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The Smart Apartment May Be What Home Tech Needs to Go Mainstream

By turning smart home tech into service, IOTAS hopes to introduce it to a wider, more appropriate audience.

Companies designing and selling smart home tech constantly search for ways to introduce their products to more consumers and make the much-hyped Internet of Things go mainstream. One company believes the way to get home tech in the right hands may be to bypass the home altogether.

Portland-based IOTAS (Internet of Things as a Service) has a different model for spreading smart home technology, providing consumers with services instead of hardware. By installing software and a variety of sensors, monitors, and devices inside rental units for their clients, property owners and developers, the company removes the hassle and cost for consumers, lowering the barrier of entry. And perhaps more importantly, they’re opening up the technology to millennials, both more likely to be early adopters, and less likely to be in the market to purchase a single-family home, the focal point of most device's marketing efforts.

"Only 35% of millennials own homes," says IOTAS founder Sce Pike. "Plus, it’s so expensive to outfit a home with all this technology. A lot of people are aggregating third party devices and putting it together, but I don’t think they’re giving consumers the complete home experience, or in our case, the complete apartment."

Pike and her company have been pitching the concept to property developers and owners as a differentiator, suggesting that a wired apartment commands a premium in a competitive rental market, lowers installation costs on new buildings and, with smart monitoring systems and machine learning, saves on energy costs over the long run. Residents, who can enjoy the benefits of the technology with an free app download instead of a sizable down payment on devices, can adjust preferences, which they can theoretically save and take with them to their next apartment. IOTAS even takes care of software and hardware upgrades.

"We’re not just selling a product, we’re selling a service," says Pike, whose user experience work in Silicon Valley with companies such as Palm has given her a particular, user-focused mindset about design. "That’s where you truly add value. We want to help the real estate industry. Don’t sell hardware, it’ll get commoditized."

Last May, the company completed installations on its first project, Grant Park Village in Portland. One hundred of the building’s 210 units were outfitted with numerous devices including sensors, switches, thermostats, and motion detectors. Initially, IOTAS wanted to provide users with a "if this than that" laundry list of potential actions, and give them the opportunity to fine-tune their living space. But that proved complicated, since residents wanted an "out-of-the-box" experience, Pike says. IOTSA has adjusted the set-up accordingly, and now, units are set up with pre-programmed "stories," scenarios that have simple, immediate reactions. For instance, the "welcome home" story turns on the lights in the hallway, and could be expanded toactivate devices in the kitchen to begin preparing a meal.

"You don’t need to worry about it, it just works," Pike says. "Nothing to set up, reinstall, or uninstall."

In addition to more apartment buildings, Pike sees market potential in student housing as well as retirement homes and senior living centers. IOTAS is already working with a local architecture firm, SERA, and developers from Capstone Partners on a new building in the suburbs of Portland, Burnham & Ash, piloting a project in the San Francisco’s Fillmore Center, and developing projects in New York and Denver. In a bid to improve marketing, they’re also updating the Grant Park Village website to allow prospective tenants play around with the features of a smart apartment. IOTAS also plans to offer numerous hardware packages, providing the option to use high-end hardware.

Pike sees numerous integration options with the IOTAS platform, especially as machine learning makes the platform more responsive and predictive: splitting revenue with property owners derived from pre-installed Amazon Dash buttons; integrating with outside programs, such blinking the lights on and off when your Uber arrives, or providing estimates about when the bus is stopping on the corner; even syncing with other products, such as Amazon Echo. She also sees privacy concerns ahead, and has started a joint initiative with companies including SRI International (who invented Siri) and Galois to develop better encryption protocols and security for data storage and transfer.

Transparency with data and data transmission is vital, she says, to helping the a smart apartment tenant sleep well at night. That, is, of course, after they plug in their phones; Pike says that action could be the trigger for the apartment’s "good night" story series of actions.