Where There is No Vision...

Howdy Pierce

I was disappointed in CES this year. Aside from minor tweaks, virtually everything on display in 2018 was also on display in 2017. Although I did see the world’s first “mixed reality dimensional guidance device”—I’m not sure what it is, but with that name I want it!

Evidently, I’m not the only one whose expectations weren’t met. According to an NYT article last week, most people who are buying virtual assistants—Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and so forth—are using them only for the simplest tasks, like setting timers or getting the weather. At sub-$50 entry prices, maybe that’s a good enough value proposition, as the Times points out; for certain, the timer function on our kitchen Echo is my family’s favorite feature. Still, you’d hope for more.

Over the last five years, I’ve spent a decent amount of time trying to automate my home with some of the products on the market. The problem isn’t only complexity and cost, though those are noteworthy drawbacks. No, the real reason adoption is low is that current products stink.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that 10+ companies on the market have the same Wi-Fi-based home automation lineup: A smart camera; a smart plug; a light switch; sometimes a smart light bulb. In most product lines, there is also a dimmer switch and a smart plug that measures energy utilization. The similarity of every vendor’s product line is disheartening, because it suggests a lack of entrepreneurial imagination.

I’m going to talk about the Belkin Wemo line, because it is one of the oldest (first announced at CES in 2012, six years ago!), and because I’ve got first-hand experience with it. However, the same criticism could be leveled at iDevices or TP-Link or any one of a number of lesser-known Chinese players. They all disappoint.

Take, for instance, the original smart plug idea. In six years, Belkin has replaced the original form factor with a cost-reduced “mini” form factor, but aside from size, the new model is the same as the old.

My question: Has any product manager at any of these vendors actually used this thing? Look at this picture from Belkin’s website:

Presumably that power cord runs a lamp located on the table. In order for this setup to work, the lamp switch must be left always on, and the control of the light must be done only through the smart plug.

Now, let’s say you sit down on that couch, and you want to turn the light on. You have the following choices:

  1. Reach down to the smart plug and push the button, barely visible, on the right of the device. My house, sadly, does not share the uncluttered Pottery Barn vibe of the pictured décor. The smart plug is actually hidden behind the couch. So this option does not work for me.
  2. Unlock your smartphone, find the vendor’s app, wait for it to load, and press the button in the app. In practice, this process is painfully slow even if your phone is close at hand.
  3. Say “Alexa, turn off my living room light”, and wait a couple of seconds.

Of the available options, the Alexa choice is the most usable, but even it pales in comparison to the old-fashioned approach: Just turn the lamp on or off at its switch!

It’s no wonder that adoption of the smart plug is slow, because the experience is poor. Ideally, the Wi-Fi functionality would be built into the lamp. For this to happen, Belkin et al need to sell modules to the likes of Pottery Barn (or, more realistically, Pottery Barn’s lamp suppliers). Failing that, we need a fashionable-looking box that sits on the table, beside or under the lamp, that allows direct control of the light by pressing a button. Or maybe we keep the smart plug on the wall, but offer a wireless battery-powered button, akin to an Amazon Dash, that would sit next to the lamp and remotely control the plug.

Or take the case of the in-wall smart switch. Few of the smart switches currently on the market work with a three-way or four-way switch—surprising, because for this use case, a Wi-Fi switch should be superior to the traditional hardwired approach. In addition, current products all require a neutral wire at the switch, which isn’t always present. And no vendor offers a multi-gang Wi-Fi switch (that is, a single larger unit with two or three switches on its front and a corresponding number of relays, but only one Wi-Fi MAC address), a clear opportunity for cost reduction.

I could go on (trust me: at length), but you get the idea. Nobody is pursuing what should be a pretty obvious vision: Control of the entire house.

Every power outlet, light fixture, etc., should be controllable over an IP network, and any wall switch should be able to control any of the outlets. There should be an open API that allows arbitrary services, including first and foremost virtual assistants, to tie into this system. There should be voice control in every room as well, possibly built into the wall switches or smoke detectors. Nothing I’m describing would be particularly expensive if it were done at scale.

If the products were decent and affordable, all new houses would be constructed this way, and those of us with existing houses would be considering how to get to the same goal.

As things stand, trying to achieve whole-house control would be nuts.

I guess that saves us all money for mixed reality dimensional guidance devices.

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