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The Smart Home — When Will People Get It?

November 19, 2014
Have you received your Robot Butler yet?

Don’t hold your breath — it doesn’t exist. Instead, the fake robots that arrived at the doorstep of Martha Stewart and other celebrities earlier this month were part of a marketing campaign by collaborative invention company Quirky and software platform Wink to demonstrate that the futuristic promises of a smart home depicted by shows such as “The Jetsons” are within reach today.

But you don’t need Rosie the Robot Maid to zip around the house operating appliances, monitoring security or changing lighting and temperatures — you can do it all yourself with a smartphone and a few connected devices. Or a Wink Relay wall-mounted controller.

“We believe smart home is the future. But it’s not necessarily the future that was depicted way back when,” Ben Kaufman, Quirky’s founder and chief executive, said during a recent press conference announcing Wink Relay and a range of new smart home products the company developed with GE.

But getting people’s attention about the smart home is only half the battle, says Kaufman, citing results from a national survey indicating that misconceptions linger about the utility of connected devices.

Less than a fifth of respondents view smart home technology as budget-friendly, with only a third seeing it as a good value. A little more than 40 percent believe it will save them money in the long run

“The reality is that most Americans don’t think that smart home technology is affordable,” said Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of GE.

Yet she believes the smart home is at a “tipping point” — at which enough devices will be connected and so easy to use that people will wonder, “How did I live my life without that?”

Few doubt that the future of the smart home looks bright. Research firm Parks Associates predicts that smart home product sales would more than double by 2018, reaching 25 million units worth $3.5 billion.

So far these technologies are viewed as more of a curiosity than a necessity, however. While nearly everyone who took part in the Quirky and GE survey — 96 percent of respondents — had at least heard of smart home devices, and 83 percent were considering buying one in the future, only a third had actually purchased one.

“This is still a fairly complex technology, with lots of different products, and we don’t feel like the full story is being told yet,” said Kaufman. With the launch of to educate people about smart home technologies, “We’ve taken a category that forever has been something for early adopters, and rich people and tech nerds — and shown how real people are using it in the most unexpected ways.”

Along with videos featuring Kaufman’s “creepy” Robot Butler, also features spots on how people are incorporating connected devices into their everyday lives, such as Maxine and Irving Lotter, a pair of “tech-savvy retirees” who use smart devices to water their lawn and control the thermostat.

The future of the smart home may depend on the Maxines and Irvings of the world — regular folks looking for simplicity and convenience rather than techies in search of the latest gee-whiz effect.

“It was all about setting them up and making easier for the average user — not the enthusiast, not the tech adopter,” said Brett Worthington, vice president and general manager of Wink. That’s why the Wink app has been updated with shortcuts so that you can get your household devices ready for bedtime or the morning get-ready-for-work routine with a tap of a single button. Virtual “robots” that automate certain functions in your home — such as turning the lights on when you get home — make everyday actions easier to carry out.

“Robots bring to life the future of these smart connected products,” he said.

The Robot Butler may never go mainstream, but it’s not hard to imagine the type of virtual robots Worthington describes catching on with connected consumers who are looking for ways to simplify their busy lives.

Top GIF: video courtesy of Wink.