ready openers in new homes in 2011. These openers had some of the components necessary to connect to your smartphone, but they needed an additional device -- a bridge.
Flash forward nearly 10 years and Chamberlain has released two bridge devices that complete the half-functional components built into many of its garage door openers between 2011 and 2014. It also sells a "hub" that bypasses the existing hardware altogether. The MyQ Hub, which allows most garage doors to be automated, is cheaper than the bridge devices that enable what came inside Chamberlain's MyQ-ready generation of garage door openers -- making those bridges and the MyQ-ready openers largely redundant.
Sorice learned from his time at Chamberlain and is bringing his experience to his most recent position, as senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Masonite, the company that announced a connected front door at CES 2022.
Along with internal wiring, Masonite's M-Pwr door comes with a built-in Ring video doorbell, Yale smart lock and LED lights. Unlike Chamberlain's quickly outdated MyQ-ready garage door openers, however, Masonite's door will make replacing its individual components easy -- and it will provide components useful for future upgrades, such as devices that can automatically open or shut the door upon your approach.
"Effectively all the electronics are replaceable," explained Sorice. "We know that people are going to pick different technologies. They may say, 'I [want] a Google home,' and the previous owner had an Amazon home. They'll have the ability to [make that change]."
Like many devices marketed to home builders, the M-Pwr front door won't turn the head of the average consumer. But it represents two trends that are vital to the future of the smart home. First, the M-Pwr uses modular design -- that is, design that empowers you to upgrade your own home as the industry evolves, rather than tethering you to the tech available the year the home is built. Second, it avoids promoting flashy individual devices, opting instead to grow the connective tissue between those popular products.
That connective tissue may be seeing the largest revolution of all.
The smart home might have grown eyes, ears and a voice over the past decade, but more importantly, it's grown the nervous system to connect and harmonize its newfound limbs and capacities.
Average internet speeds in 2009, according to the FCC, hovered around 4 megabits per second. The national average in recent years is in the neighborhood of 100 Mbps. Even my comparatively paltry 59 Mbps broadband speed, the cheapest offered by my Kentucky provider, is more than enough to stream video in 4K, support numerous smart cameras, stream music via an Echo show, and so on -- something practically unheard of a decade ago.
Slow internet isn't the only barrier to interconnectivity: The last five years have seen a blistering race between tech's biggest brands for countertop real estate in your home, with Amazon, Google and Apple leading the charge. Estimates for the number of smart speakers sold by the end of 2021 hover around 90 million, and dozens of other types of devices, from connected lightbulbs and switches to cameras and fridges, have spread far and wide.
But idiosyncrasy appears to rule the day: Each line of devices has its own app; each device its own communication protocols; each brand its own alliances and antipathies. The result is a tangled web with as many holes as threads.
Enter Matter, a new and much-touted, open source communication protocol from the Connectivity Standards Alliance, slated to launch in mid-2022. Matter aims to unite smart home devices, promoting interoperability between companies like Amazon, Google and Apple, which in the past have remained resolutely siloed. No longer will you have to cobble together the right admixture of smart home gadgets to make your whole house cooperate; no longer will Siri control your smart blinds while Alexa controls your smart lights and Google Assistant controls your locks.
More than 200 companies have already partnered with the Connectivity Standards Alliance to use Matter, including nearly every major smart home developer -- and while certain devices, like cameras, won't be supported by Matter 1.0, the CSA has been clear that they are soon to join the lineup.
"Over 2,000 engineers are spending … each day working together to make sure this is a lasting and successful standard," Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the alliance, told me. "Making this as open as possible so that developers have a really clean view as to how everything works [and how they can use it] … that's really what all this is about."
The promise of Matter (assuming it delivers) is a better-integrated home and crucially one that's more accessible to the average person.
Just as important for the long-term viability of the smart home, Matter also establishes shared security standards, addressing a particular pain point for the industry over the past few years. Apple, which has justified its lack of interoperability by appealing to security, has signed onto Matter, too, citing its security and privacy measures.
The mere existence of Matter as a widely accepted and open-source protocol also puts pressure on brands to join and integrate more fully -- or suffer separation, disconnected in a market that prizes connectivity above nearly all else.
While accessibility is increasing, we are not simply standing idle. Average people are becoming more comfortable with many of the mechanisms that undergird the internet of things. The vast majority of Americans these days own a smartphone, know how to install an app, understand on a broad level internet speeds and so on. We're increasingly comfortable with once obscure security concepts like encryption, multifactor authentication and so on.
In other words, the smart home isn't just getting easier to use; we're getting better at using it.
Things are changing in 2022, and everyone I've talked to, from economists to engineers, seemed to intuit the change. Like in Bradbury's imagination, our homes could soon be peopled by robots; connected devices could touch every moment of our private lives. The body of the smart home is coming together, stitched limb by limb. All that it lacks -- after our ambition and effort -- is an animating spark.