By Jennifer Tuohy
The Internet of Things is a boon for businesses striving to be more sustainable, but at-home IOT is exhibiting worrying signs of stalling. Industry analyst Jan Dawson summed up many people’s concerns when he said the smart home market seems perennially stuck in the early-adopter phase.
He noted some exceptions, and most of them (such as the Nest Learning Thermostat) carry a clear promise of return on a user’s investment. Here, Dawson pinpoints a major issue with the smart home — marketing.
The smart home is being marketed at homeowners as the home of the future, packed with cool gadgets and neighbor-wowing conveniences. While this is true, it’s clearly not convincing anyone other than early adopters to cough up their hard-earned cash. People see connected gadgets as a luxury, because that’s how they’re being sold.
In reality, many facets of the smart home are a necessity for both consumers and the environment, because they save money, largely through reducing energy use and waste. Manufacturers need to start pushing this promise over the lifestyle one.
Why do we need a smart home?
"The key drivers in smart home adoption are home security, energy efficiency, entertainment, convenience/productivity, connectivity and health monitoring,” wrote global retail analyst Deborah Weinswig. This is born out in the success of Nest. Over 3 million people bought the Nest because they were offered a clear ROI on their purchase—not just because they could adjust the temperature of their home remotely. The device promised to use its smarts to reduce energy use, save money and pay for itself within two years.
Here is where the real value of the smart home lies for the consumer. It gives you information about your home and ultimate control over your home through applications, then runs it for you according to your parameters, thereby reducing waste and saving you time and money.
What is the largest producer of waste and second largest user of energy in the home? The kitchen. I’ve written before about why I believe the smart kitchen is the next big thing for the smart home, the residential arm of IOT. If manufacturers can figure out a way to make smart products in the kitchen that reduce waste and energy use and increase convenience, then we will have a win for the planet, the consumer and business.
Can a sentient smart kitchen reduce waste?
"The smart kitchen segment of the household appliance market holds enormous potential, as the kitchen is one area of the house that often has more devices than any other. Also, many people wish to cut down time spent cooking and preparing food, which is why they buy all those devices in the first place,” Weinswig wrote in The Connected Home Series published by the Fung Business Intelligence Center.
The truly smart kitchen is still some ways off, in part because with so many disparate manufacturers in the space, interoperability will be a problem. Currently, Samsung is leading the way with its interconnected products as well as its acquisition of Smart Things, a popular consumer smart home hub. However, a device that comes along and connects all the elements of the kitchen would be a huge success.
Amazon’s Echo has given us a taste of this. The device has become an integral part of smart (and many non-smart) kitchens. It provides a hands-free way to set timers, find out how many cups are in a gallon and activate connected devices with just a spoken sentence. The Echo is already an indicator that there is a need for a unifying device in the kitchen.
With its advanced AI capabilities, Google Home, coming later this year, looks set to bring much to the kitchen that Echo is lacking and could provide that missing linchpin.
Communication is key
If appliance manufacturers aren’t going to play nicely with each other, hopefully they will all play nicely with an AI device. The smart kitchen won’t flourish until all its disparate parts—the pantry, the fridge, the oven, the microwave—can communicate with each other.
When the refrigerator and the pantry knows what’s inside (courtesy of cameras and RFID tags, not by the user inputting its contents through an app), and can communicate that to an AI device that is aware of the local weather, knows the dietary restrictions of the household and has access to recipes, it can serve up dinner ideas from the food already on hand.
In fact, a smart bot that can do all this is already in development. The Mozilla Foundation is working on a smart kitchen bot that will help you decide what to make for dinner. The project, part of the Mozilla connected devices project, launched in June 2016 and could ultimately do all of the above and much more.
The larger goal of the project is to help reduce food waste by helping families better plan meals. According to the project's Wiki, "By building the SmartKitchen service that provides meal options based on existing food inventory, we will provide more options for meals and therefore make it easier for people to have more family dinners."
This type of AI help families plan their meals and prepare healthier school lunches, and it alerts them when they’re low on an ingredient or when a product is about to expire. It also monitors food consumption, so that over time it can help determine healthy eater patterns. This will allow families to effortlessly reduce food waste, eat healthier and manage their food budgets more efficiently.
How can we sell the smart kitchen?
What’s missing right now? A fridge to work with this technology. There are plenty of weird and wonderful connected gadgets for the kitchen – an egg minder that tells you when your eggs are going to expire and how many you have was a hugely popular product, illustrating a demand for this type of functionality. But as of today, the fridge of the future hasn’t arrived. Samsung’s new Family Hub is a big step in the right direction, and with a few iterations and a few significant price drops, we will be close to perfecting the connected kitchen appliance.
But when the industry gets there, let’s not try and wow the consumer with the appeal of touch screen tablets built into the door. Instead, let’s focus on invisible connected tech that communicates with the kitchen as a whole. This will bring us to a place where, by purchasing a $3,000 refrigerator, families could realistically expect their grocery bills to be reduced by 30 percent.
If Nest can sell millions of smart thermostats based on the fact that it can save you $250 over two years, imagine what the prospect of savings of $2,300 to $4,500* a year could do for sale of the smart kitchen.
* Based on a savings of 30 percent annually of the average family of four’s spending of $146-$289 per week on groceries.
Jennifer Tuohy is a home technology fan who has installed many DIY smart home projects in her Charleston, S.C., home. Jennifer writes on her home projects and ideas for The Home Depot. If you are researching smart-home ideas for refrigerators as part of your kitchen planning, you can visit Home Depot’s website.
Image credit: Flickr/Polygon Realty Limited