CES 2016 was a record-breaking year for the Consumer Electronics Show, with more vendors and a bigger exhibition floor than ever before. Seasoned attendees said this was evident in the increasingly competitive smart home space.
Voice control emerged as a prominent theme, with several major companies unveiling products with voice-control capability enabled by devices like the Amazon Echo (more on that below).
The smart home is also beginning to extend beyond the walls of the house and into the automobile. Automakers like Ford are working to sync up their in-vehicle systems with smart home devices, and Toyota is making a long-term play for the home through its $1 billion artificial intelligence research center. Meanwhile, established smart home companies are starting to collaborate with connected car startups, such as Vinli (more on that below also).
The introduction of new products and services is good for the expansion of the smart home industry overall. But experts say it also perpetuates the interoperability issues that have long plagued the sector. Some say the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.
"Every year we hear there's going to be one protocol that wins out. But every year there are more devices and more protocols crop up,” said Reza Kazemi, product strategist at Piper, a subsidiary of Icontrol Networks. “So while [having] more devices is good for the industry, it creates a massive amount of fragmentation and confusion.”
This is an acute issue for cable providers and security companies that are on the customer-facing side of the industry. “Consumer education is still lacking in the smart home marketplace, and that’s hindering the next phase of mass adoption,” said Greg Roberts, vice president of marketing at Icontrol.
To help resolve the interoperability challenge, the ZigBee and EnOcean Alliances recently announced a collaboration to combine the benefits of EnOcean's energy-harvesting wireless solutions with the newly ratified ZigBee 3.0 standard. At CES, ZigBee announced it is also working to integrate with the Thread Group’s Internet Protocol (IP) networking layer.
“I understand the logic of a company trying to come up with a different way of doing it -- they may be able to sway the industry their way,” said Tobin Richardson, president and CEO of the ZigBee Alliance. “That’s fine very early on in the market, but if you’re going to get to mass adoption, that simply does not work. It has the opposite effect -- slowing things down.”
Groups like the Open Internet Consortium and AllSeen Alliance are working to enable interoperability across billions of smart home devices, services and apps. Experts said they hope next year’s convention will show more consolidation around standards as more products come to market.
Against this backdrop, here are some of the top smart home announcements from CES 2016.
Home security giant Vivint introduced a new thermostat at CES called Vivint Element, which is designed to work seamlessly with many of Vivint’s security accessories. A defining feature of the Element is that it uses sensors installed around the house to detect occupancy and adjusts the temperature accordingly. The system can also recognize patterns for improved performance.
Vivint also announced last week that it can integrate with the Nest Learning Thermostat, which allows Vivint customers to choose Nest over Element and allows existing Nest customers to adopt Vivint’s full suite of smart home products. Customers that choose Nest will be able to control their thermostat from the Vivint app and SkyControl panel like any other Vivint customer.
“When there’s already demand for a product, we don’t want that to block consumers from getting our product,” said Matt Mahar, vice president of consumer experience for Vivint, in an interview at CES. “Nest is already out there in a lot of homes, it’s got a lot of brand recognition, so why not use that to our advantage?”
In addition, Vivint announced that both Nest and Element users can voice-control their devices with Amazon’s Echo speaker and Alexa virtual assistant. Vivint customers can also use Alexa to control their locks, lights, security system and garage door.
Vivint home automation services do not currently interface with solar arrays, but Mahar said, “We want them to.” Going forward, the company is looking at opportunities outside the home, including in demand response and transportation. Vivint isn’t currently working with any automakers, but Mahar said he expects collaborations will soon start to emerge.
“The home that we’re trying to build is not just a physical location. It’s also the things and the people you care about, and one of those is probably your car,” he said. “People are concerned about the efficiency and security of their car, and we can help with both, so we’re going to pinpoint the right use case and hammer on that.”
Honeywell, a veteran of the smart home industry, announced the expansion of its Lyric line of connected home products last week. New products include the second-generation Lyric Round Wi-Fi Thermostat with HomeKit compatibility, and the new Lyric Wi-Fi Water Leak and Freeze Detector.
The Lyric thermostat is Honeywell’s first HomeKit-enabled product, which will compete with existing HomeKit-compatible thermostats like the ecobee3 and the iDevices thermostat. HomeKit is Apple’s framework for communicating with and controlling devices in the home. By connecting to a home's Wi-Fi network, the Lyric thermostat can be controlled via smartphone app or Siri -- Apple’s voice-controlled virtual assistant.
Honeywell has been offering voice-controlled thermostats for a few years now, but is looking to expand functionality by connecting with Siri. The company is also exploring opportunities to link up with Amazon Echo.
Keeping with the voice-control trend, Alarm.com announced it will allow customers to control lighting and smart thermostats through Amazon Echo -- Amazon’s smart speaker equipped with the cloud-based voice service Alexa. Customers can change the temperature or adjust the lights by room, or give a specific command like “Alexa, turn on the Christmas tree lights.”
Alarm.com is one of the first home security companies to integrate with Amazon Echo, and it plans to expand voice control across its suite of connected devices. At this point, Alarm.com does not support Apple’s HomeKit or, by extension, Siri.
The success of Amazon Echo is starting to attract competitors. At CES, LG introduced the Smart ThinQ Hub, a device that serves as a gateway to smart sensors and connected appliances in the home, such as washing machines, air conditioners and ovens.
Smart ThinQ Hub can also stream music from its built-in speaker and show calendar updates on its 3.5-inch display. These features are managed via smartphone app. Where the Smart ThinQ Hub comes up short is that it does not offer voice control, which is a significant part of the Echo’s appeal.
Cloud-based services like Alexa and Siri aren’t the only options for enabling voice control. There are also solutions for local voice processing, said to Philip Lewer, director of marketing for IOT and smart home NXP Semiconductors, in an interview at CES. NXP already offers technology that allows for localized voice control on low-powered devices in the smart home like lighting, sensors, switches and outlets, he said.
Locally connected devices can understand basic wake phrase and command signals (such as ”Turn on the lights”), whereas cloud-based services have the ability to process rich, natural language (i.e., they can turn on the lights when someone says “It’s dark in here”). Lewer argues there’s a need for a local/cloud hybrid system to ensure that customers can still use voice control in the event of an internet outage or server-related issue.
At CES, NXP announced a suite of new production-ready modules and reference designs for smart lighting, smoke detection, and a variety of other smart home applications. These new products are outfitted with best-in-class algorithms for voice activation that work with most third-party speech recognition software partners. NXP’s smart home solutions are also technology-agnostic, allowing for interoperability across standards such as Thread, ZigBee 3.0 and Bluetooth Low Energy.
Standards are a major issue for Icontrol Networks, which serves as the underlying platform for millions of interactive security and home automation solutions. Icontrol is also the maker of Piper, a security camera and DIY home automation hub. At CES, Icontrol announced that Piper will get its own IFTTT channel by March, which will enable the system to work with a wide range of third-party devices, from a Nest thermostat to a Philips Hue LED set to Facebook.
Piper is also part of the first batch of products announced at CES to connect with the AllJoyn software framework. AllJoyn is one of the major platforms seeking to connect the internet of things. It was originally developed by Qualcomm, but is now an open-source platform managed by the AllSeen Alliance.
Separately, Icontrol announced last week that six new companies have joined its developer program: Honeywell, LG Electronics, SkyBell, Vinli, Bttn, and Earth Networks’ WeatherBug. Icontrol’s developer program enables compatibility between any cloud-based, ZigBee, Wi-Fi or Z-Wave device and Icontrol-powered solutions. The global program currently has more than 50 participating companies and 100 certified devices.
Vinli, a new member of Icontrol’s developer program, embodies the growing trend toward extending the smart home beyond the walls of the house. The 18-month-old startup offers an in-vehicle device and a new Vinli Home Connect app that allows consumers to seamlessly manage their connected home products on a single interface with their connected car.
In addition to Icontrol, Vinli recently announced partnerships with Nest and Samsung’s SmartThings. Through these platforms, a Vinli-equipped car can change home-automation settings based on the vehicle’s location. For instance, when the vehicle leaves home, it sends a notification to switch the home’s lights, HVAC and security system into away mode. Vinli works with the smart home automation system to determine if there are still people in the house once the car has pulled out of the driveway. Vinli later sends a signal to wake up the home as the first driver nears.
“We want to be as consumer-friendly as possible,” said Nebo Nedeljkovic, vice president of business development at Vinli, in an interview at CES. The rapid growth of new products for the connected home and car markets is creating a fragmentation problem and frustration for the consumer. “With Vinli, we bring peace of mind by working automatically,” he said.
In addition to home services, Vinli’s Carport provides drivers with vehicle diagnostics, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, and access to a suite of apps by third-party developers. Last June, the startup announced a $6.5 million in a Series A financing round led by Samsung, and it completed a successful Indiegogo campaign in August.
Icontrol’s Greg Roberts said his company is “very interested in the connected home outside of the home.” If that’s any indication, Vinli will soon have several competitors.