Hundreds of tech companies spread out across the “Smart Home” section of the massive Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, which descended onto the Sands Expo in Las Vegas last week.
While “smart home” could probably describe the offerings over half of the thousands of exhibitors spread out across the acres of CES floor space, this section was filled with many companies that are using home wireless networks, connected devices, and yes, sometimes your home’s electricity consumption, to make houses operate more conveniently, more comfortably and in a more environmentally friendly manner.
However, long gone are the days when companies were trying to sell standalone dashboards and devices that specifically deliver homeowners a play-by-play account of their energy consumption. There’s a reason Google and Microsoft dumped their energy management services several years ago: lack of consumer interest.
Today, many companies have learned that most consumers only want such energy monitoring services if they’re being used for a specific reason, like automatically making a home’s temperature more comfortable and convenient, enabling solar panels to be used more effectively, or adding awareness about what family members are doing throughout a home.
After braving the crowds, the long taxi lines and the subpar casino food, we bring you five trends from CES that are informing the smart energy home of the future.
1) Solar and smart energy: Odds are that if your home has solar panels on the rooftop, you’re going to want to understand how much energy they’re generating and how much energy your home is consuming. The difference could be the amount you could earn, or the amount you might be paying to your utility.
A solar customer has also already agreed to spend on solar panels, so the leap to adding extra smart energy home tech isn’t all that great. For solar companies, energy management and monitoring services are a bright spot.
At CES, home solar installer Vivint Solar -- which had a particularly challenging 2016 -- showed off connected home services in partnership with Vivint Smart Home (a separate company, but one that shares the Vivint name). The companies built out an entire home, complete with roof, walls, doors and appliances.
The two companies took the opportunity presented by the big tech show to announce that all new Vivint Solar solar customers will get an energy management system, a control panel, a thermostat and other home sensors for free.
All of those devices can be controlled and optimized by “Sky,” Vivint Smart Home’s home assistant that collects data from sensors and uses algorithms and artificial intelligence to make suggestions and automatically fine-tunes parts of the home for the occupant.
There’s an average of 12 sensors for every install, Bryan Christiansen, COO of Vivint Solar, told Greentech Media, and these sensors determine if a family is “home,” “away,” “coming,” “going,” “asleep” or “on vacation.” Each of these occupancy models determines how Sky monitors or changes the home in terms of lights, locks or thermostat.
If the homeowner is focused on energy consumption, they “can get close to net zero or even all the way there,” says Jeff Lyman, Vivint Smart Home’s chief marketing officer. “The data can come together and deliver a potent cocktail of energy savings,” he explained.
Vivint Solar was one of the few solar installers with a presence at CES. A short walk from Vivint Solar’s assembled CES house, startup SolPad was showing off its product (also called the SolPad) but that’s a pretty different type of solar and energy product entirely.
2) Electricity draw equals family awareness: One of the growing trends from both startups and large companies alike at CES is using the monitoring of home electricity to deliver services around “family awareness.” Basically energy sensors, combined with algorithms, can alert Mom and Dad when Junior comes home and starts using the Xbox or when the garage door opens.
A Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup called Sense, which had a booth in the startup section of CES, has built a device that connects to the breakers in a home’s electrical panel. The current sensors in Sense’s device can determine which appliances, devices, or rooms in a home are consuming electricity, and can send this information to a cellphone app. The energy industry calls this peek into device use "energy disaggregation."
While Sense, which is selling its device for $299, can use the info to tell consumers what in their home is using how many watts, the company also focuses on how its information can deliver family services to its users. For example, a Sense user can get an alert when the laundry is done, or when the kids have watched several hours of TV.
Other companies are also focused on using energy disaggregation for services, but a company like PlotWatt looks more at small businesses, and Bidgely provides services for utilities.
Companies all across the Smart Home section of CES advertised “awareness” using various types of sensors and energy monitoring from Honeywell, Qorvo (which recently bought GreenPeak), Zmodo, to Elgato, which offers a product called "Eve."
3) Smart lights need to be simple: At a kickoff event at the beginning of CES called Unveiled, up-and-coming startups and big companies alike show off their latest buzzy devices inside one ballroom in the hopes that the media will showcase their goods. One thing that surprised me at the event -- other than a person on a Segway dressed as a wisecracking robot -- was the amount of smart lighting companies that filled the room.
I discovered Soraa there, and its new consumer light that it claims to be healthier and more convenient. There was also Osram’s multicolored, Bluetooth-enabled bulb (A19) that connects with Apple’s Home app and Siri. At the same time, lighting company Lutron announced that its gear now works with Samsung’s SmartThings platform and Nest’s motion-detector video camera.
A crowd-funded lamp called Fluxo was on display as well; it can do something called “paint light,” or basically move the lamp’s lighting around in a room by using the “paint gesture” on a cellphone app.
CES usually doesn’t get a lot of lighting product announcements -- usually those are reserved for events like Lightfair International, which happens in Vegas later in the year. But now that lights can be “connected” and controlled with Apple and Google software, the consumer electronics show is starting to see an influx of these goods.
The one thing that consumer-focused smart lighting companies really need to remember is to make these devices and services as simple as possible. I’ve heard countless complaints that adding connectivity to lights has only made them more complicated.
Companies like Soraa don’t connect lighting to the internet (without an additional device) because they don’t want the light system to stop working if the Wi-Fi goes down. Similar considerations should be made for ease of installation and working with partner devices.
4) Tech for better air and water: Beyond energy, other resources are beginning to draw the attention of the tech industry -- air and water.
Particularly in countries and cities with air pollution problems, like China, indoor and outdoor air detection and purification systems are starting to gain more widespread adoption. Korean company Coway showed off a series of connected air purifiers at CES that can be controlled by voice using Amazon’s Alexa. Coway also sells various connected water purifiers.
Other methods of cleaning air at CES were a little more unusual. French startup Wair has developed a smart scarf that keeps cyclists’ lungs clean and can be paired with a cellphone app.
Another French company called Smart & Blue have created a showerhead called Hydrao that uses integrated LED lights to change the color of the water spray coming out of a shower. The shower moves from green to blue to purple to red as the user consumes more water in the shower. It’s a way to gamify your shower for conservation.
5) Batteries, the quiet workhorses of CES: Big home batteries, like the kind that Tesla sells, are still not being widely advertised at places like CES. The value proposition to the homeowner just isn’t quite there yet. Perhaps that will change as companies continue to lower the costs of home batteries, as Tesla is trying to do by 30 percent.
But across the rest of CES, smart devices -- whether they’re in the home, the car, or worn on the wrist -- are using the latest lithium-ion batteries as the core energy source to store electricity charged by the grid. While there were few next-gen battery innovations being showed off at CES, Panasonic displayed a flexible lithium-ion battery under development for wearables.
Panasonic’s bendable battery can enable designers to make wearables with better, sleeker or more interesting shapes. The batteries are slim enough to be embedded in a credit card.
Other tech companies were highly focused on building the latest processors or software that can make sure devices are using batteries as efficiently as possible. Qualcomm debuted its latest Snapdragon 835 mobile chip that the company says consumes 25 percent less power than its previous chip.