Smart Building Conference 2017 Report: ’œAdapt or die’ in the DIY age

On the eve of ISE 2017, some of the brightest minds working in the development and integration of smart building technology gathered to share their insight on opportunities and challenges in the marketplace at the fifth annual Smart Building Conference. Charlotte Ashley reports from the residential track.

In a year that has witnessed the meteoric rise of voice-controlled devices, Amazon’s Charlie Kindel was a fitting keynote to begin proceedings on the residential track of the 2017 Smart Building Conference. Responsible for product development at Amazon’s Alexa Smart Home for the past two years, Kindel pinpointed younger generations as instrumental to the rise of the VUI (voice user interface), and stated that it was company’s “dream” to realise the technology on a level in which users can interact with its products in the same way as currently possible with computers. The differentiating factor with Google – Amazon’s huge developer base that has produced over 7,000 smart home skills to date through its public API – will be key to advancing the technology.

“It used to be the case that to have a smart home you had to be super rich or an ultra-nerd,” said Kindel. “The reality is that none of it has taken off – and the problem is customers haven’t been asking for it.”  He added that voice technology is in no way limited to the home, and despite the popularity of Amazon’s Alexa offerings in the “DIY” channel, they are focused on engaging with the installer community – as well as security providers like Vivint. “The high end integrator sector is important is a big market for us and one we’re passionate about,” clarified Kindel. After being relatively quiet in the CI market, the company is now actively engaging with CEDIA to offer training opportunities – the first of which took place this month.

Voices from the audience expressed concern about what the rise of low cost devices like the Amazon Echo and Apple HomeKit means for the residential industry. One forewarned of the “death of the integrator” due to the effective marketing of these household names, with Amazon even setting up a smart home consultation service. However speaker Claus Lohse from systems integrator a/c/t Beratungs & System GmbH said installers should view the rise of broader mass market offerings as positive for the community to demonstrate its worth. “I think it’s an opportunity because business could be better – there aren’t too many ‘smart’ homes out there where the technology is truly connected together, only some that have a bus system like KNX and a home cinema.”

“We have to get away from talking about mini servers and hardware, and instead communicate the benefits of the things we can help get done on a daily basis – and giving them that time back.”

Loxone UK’s managing director, Philipp Schuster, detailed that the company’s research found that 66% of UK homeowners would seek at professionally installed system over a DIY solution, with a clear preference for a system they can control from a single app. He added that it found that they are willing to spend around 5% more on having a home with automation, but confusion about what constitutes a “smart home” is holding back adoption. “Awareness is the first thing that’s needed, as no one is marketing to real homeowners,” said Schuster, echoing the sentiments expressed by Kindel earlier in the day. “We have to get away from talking about mini servers and hardware, and instead communicate the benefits of the things we can help get done on a daily basis – and giving them that time back,” said Schuster on how home automation can make the transition into from early adopters to the mainstream and capitalise on market demand. The universal feeling among speakers was that Europe is still lagging around two years behind the US market when it comes to adoption.

Lohse identified personal security, ease of control and cost-controlling energy consumption as the key drivers of acquiring business from high end clientele in Germany, and stated that the value of cabling infrastructure in the IoT age will never diminish.

“Privacy is important in the IoT era, the problem is that security and convenience don’t always come together,” said Lohse. He stated that the community must focus on the decentralisation of critical parts of the system for independent functionality and providing an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) in redundant systems, with reliable hardware at its core. Adding that these factors are as important as ever in an age of an increasing amount of streaming where some engineers are still failing to consider the IT side of installations, and the poor safety management of data among service providers – especially with 60% of homeowners reportedly concerned about how their data is being used. “Products need to be really robust. Either companies solve things themselves or you bring in a well-defined structure,” added Marcus Tempte from Friday Labs later in the day. Arthur Baanders, Digital Home Lifestyle, said further collaboration between manufacturers themselves and service providers is essential for tackling key issues regarding use and ownership of data in 2017.

Lohse additionally stressed that viewing a control interface in terms of the client’s lifestyle and the different users using the system installed in various scenarios should be top of an integrator’s agenda, rather than just thinking in terms of what the equipment can do.

An industry panel closing the residential track saw a mixture of opinions on what technologies will have a significant impact in our homes in 2017 and beyond. Predictions ranged from voice control and virtual personal assistants able to analyse the lifestyle of a homeowner to the rise of mesh networking. Although only a couple of members of the audience are currently using IBM’s Watson platform, the popularity of the AI platform was forecast to rise with the resources its putting behind the resources behind the technology.

Bluetooth’s investment in mesh networking sparked debate in the room about the number of standards in the marketplace; “There are many players in market but they’re is not standard – there is an ocean of products out there and they’re not talking together. It’s up to us to communication altogether – this is what we lack, and clients are going to get tired,” said Leon Beuyukian from integrator Novus Automation. The most rapturous audience reaction of the day would come in response to a comment from Bernhard Huessey, CEO and co-founder of Nomos Systems AG; “Here’s my recommendation: the global finality of standards is from utopia.” He added that considering the 25 billion devices predicted to be around in the next three years, it’s never been more important to bring components of custom installation and off-the-shelf IoT together – “like a Swiss watch, we must bring all the complex parts into one dial.”

From the heavily-debated issue of interoperability to competing with the volume of “DIY” products in the marketplace, the resounding message of the conference was, “Embrace the change taking place in your business models and services, or risk getting left behind.” This is especially critical in a market where retailers and service providers & communication providers all want a piece of the pie, and the integration industry is still somewhat at a disconnect from the broader industry.