One idea for retail, debuted in 2013 by Lowe's, is that shoppers might be more likely to pick up multiple smart home products if the store puts its stamp of approval on a hub that will tie them all together.
Even if many consumers still don't quite get the smart home, 2014 gave them plenty brick-and-mortar opportunities to buy in.
How's that Lockitron smart lock treating you?
Smart locks had the worst of it in 2014, with high profile projects Lockitron and Goji both falling short of delivery expectations for their backers.
Lockitron is trickling out to backers in small quantities, but given its original March 2013 ship date, it remains embarrassingly far behind. Goji, a smart lock with a built-in camera, was due this April, but after an earlier delay, was recently pushed back another year.
We've seen some crowd-funding success stories for the smart home (SmartThings chief among them), but with so many new smart-home projects popping up in 2014, the stage is set for more disappointment.
We reviewed a few connected household devices from Quirky in 2013, but none of them had the impact or the ambition of the products the company unveiled this past year.
Quirky opened with the Aros air conditioner in May, then followed up with its own Wink smart-home brand (complete with a decent Hub), then a sleek-looking connected control panel, and finally an entire suite of connected home products.
We like Quirky's vision, and our experience with Quirky/Wink products has been generally positive, although we've encountered a few connectivity issues and other odd behaviors in its products more often than we'd like. With great exposure comes great criticism, but with a little more QA, Quirky could dominate the smart home.
Working together with small-batch car manufacturer Local Motors, GE launched an experimental, crowd-sourced appliance-making facility on the campus of the University of Louisville. The idea is to help it design and iterate new appliance concepts quickly, then produce them in small batches to see how they're received with actual consumers.
How FirstBuild will be impacted by GE selling its appliance business to Electrolux is a rather large question mark hovering over the little makerspace, but it's heartening to see a massive, publicly-held manufacturer invest in a project with a longer reward cycle. If Electrolux takes over FirstBuild, I hope it sees the value here.
The FNV Labs Mellow sous vide machine was one of the first connected small appliances that truly made sense. It won't ship until 2015, but when it does it will bring app-connected sous vide cooking with a built-in refrigeration element. If it works, you'll be able to throw a bag of salmon steak into the Mellow in the morning, and it will stay refrigerated until you tell it to start cooking in time for you to walk in the door at the end of the day.
We saw connected sous vide products from Anova and Nomiku that also have promise this year, as well as two semi-useful smart kitchen scales (we like Drop best). The connected large appliance is still a work in progress, but the sous vide device makers have found at least one sensible path through the smart kitchen.
Nest Labs is arguably the best-known name in the modern smart home, but the company had a setback this year when it had to disable the gesture recognition feature from its Protect smoke detector. Waving your hands in front of the device was supposed to shut off an unwanted alarm, but it turned out that it might also silence itself unexpectedly during an actual smoke event.
The fallout meant pulling the product from the market, disabling that feature, and dropping the price to $99. It still has some smarts, but it's missing a centerpiece feature.
If there's a silver lining, it's that Nest Labs discovered the problem in its own lab, then proactively self-reported and did its best to make things right with consumers. Not every company would have done the same.
One part of the appeal of recent smart home devices is they can free you from the old contract-based home-automation systems.
That model is still popular, though. Just this year, AT&T added new hardware to its subscription-based Digital Life smart-home kit, and added 6 new cities in which it provides service, for a total of 81.
The thing that makes the smart home broadly understandable for consumers might be a developer toolkit. As it stands right now, having a truly automated home largely means opening up a bunch of different apps, and messing around with timers and behavior programming schemes for your various devices. The promise of Apple's HomeKit is that it will allow smart-home device makers to link their device controls directly into iOS, including Siri.
In theory that could turn your iOS device into a voice-capable smart-home hub.
We'll learn more at CES 2015 when iDevices and others unveil the first batch of HomeKit-compatible smart home products. Mark the calendar for January 5, 2015.
Sure, its Haiku Ceiling Fan looks fantastic. The optional SenseMe module is what makes the fan smart, giving it temperature and humidity awareness and the ability to respond accordingly. You can get extra efficiency if you tie the fan to your smart thermostat thanks to a partnership with Nest Labs.
But mostly we like the name: Big Ass Fans, folks (they just put out a Big Ass Light, too). This industry needs more companies like this.
2014 was notable in connected large appliances for the fact that most manufacturers seemed to be in re-evaluation mode.
LG focused on a chat feature, but only in Korea. Whirlpool partnered with Nest Labs. Electrolux showed-off an interesting so far Europe-only cooking interface. No one rolled out major connected features across all of their appliance categories.
This isn't a death knell for the smart appliance. It reads more like taking a pause, perhaps to process consumer feedback from earlier attempts. Regardless, this story isn't over.
I've held a prototype of the Edyn. and it's appropriately heavy for a gardening implement. Throw in its solar-driven electronics, and that it checks off all the right boxes as far as what it can measure (temperature, humidity, pH, and so on), and this thing sounds like it's poised to take over its niche. The design from Yves Behar-led shop fuseproject also doesn't hurt.
Me-too products are inevitable for any new, fast-growing category. The Archos Smart Home Starter Pack is a classic example. A multicomponent kit with an awkward control tablet, an optimistic price tag, and an assortment of underpowered accessories, it commoditizes a category that still has plenty of room for thoughtful innovation. We can think of at least two or three ways to create a similar kit with individual pieces, all of which will work better than this one does.
Three major acquisitions helped the smart home market consolidate in 2014.
Nest Labs made two moves, picking up Web security camera maker DropCam, and Revolv, the company behind one of the more robust smart-home hubs. DropCam gives Nest ownership of arguably the best security camera on the market. If the company wants to establish itself as the home of the best smart home accessories components, it's certainly on the right track.
The Revolv purchase was about the engineers. Nest says it will discontinue selling the Revolv hardware, but picking up the team behind the hub that supported the widest number of smart-home protocols gives Nest the expertise to explore more connectivity options.
Samsung's plans for SmartThings seem less clear. SmartThings gives Samsung control of arguably the most innovative smart-home hub, and has already made SmartThing the control point for its connected large appliances. SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson has promised that his platform will remain open, though, so the odds of Samsung using it to kick-off a proprietary smart-home brand seem slim. I'm personally excited to see how much interactivity Samsung will allow between its large appliances and other connected devices. Appliance makers have traditionally siloed off their large appliances citing safety reasons. But if you can get the lights to blink upstairs when the dryer goes off in the basement, consumers might see the appeal.
I want voice to work as a smart-home control interface. I'm optimistic Apple's HomeKit will help make it viable, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Google Now emerge as alternative.
We'd already considered robot vacuums as smart-home devices, given their navigation and scheduling capabilities. Dyson just helped solidify that idea by debuting the Dyson 360 Eye, the first robot vacuum you can control with an app.
The 360 Eye makes its debut in Japan next year for 130,000 Yen, or just under $1,100 US if you converted the price today. That would make it the most expensive robot vacuum in the US market.
Whether consumers here are ready for that kind of price tag is an open question, but the 360 Eye must give iRobot, Neato and others a competitive jolt. Even if it never comes to the US, we're all for the 360 Eye if it can spur more innovation.
Ecobee had a smart thermostat on the market before Nest Labs, but you probably never knew it since it was restricted to the custom installer market. The Ecobee3, which we reviewed in November, proved the company has learned a thing or two along the way.
One great feature is its remote beacon accessory. A smart thermostat can only detect the temperature in the room you've installed it in. That's great if you happen to be in that room, but once you go elsewhere, particularly to another floor, you may find the thermostat needs better data from around your house. A beacon does that. The Ecobee3 comes with one. Nest doesn't have any. And SmartThings integration gives it a robust network of companion devices.
Honeywell is also gunning for Nest, and it's put out multiple different thermostats since 2013. Its most recent, the Lyric, needed software polish when we looked at it last. It may be just a matter of time before it puts out a Nest-beater of its own.
If Lockitron and Goji have been smart-lock disappointments, August helped reinvigorate the category in 2014. It works as promised, and it's easy to install. No, it won't let you get rid of a physical key, but that's not the point. Instead, it has an assortment of features, geofencing, and the ability to assign electronic keys to any other iOS user that give you greater control over your door. Most importantly, they also work well. More smart locks will come to market. August is the one they need to beat.
If I was a small-appliance maker, I would probably enter the smart home the same way Jarden Consumer Solutions did this year. Find an established tech firm to help with the connectivity. Keep the smart features simple, and don't overcharge.
Working with Belkin to bring connected versions of its thoroughly mainstream CrockPot and Mr. Coffee products to market this year, Jarden nailed the pricing and the partner. And while it succeeded in keeping the smart interactions simple (neither device will let you map behavior to a trigger from another product, for example), the added value was questionable. You don't need an app to schedule many contemporary coffee makers already, so that feature didn't feel novel in the Mr. Coffee machine. And letting you use your phone to turn it on remotely is silly given that if you're not already scheduling the coffee maker, chances are you're standing right in front of it.
That might be the key problem with adding smarts to many mundane household gadgets. There's little about them that needs automating. A connected Mr. Coffee 2.0 could still hold a surprise or two, but without a big leap in programmable functionality, it might be better to put this experiment down as a lesson learned.
This is one of those idea you'll wish was yours. Most recent smartphones have Wi-Fi and a video camera of reasonably high quality. That's roughly all you need for a basic home security camera, and those features don't go away once your cellular contract runs out. With enough old smart phones kicking around, a kit that lets you turn one into a security camera makes a ton of sense.
Manything and Presence are iOS apps that do just that. A device called Rico gives you a set of environmental sensors and will let you pop an old phone into it to add a camera and data transmission over Wi-Fi. A wall-mounting kit and an app called Bemo take the same idea and let you turn an old phone into a connected thermostat.
Many consumers will prefer buying new, of course. But for those on a budget, or anyone who's mindful of the mountains of electronic waste we generate every year, these clever apps and accessories not only extend the life of an old phone, they also give you the satisfaction of feeling resourceful. More of this kind of thing, please.
A Russian website called Insecam made the tech blog rounds in November after Motherboard ran a feature article about it. What you'll find on Insecam is private, real-time video feeds from homes and businesses around the world.
Insecam can access these feeds because they come from cameras whose owners haven't changed the default password. It says it puts the feeds on the Web to highlight this lack of security awareness. Believe that claim or don't, but the point is made regardless.
The promise of the smart home, and the Internet of things at-large is convenience, and ultimately added free time. Let's not forget that by bringing the physical world around us online, we also open up that world to all of the Internet's potential nastiness.
(To end on a more forward-looking note, check out my preview for what we expect to see from the smart home at CES 2015.)