Every year around, IFA Berlin, one of the leading exhibitions for consumers to see the latest trends in home appliances and consumer electronics, opens its gates for end users. Now that the big hype is gone and the first impulses of “whow”, “awesome” and “cool” eased up, let me try to have a look at what’s left.

Only few buzzwords were hyped as much in media before the opening of IFA as the attribute “smart”.  Everything had to become smart to be on the show this year: Smart watches, smart phones, smart TVs and yes, even our homes were targeted to become smart. Smart home hit my interest the most. Or let’s say: Technologies to connect parts of my home, in order to make life more convenient, allow for easier daily interactions, make me feel more secure or simply save me from daily “dumbness” or clumsiness (Did my kids turn off the lights? Or worse: Did I turn off the stove?).

IFA stretches out on 145.000m2, that are rented out to 1.500 exhibitors with countless products and news, to impress me as one of about 240.000 visitors. For me as a visitor, that meant to focus on 2 main areas: Consumer electronics (visiting IFA from the north) or home appliances (coming from the south). That’s where I expected to find some solutions for everyday life for me and my family, who just moved in a new apartment. Could I retrofit our flat in an easy, straight forward way?

To cut the long story short, as a gadget lover with the tech savvy view, I was happy to see so many products. However, as a consumer and responsible father taking decisions not only for myself, I got quite disappointed.

Why?

  • Many “smart” labeled devices ranged around home entertainment. Music, photo and video-streaming to an entertainment system are fun, though that’s not all one will expect from smart home (for sure my wife does).
  • Most of the new products shown at IFA followed a linear forwarding approach of technology, i.e. implementing technologies for the sake of technologies. But just because it is technically possible, does it have to be done? Where is the human aspect? Just one example: Most “smart” home appliances, like fridges simply integrated touch technologies, so you can type your shopping list onto its door and have it replicated to your smart phone. But can’t we do that already standing with the phone next to the fridge? Or why not simply write it down using pen and paper.
  • Next point: Replace analog by digital without any value add. What is the benefit of a “smart” power plug, which can be remote controlled by an app, if all it does is switch something on and off? Instead of just simply switching something on, I now have to fiddle out the phone, start an app and look for this device to turn it on?
  • Last but not least, I saw “smart” solutions for heating or to control my power plugs, to have a surveillance camera to check on my house or the above mentioned fridges. But what if I want to connect them all together? One app from vendor A, another from vendor B, a “solution” for this and another for some other issue. Islands and niches here and there. In brief: No overall connectivity or interoperability.

Overall standards are still missing

But wait, in the turmoil of consumer oriented exhibitors, I found two booths of non consumer oriented initiatives.

First was the non-profit organization EEBus Initiative e.V., which is working on linking leading companies, associations and stakeholders with energy, telco and electrical industry. Their key target is to develop a holistic concept for almost all smart devices beyond smart home and building, aiming to increase energy efficiency, comfort and security.

EEBUS_web

Leading companies, associations and stakeholders within energy, telecommunication and electrical industries.

EEBUS_2_web

A demonstrator of real benefit: Did I turn of the stove? No panic: In case I forgot and open the door to leave the house (yes, the handle opened the simulated door), I was notified via phone right away to better check the situation.

Second was the booth “Vernetzt(e) Welten” / “Connect(ed) worlds” by ZVEI (Zentralverband Elektrotechnik- und Elektronikindustrie e. V.). ZVEI is the German electrical and electronic manufacturers’ association and represents more than 1,600 companies, mostly SMEs.

Smart Home Info Point_web

Infopoint Smart Home @ ZVEI “Vernetzt(e) Welten” (“Connect(ed) worlds”): It takes more than one to achieve full interoperability and connectivity

Both were of course not as fancy and shiny as the majority of consumer electronics players on IFA, but presenting possibilities and use cases in the connected home of the near future.

Fortunately, I finally found some really smart home appliances. One vendor demonstrated a smart fridge, that is not taking decisions for you by simply ordering food for you via the internet, yet let’s you have a sneak peek into the fridge.

While standing in the supermarket you could check if you need yoghurt and decide yourself which taste you prefer this time (or if you’re really in the mood for yoghurt at all). Once looking inside, you can verify: Do I have all ingredients for the next cake? Based on what you have, the app would suggest you the best recipe and what you still need to buy. It’s all up to you. Another manufacturer demonstrated a smart oven and a smart washing machine that push a message onto a smart tv once the cake is baked or laundry is done. That would allow us as a family to enjoy our movie night together as one, while the appliances keep working.

Unfortunately, also these appliances still do not yet fully work all together and are not around the corner to buy right away.

In conclusion, I agree with Stefan Schnorr, the ministerial director of BMWi, when he ended his talk on “Branchenforum SmartHome@IFA” saying: “We can live without the smart home but life is better with it.” …  And will be!

What would you consider a standard for smart home? What do you think it takes, to develop from “dumb” to smart homes?

About The Author

Christian Heinrich

Working for more than 15 years in international sales and marketing (mainly consumer products), I’m now a marketing consultant with Bosch Software Innovations, focusing on connected and smart home technologies in the Internet of Things. Being highly mobile, my view is: Home is where your heart lives – besides my strong passion for technologies and gadgets, my family is the center of my life.

12 Responses

  1. Pascal Brokmeier

    Hey Christian!
    Thanks for the interesting feedback. I myself didn’t go to the IFA but except my (and every techyys) interest for all the cool new stuff, this would have been my area of expertise and thus the things i’d have looked at.
    I agree with you in some areas, such as the need of the devices to be interopperable, may it be directly or indirectly via a Gateway or centralized logic system (either at home as a raspberry pi with a backend on it or in the cloud)

    Where i disagree is the questioning of motivation behind wall plugs that can be controlled via smartphone. while these shouldn’t be the “last generation” (i myself use them a lot as well in my home) they should soon be replaced by chips within the actual item itself. Then you could either use the conventional method to turn on/off a light (press the button…) or you could use your smartphone. But the actual benefit doesn’t derive from the ability to control the lights one by one with an app but to cluster, rule base and structure them.
    The light will then behave differently depending on wether (1)you come home while nobody else is home (2) it is already dark outside (3) you usually enter the room it is in after work …
    You could then, of course in an environment that has the capabilities like a JVM and a BPM engine together with a full blown API for client phones, not only control the lamp directly but also say things like:
    “turn off in 60 minutes (sleep timer)”,
    “everytime i come home and my wife and kids are out of town, play cool music(depending on what i heard last at work), light up the living room and kitchen, tell me what i got in the fridge and which recipe i haven’t cooked for a while. also ping my friends over from the office and ask them who’s up for an evening of playing halo or whatever computergame floats their boats”

    There suddenly are many reasons to connect the lamp. of course the light is still on/off but an LED RGB stripe could do more already, a hifi system could allow for even more control and a fridge well you see where this is going.

    Overall I have to thank you for the article and I agree with you on the open communication that must be pursued to ensure interoperability and controlability not only from vendor specific apps. Here the vendors should definatley evaluate some concepts of SOA and look at the web as well. If every device has an adress + a public (standarized) API depending on the class of device, abstraction and useful logic layers as well as end consumer apps integrating all different techs from below are a real thing.
    As to “why should I connect this specific thing to the internet?” question. Obviously for 40$ a lamp (current prices are ridiciously high) there is really no point. But at $0,05 a piece (RFID) or lets even say a € per chip to control a lamp. There really should be the question “why shouldn’t I?” Creativity really is the only boundry after that. Well and the electricity bill of course ;-)

    Reply
  2. Christian Heinrich

    Hello Pascal, thanks for your comment and sharing your view. I trust we share the same point of view though look at it from a different angle. You’re right: Creativity is the only boundary in the end. Concerning the electricity bill, I trust one positive side effect of all these smart technologies should be, to help us keep it under control (or why not even reduce it as long as we can keep on living comfortably?).

    Reply
  3. Constantin Gonzalez

    Thanks for this article. I’m eager to find better ways to get things connected, but I also see how far we’re from making it actually useful.

    It took the mobile phone market more than a decade to come up with a usable phone (in the sense of it stopping to mimic the traditional landline one and actually transcending it into a portable wireless terminal). I guess we can’t expect much today from this still young industry.

    Still, I enjoy watching the Withings, Fitbits, connected lightbulbs and other forerays into consumer oriented, connected devices that start to actually make sense in a new way. I guess the next IFA may be much more interesting!

    Cheers,
    Constantin

    Reply
  4. Christian Heinrich

    Constantin, thanks for your comment. My understanding of the word “useful” in this context would translate to “ease of use” and “out of the box” as in the examples you mentioned. Unfortunately, these are still isolated solutions, while connectivity and interoperability is required to take full benefit (But would we really like to see a “red light” warning signal from our connected light bulb in case we do not meet the targets set on our Withings and Fitbits?). Still I hope smart home will take a faster route to provide us with the same interconnected “awesome” experience and new possibilities we’re used to from the mobile phones we use today.

    Reply
  5. Joel Moura

    Hi,
    that is a good article, thanks Christian for reporting for the ones who are far from Germany!

    I agree that it seems dumb to use your phone or smart device to simply turn on lights or make easy things, which would be actually much easier to do in the usual way.
    As Pascal pointed out though, there could be smart applications for the smart devices. It takes time though. The dumb applications have to exist just to make the technology viable and to try out the market and the industrial chain and to feel the customer acceptance. This will give the direction to the real smart development.

    I am really looking forward to see interoperability between the various smart devices and agree with the need of a standardization.
    Regards,
    Joel

    Reply
  6. Kevin Shepherd

    Hi Christian, How wonderful to read an artical writen about a topic so clearly close to your heart (and mine).
    It’s a few years now (maybe more than 7) since I started playing with X10 technology at home. TBH most people back then were bemused by the idea that i would go to such a trouble to power up/down the servers in my garage while i was working 10,000km away in China (truth is, my darling wife was getting a bit tired of being asked to make a trip to the garage when I needed my AS400 online). Ok, too nerdy, but its still a shame that in 2013 we’re not expoliting this technology more than we do. Often living out of suitcases, I’m now so used to being able to remotely monitor and access my home network, and home security, I can hardly imagine not having my home at my fingertips on my iPhone whilst working or relaxing on the other side of the world . I still love the idea that I can turn on the heating the day before I come home. Living in a country where energy costs almost double the European avarage due to it’s only natural resources being virgin olive oil, PIR light swiches and smart devices around the house quickly pay for themselves. But there’s still a huge disconnect between all of these applications.
    Question is, are we ready to put it all together, or are the general public still too mistrustfull of IT in the domestic setting? I think that sadly in the majority of households the answer is yes.
    Unless a household name that we all know and trust can sway us, hmmm, there’s an interesting thought…

    Reply
  7. Christian Heinrich

    Dear Joel,
    thanks for sharing your view from „far from Germany“ (I’m curious where that is). What best practices would you see from “over there”, that could shorten the time you foresee?

    Reply
  8. Christian Heinrich

    Hello Kevin,
    Great point and thanks for the inspiration. I agree that there are many aspects in life, where we easily accept benefits of IT or “smart technologies” (e.g. our cars or let’s look at the wearable devices Constantin mentioned), but when it comes to our homes, there are lots of concerns. 21st century made people more flexible and request mobility. While most likely not everyone of us needs to go 10.000km on a regular basis, I trust we could already make the few daily kilometers home from the office more convenient if our homes would welcome us cozy warm and with a nicely illuminated atmosphere. Great you mention what I call the “W.A.F.” – “wife acceptance factor”. When it comes to IT at home, we really need to get out of the “nerdy” corner and make things more convenient. I’m sure that a majority of households then would welcome smart technologies at home (like most people would not give up on their “deluxe” air-conditioning in the car with separate zones or the smart little remote controls called “keys” we’re now used to.)

    Reply
  9. Leopold Beer

    there are different aspects that generate technology acceptance – the approach of sophisticating a already existing simple solution isn’t really one of it – therefore indeed, most smart appliance approaches of today are just random technology mixes. Approaching it from the user side means approaching it from human aspects of enhanced pleasure of using or reducing hazards of using…or just simply provide comfort – means doing the same thing in a easier way. A fridge is a fridge …and not a TV and also not a IID (immobile internet device) – accepting this leads to a new perspective like:I want to get a warning message on my phone should the fridge power be cut (for the sake of my deep frozen Angus steaks), or if in winter time while I’m in holiday my heating system goes down…same maybe if humidity levels in my house (in Shanghai) go up or the cellar gets flooded….not unlikely in the place I live. Same with the motion sensors in the house – good to know the kids returned from school on time…or whatever. All this sensors are in place already today, the application SW is simple and easy…WLAN is in place also…still, the appliance makers rather provide a tablet integration than such simple useful and to some extend value adding (preserving) features.
    Lets wait and hope…I’m sure appliance makers will get to their senses ;)

    Reply
  10. Christian Heinrich

    Dear Leopold,
    thanks for sharing your view. I agree: It’s definitely no fun to return home and see a “major” disaster has happened. “Major” is relative, though a small fuse blown can have already big impact: No Electricity, no lights, no cold fridge and food for days might be spoiled. In that case, I also prefer a push notification to my mobile, that something needs checking at home (maybe the neighbors could fix already, before something “major” happens) rather than what you call an “IID”.

    Reply
  11. Siegfried

    Hi Christian
    thank you very much for this blog post. I too was at IFA, and I must say I share very much your feeling. It’s all nice technology show cases, but what misses is how do we make these things relevant for end users. Why would it be important for me to be able to remotely control a power plug – I have been thinking about it for years and so far have not found a real use case. I dont want to control my coffee machine at distance, I prefer a fresh and hot coffee;-)
    Worse than that even the “energy monitoring” use cases so far don’t really fly. Even if you detect a defect fridge the power saving that you will make by buying a new one doesn’t make up for the cost of your home monitoring system.
    In one point I disagree a bit with you… while I find both EEBus and ZVEI interesting structures, I think these are unfortunately completely irrelevant on the global market. They are purely German. And in 2013, if you want to solve the puzzle for making “connected life” fly, one thing is for sure… The solution can’t be a national one.
    Siegfried

    Reply
  12. Christian Heinrich

    Thanks for your feedback Siegfried.
    I could not say it better – after living some years in Italy, I really appreciate fresh coffee straight from the machine, rather than the suggested “smart controlled coffee”. My understanding is that EEBus has international ambitions, going on European level by opening their offices in Brussels. Still, I also agree with your point, that it takes a connected approach in a connected world.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.