Hod Fleishman, Global Head of IoT, BCG Digital Ventures, discusses the three innovation opportunities in the smart home.

Close your eyes for a moment  and imagine your dream home. Perhaps  it’s a cosy apartment overlooking New York’s Central Park,  or a sprawling estate with private beach access–a place where your family can spend many hours together. Maybe it’s a chalet in the Swiss Alps with a fully stocked ski room.

Your imagination may paint this picture  in many different ways, but one thing is certain–when you close your eyes and see  your dream home, you are most likely not thinking of  LED-light-changing-app-controlled lights, a fridge that pre-orders food and a voice controlled assistant that follows you from room to room. For most of us, these things aren’t exactly top of mind, which begs the question: What’s up with that smart home thing?

The smart home trend was triggered by the technology enabling it: IoT. Low cost sensors, smart cloud and (anytime, anywhere) connectivity. All of a sudden, it’s now possible to connect your fridge to your toaster. But the real question we should be asking: Is it really desirable to do this?

It’s great that we can connect A to B to C, but what problem does this solve, exactly? And why would consumers opt to use such products? Perhaps most importantly, how will revenue streams be generated for the companies selling them?

There are three innovation opportunities in the smart home for corporates:

  1. The objects in our homes
  2. The task and management of a home
  3. The time we spend at home

The objects in our home

The first to go after this market, understandably, are the companies that already have a footprint in the  home space; namely, appliances. Specifically for appliance companies, making their products smart is the logical next step  towards a long term vision, but it still doesn’t spell out which products exactly they should be building.  

Everyone can agree that life is better when we have an oven, fridge, washing machine and a few other electrical gizmos at our dispense. But these products haven’t changed much over the last 70 years (apologies to the inventors of the touch screen operated washing machine…its still a washing machine, nonetheless.). By now, they are commoditized and generate a slim margin for their manufacturers.  

As stimulating as it may sound, just slapping on BLT connectivity, an app and colorful statistics is not going to make a connected washing machine any better than, say, my ten-year-old model. So, if taking an unconnected object and making it connected is not the answer, then what is?

The tasks and management of a home

As a close friend of mine repeatedly says, life is a long list of to do’s. Those appliances that are a  “must have” in every home are there because they serve a clear purpose: they help us save time. A washing machine is faster then washing clothes by hand, a dryer is better than hanging laundry, a microwave is faster than an oven and so on.  

So, as  many of the “frictions” previously experienced by homeowners have been “mechanically/electronically” removed, the opportunity at hand is to identify:

1) What other tasks can potentially be made easier, and;

2) Can the new tech capabilities we have at hand make these improvements a reality?  

Good examples are emerging. Grocery shopping, for one. Just getting to the store requires getting dressed, driving through traffic, parking and walking the aisles to collect basically the same items, week after week. Not to mention carrying everything back to the car, driving (again), carrying everything upstairs and then putting it all away–what a pain! We’ve all done this exact task a million times, and may be destined to repeat it  a million times more.  

Unless, of course, you have a couple of Amazon dash buttons hanging around, an Echo speaker and one of those neat Amazon magic wands that helps you shop from the comfort of your own home. Couple that with a Prime account, and the painful task of shopping for food and home consumables is gone.

This is the starting point for those interested in capitalizing on the “smart home” opportunity–don’t look at it as a smart home. Imagine, instead, the home as a “house of pains,” and there is no greater pain than repetitive  tasks.

What else is happening in our homes that can be streamlined, eased, automated or evaporated? How about the pain of free time.

The time we spend at home:

With all this time saving–guess what–we have free time to spare! It comes as no surprise, then, that the first connected services that came flying through our doors were those that entertain us (or keep us safe so we can keep on living an entertaining life): WiFi (for Netflix, YouTube and social media), security systems and music.  

This last one, music, is particularly interesting, as it has gone through a number of iterations within our homes already. From the ten foot wood consoles of radio, tape recorders and HiFi (look it up, it used to be a thing) turntables coupled with a cabinet full of vinyl records, to the slim CD players with a ten CD changing tray, to…nothing.

All the sudden, there’s no more music playing in our homes because it’s in our pockets and our Bluetooth enabled earbuds. My house as a child was a much noisier environment then my current home. The TV was on, the radio in the kitchen played incessantly and the same music (a tape!) was continuously blasting from my sister’s room.  

When I walk into my home today, I’m greeted by total silence. Each one of my kids is glued to her own mobile screen, with white earphones connected. To this end, it’s quite interesting that the biggest push of connected products we’re now seeing from the big three (Apple, Google and Amazon) is leveraging music as the desirable functionality.  

With this development, the loud speakers are back in the home–but these are just Trojan horses. That speaker (which is now present in every room, enabling music to follow you throughout the house), is also a private assistant, a screen-less interface that will help you to better manage tasks at home, connect with friends and (finally) provide an interface alternative to mobile phones.  

One big thing to note: Small connected device in your home are powered by massive ML, AI, logistics and computation power on the backend. A connected washing machine without these backend capabilities is just a gadget. For those interested in helping making the home smarter or painless, it’s not just about what to connect, but also what it’s going to be connected to.  

To help streamline life, we need to be able to capture data, gain insights and leverage them to act in such a way that betters the lives of those living in the home. And for that, some serious cloud and potentially logistic capabilities are needed.

Now, close your eyes again and imagine your company’s next “smart home” product. Does it help make the lives of home dwellers more painless or more  entertaining in a meaningful way?

To learn more about our work with IoT and edge computing, read here.