This year marks the 50th anniversary of CES, née Consumer Electronics Show, a tech industry spectacle that swarms Las Vegas every January. It’s where the VCR debuted in 1970, the CD player in 1981, the Nintendo gaming console in 1985, and so on. Fast forward to 2017 and the buzz is, perhaps unsurprisingly, all about artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars. Voice-activated robots. All things smart home.
Seeing how these topics have everything to do with where and how we live, I was sent to scope out CES for Curbed, with eyes especially peeled for smart home tech, a nebulous space—or cloud, as one might say—filled with gadgets of ever-ballooning variety.
Taking up 2.6 million square feet spread across the Strip, with some 170,000 people in attendance, CES was like a small city in itself. And this year, huge smart home booths were everywhere to be found, from brand showcases by the likes of LG and Samsung, to a dedicated Smart Home Marketplace with more options than the average consumer—me—knew what to do with.
But I went, I saw, and I tried to understand the state of the smart home. Here’s what I’ve gathered from walking the show floor and listening in on panels of experts.
Hey Alexa! (Your new best friend?)
Anybody who showed up at CES noticed that Alexa, Amazon’s AI voice assistant, has broken free from the company’s own wireless voice command device, Echo, into a million other products. Our sister site the Verge compiled a list of those integrations, from Whirlpool fridges and ovens to Ford and Volkswagen cars. This wasn’t exactly a new development as much as the amplification of what we saw last year.
Alexa’s apparent dominance aside, voice command in general is something industry experts seem to be bullish on. At a CNET panel on smart homes, Rishi Chandra, VP of Product Management at Google Home, said that, to him, voice control is a breakthrough. In the context of a home, using voice commands is a much better experience than tapping an app on a phone. Also, Carly Chaikin, the Mr. Robot actress and a guest on the panel, literally called Alexa her “best friend.”
We’re still trying to make robots happen ...
The Jetsons’ humanoid robotic maid Rosie has captured our hearts since the ‘60s, but we’ve yet to see robots (besides maybe the vacuuming kind) play a huge role in our real life homes. But the tech world will die trying, it seems.
This year’s CES saw the unveiling of a bunch of new robots: the adorable Kuri, LG’s Hub bot (a larger commercial version, shown above, is expected to debut at Incheon International Airport in South Korea later this year), the “Little Fish” from Baidu (China’s version of Google), to name a few. These voice-activated helpers are essentially smart assistant devices—e.g. Echo, Google Home—that can move. And they will probably be very expensive.
... And laundry tech, for some reason
Leading appliance makers seem to think laundry needs some “disrupting.” Indeed, laundry is usually a chore. Simplifying or automating laundry would also make a good narrative: Spend less time doing laundry, so you can spend more time with your loved ones.
Samsung debuted the mammoth four-in-one FlexWash + FlexDry system (shown on the left below), which lets you do two loads at once. LG had the same idea with the older Twin Wash system. The brand also presented a fridge-like clothing “refresher,” which comes at $2,000 a pop. And Whirlpool is adding limited Alexa capability to its new washers, letting you check on the time left for a load using an Alexa-enabled device nearby.
Perhaps the most provocative laundry tech comes in the form of Foldimate (shown above on the right), a hulking machine that promises to fold your clothes for you. At CES, the company, which is planning on a final reveal towards the end of this year, showed a video of a working prototype, plopped on top of a non-working model. You tell us, “smarter” laundry: yea or nay?
The “smart home” is becoming easier to understand and use—kind of
Going back to the smart home panel, another consensus was that huge progress has been made in the last year in terms of devices being able to talk to one another. As an example, products from each panelist’s affiliated company can all work together—that includes Amazon, Google, August Locks, and Samsung SmartThings. During CES, CNET also launched a helpful new tool showing which devices—locks, light switches, thermostats, smoke and CO alarms, and more—are compatible with smart home hubs like Google Home, Apple HomeKit, and Wink.
According to the panelists, getting these devices to work together is also a prerequisite of sorts to tackling bigger challenges, like security. Security isn’t a new problem for big tech companies, but they need to make sure that smaller companies—which are making all sorts of smart home devices but don’t necessarily have the software expertise—are on the same page.
It might even be as simple as the press of a button
While the big guys have their smart home hubs and robots, a walk through Eureka Park (a special section of CES dedicated to scrappy startups) revealed a trend among the new, smaller players: one-button solutions, which let you control multiple smart devices in your home with one itty-bitty gadget. (These products also tend to have snappy one- or two-syllable names, perhaps to drive home their simplicity?)
There’s Senic, a palm-size button for controlling music and lighting; Flic, a candy-size device that works with over 40 apps; Knocki, a small device that turns any surface into a touch surface for moderating lighting, temperature, and more; Bond, which offers smart home integration for RF (radio frequency) and infrared remote-controlled appliances, instantly turning “dumb,” existing appliances like ceiling fans and humidifiers into “smart” ones; and Puck, another small button that attaches to any infrared remote-controlled device and makes it operable via an app.
Now, one of those might sound like the simple solution we’ve all been waiting for, but presented all together? That just makes everything confusing again.
It seems that some things about smart homes haven’t changed: The technology behind all these devices may be getting better and more seamless, but for you, the consumer, there’s still a whole lot of research to be done to identify the best solution for your needs.