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Smart home experts hope 'magic' moments will convert nonbelievers

A CNET panel featuring industry heavy hitters from Amazon, August, Google and SmartThings discuss the future of the smart home.

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What will it take to convince smart home newbies that the tech is for them?

In a panel at CES in Las Vegas on Thursday some of the biggest names in the smart home industry joined CNET Editor in Chief Lindsey Turrentine and Editor at Large Brian Cooley to look at what it will take for the smart home to become a real, essential and seamless part of everyday life.

Speaking at the event, Alex Hawkinson, chairman and CEO of SmartThings, said the sales his company has seen over the past year suggest it's not just early adopters opting in to the smart home revolution. The industry is growing, but a huge challenge still lies ahead.

Only six to seven percent of people in the US have encountered a smart home product, Mike George, vice president of Alexa and Apps at Amazon pointed out. What then will it take to convince those other 94 percent of people to invest in a smart home of their very own?

Three things, according to Jason Johnson, CEO and founder of August Home. First there is the realization that smart devices can save you money, as well as making your home more safe and secure. But let's not forget convenience and delight. "It's fun to have some pretty magical things in your life," he said.

"There's always wow moments that people will see and that is always a convincing mechanism," agreed Rishi Chandra, vice president of Product Management for Google Home. But, he added, "the bar is very high." It is easy to turn the light on yourself, so it's not going to amaze you when you can use your phone. "If I have to pick up my phone to interact with a bunch of things in my house it loses the simplicity," he said.

Goodbye phones, hello Alexa (et al.)

The phone as a portal to interacting with your smart home has to go, agreed George. With a phone, the experience won't feel frictionless. It won't induce the requisite awe in people. But without? "Some of the simplest things are going to feel like magic to the 90 percent that haven't touched this yet," he said.

Voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa, which George is responsible for, are contributing significantly towards creating the seamless experiences that could help persuade smart home newbies the tech is for them. "There has to be enough value when you see it and experience it," said Chandra. "The voice mechanism was a breakthrough."

But it's not just voice control that makes the smart home magic. "We thought through what was the best experience," said Johnson, "and the best interface is no interface." His company August makes smart locks that know who you are when you approach, allowing you to walk up your front door and just open it. "Once you've experienced it you're like: wow this is the way all doors should be," he said.

The panel agreed that ensuring interoperability between brands and being able to guarantee that security is watertight are also key to converting new smart home customers. But they want this to be a problem for the industry to solve, not something to concern consumers and distract or detract from their delight.

Over the next year, predicted Hawkinson, more people will be given the chance to experience magic moments due to tech being embedded into things people are already buying, a declining need to download separate apps for everything and more support for customers going past their first device. "The complexity will not be foisted on the consumer," he said.

"The experience we create for the consumer has to abstract complexity away," agreed George. "Make it seamless and frictionless then I think we win. People will begin to see the value of the smart home."