Snapshots of Smart Home Technology

By Shaili Bhatt, Sr. Research Director, C+R Research, Chicago, IL, shailib@crresearch.com

Doorbells that speak. Thermostats, security systems, and lights that can be controlled remotely. Speakers in one room—or connected around your home—to play any music app on your phone. In this era of the Internet of things (IoT), many newly-purchased electronic devices, vehicles, and home appliances are being networked to connect, interact, and exchange data; this smart technology is increasingly showing up both in consumers’ homes and on their phones.

Case in point: Halloween felt a little different last year with the increasing adoption of video doorbells. In our Midwestern neighborhoods, amid the annual ritual of kids going door-to-door in search of treats, there was always a single-

family home or two that would get famously TP’ed (i.e., kids would wrap toilet paper all over someone’s property, usually trees at a teammate or teacher’s home). The controversy of that small-time vandalism now seems like a relic of our past.

Like some of you, 2018 was the first year we installed a video doorbell with its smart motion sensors and auto-notifications. From the comfort of my iPad, I could clearly hear and see kids chatting on the sidewalk across the street and hear their costumes rustling moments before they approached my home. Unlike with traditional doorbells, trick-or-treaters appeared to take an extra second to acknowledge this lighted device before they pressed it and heard its digital chime.

This smart technology is also factoring into ecommerce deliveries and home security; residents of urban and even suburban neighborhoods have likely heard warnings of package thefts. Many homeowners with video doorbells are automatically getting notifications on their smartphones that someone has approached their door. If needed, they can select from timely, pre-recorded responses or personally share some instructions with the delivery driver about where to drop it off. Indeed, homeowners could be using the app to interact through the doorbell’s built-in speaker from their sofa or another city entirely; unless the package requires a physical signature, no one is the wiser.

Sharing the Spotlight

Smart cameras with activity sensors like these are being used outside and inside the home, even in nurseries. These cameras can encrypt the video footage and upload continuous video history to the Cloud, usually via subscription, in case you need to scroll back to view a key moment via the app. If the camera captured a moment that’s worth saving, consumers can create video clips to download to a phone, tablet, or computer.

With homeowners’ consent and advance preparation, gathering still pictures or video clips from these cameras/apps could be useful for a research project, capturing the visual context of how and when an action is taking place. This type of media could be identified and submitted by the participant relatively easily, on an as-needed basis (note: a microphone may or may not be enabled to provide audio information).

For another consideration, what about passive metering? As you may know, non-traditional researchers are using passive metering to capture the activity history or digital behavior on phones, tablets, and/or computers from willing participants who have installed this research software. As wild as it may sound, future passive metering technologies could potentially track data from smart home devices for ad hoc research or on an ongoing basis.

In a less time-consuming activity, qualitative researchers could simply request screenshots of apps on consumers’ phones for a more accurate conversation about which ones are tied to smart devices and how they are used. These screenshots may also be useful to explore which apps consumers have allowed to provide notifications (and how often) to understand what devices they have granted permission to sharing news flashes on their phone and why.

Smart Products, Not Smart Homes

Most homeowners don’t have “smart homes” featuring fully integrated ecosystems with connected technologies that may require professional installation. Those tend to be newer homes or homes with extensive remodeling where homebuyers have worked with professionals to integrate the technology from the initial blueprints. For instances where an entire home is being wired for connectivity, a smart home can be a pricey endeavor.

What is instead growing in popularity are individual smart home products/gadgets. These tangible, standalone devices are usually small, sleek, more affordable from a per-unit standpoint, and easy-to-install/DIY, usually plugging directly into the wall or into a discreet base hub. Some savvy, cost-conscious homeowners are buying smart Wi-Fi outlets and plugs to make their existing home appliances backwards-compatible. Along these lines, shoppers are usually eager to learn what is compatible with their existing technology/networks to avoid expensive, unnecessary purchases and e-waste (electronic products ready to be discarded).

These smart devices are sometimes replacing programmable devices that were being controlled manually with a remote or touchpad such as a TV, lights or thermostat; one of the first-world problems with advancements in home technologies was that people started amassing too many remotes! Smart devices are controlled and automated through iOS and Android apps, from smartphones that people already are carrying around.

Smart products or smart systems from trusted, widely used parent companies—such as Apple, Nest (by Google Home), or Ring (owned by Amazon)—seem to matter when it comes to incorporating multiple devices. Consumers without fully integrated smart homes often need to create their own smart networks/hubs to control all their connected accessories with a few taps on their smartphone. These larger brands are selling multiple smart devices that are compatible under a single app, which can be a compelling selling point.

Notably, many smart devices (like smart thermostats) also have learning functions, allowing them to get smarter over time, making automatic adjustments based on interactions with you. In fact, some of these smart devices are so smart that they may offer some automatic functions or capabilities that go beyond our expectations (or needs). This can be the case for smart devices with voice-activated commands inside the home, like Amazon Echo with the Alexa assistant; voice-activation (e.g., without using your hands or pressing a remote) is touted as a modern convenience.

Smarter Permissions for Privacy

While consumers can choose to avoid installing these devices, the reality is that some electronics now include voice-activation and digital assistants as innovative product features and enhancements.

Yet, some consumers are describing products that are “always listening” to be an invasion of privacy, or undesirable around children who think it’s funny to talk to the device. In response to these concerns, companies like Sonos (which manufactures high-end smart speakers) are increasingly offering options to disable permissions for digital assistants and the microphone to meet different families’ needs.

Always-on Convenience

Other consumers who value convenience and have a love of technology are embracing digital assistants like Alexa; with voice-activation, they are commanding these smart devices to share the time, provide weather and traffic forecasts, play music, set alarms, make shopping lists, get sports updates, track packages, and even place orders (or buy something again). There are also a variety of commands that are compatible with controlling smart home devices, such as dimming the lights, adjusting the temperature, turning on a connected coffee maker, or locking the doors, for example. These devices can even figure out movie quotes or settle the score for you by flipping a coin, picking a number, or rolling figurative dice. Households or friends with more than one of these devices can also make calls, send messages to each other or “drop in” on related devices.

That said, there are varying levels of acceptance (or cringe) factors with the various conveniences and capabilities of smart devices, which in-depth qualitative research can help to uncover in the years ahead. Qualitative research could also explore what triggers these purchases; what motivates consumers to buy these products/brand(s)—beyond giving/receiving them as a gift? What are the underlying needs fulfilled by these devices?

Overall, as smart home technology becomes more trusted, affordable, and accessible, homeowners are getting smarter about how they are securing and controlling their home environments, whether they are at home or away. Among traveling researchers, some may argue it’s no longer enough (or perhaps no longer an option) to give your neighbor a heads-up of an upcoming journey and plug in a few timers to your lamps.

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