The ‘internet of things’ – the network of everyday objects embedded with connective digital technology – is set to change the way we design our homes and living spaces, even how we interact with our furniture and appliances. Everything from kitchen equipment to thermostats and electrical sockets could be connected to other devices and they will make use of data on our habits and lifestyles to tailor their function accordingly. Products will help us to keep our possessions safe or to waste less energy. And all this, as engineering company WiTricity claim, can be achieved wirelessly – electricity will charge and power objects through the air rather than through cables. If this sounds a little speculative – like the setting of a Ray Bradbury story – then it’s worth bearing in mind that there are currently products available that do all these things and, more significantly, mainstream stores such as Target, Sears and Ikea – not to mention household names like Google and British Gas – are already showcasing the idea of the ‘connected home’ as an everyday, affordable reality.
While the concept is relatively new, many of us have been well connected in our homes for years, thanks to the ubiquity of broadband and the ascension of the smartphone, now the go-to device for doing anything from looking up a recipe or checking the TV listings, to buying goods and services and using social media. But being connected to our homes, via our chairs and tables, our ovens and fridges – even the house itself – is a new experience. In March this year, Ikea revealed the first products in its new Home Smart collection – items of furniture with built-in wireless ‘charging spots’ for mobile devices (see page 48). The range of minimalist tables and lamps also provide USB outlets for attaching additional devices, quite literally placing the smartphone at the centre of the connected home.
For Ikea, accessibility and affordability are key considerations. Much of the gadgetry showcased as part of the connected home isn’t cheap, yet the Swedish giant aims to bring ‘smart furniture’ to a wider audience (while claiming it is establishing the ‘internet of better things’ – a tongue-in-cheek reference to the original concept first coined in the late 1990s). Ikea has recently added a line of lighting products to the Home Smart range where bedside lamps can imitate the sunrise, or a house’s entire system can be controlled via wireless wall switches or a smartphone app. In South Korea, furniture maker Hyundai Livart collaborated with the country’s largest mobile carrier SK Telecom on a range of network-connected products that made use of touch screens (users can make calls, browse the web, set heating systems with them), while in the US, Target’s Open House experiment is a 3,500 square-foot laboratory space which opened in San Francisco in July to showcase a selection of connected products that point to the future of the home. Thirty-five smart devices are displayed on acrylic walls and furniture (so as not to detract from the objects apparently), all of which are for sale, with many items available in-store at Target. The aim of the installation-like project is to align Target with the evolution of new technologies and show visitors that living in a more connected environment is a very real possibility.
When Ikea recently sought to tackle the self-directed question ‘How will we behave around food in 2025?’ it prepared a concept kitchen in a collaboration with IDEO and design students at the Ingvar Kamprad Design Centre at Lund University and Eindhoven University of Technology. One of the prototypes developed was a table – A Table For Living – which incorporated a camera and projector positioned above the surface and induction coils underneath. The networked technology could suggest recipes based on foodstuffs placed on the table, offer tips and tricks projected around the chopping boards, weigh food and even play back cooking sessions. This type of “casual technology”, say Ikea, “gives us control and guidance when we need it, but [is] otherwise hidden – a surface simplicity that minimises distractions and allows for mindful engagement with food.”
Practical products are also coming on the market which appeal to our desire for safety and security in the home. Inevitably, some of the these ‘home monitoring’ devices seem to simply exploit our fears of being away from an empty house when on holiday, but there are many innovative designs which can also help to run our homes more efficiently. The SmartPlug from iHome, for example, sits over an existing socket – whatever is plugged into it can be turned on or off via the user’s smartphone – while domestic technology firm Nest (acquired by Google in 2014 at a cost of £2bn) is certainly one of the most talked about having already launched a thermostat which learns the particular routine of a house and its inhabitants and that can also be controlled remotely. Nest Protect is a smoke and carbon monoxide detector – if the alarm sounds, the device ‘talks’ to the thermostat which then turns off the boiler. Rather than impose an entirely new and costly system to an existing environment, as Nest’s CEO Tony Fadell told Dezeen last year, the company wants to reinvent things one by one. It’s an approach which no doubt will appeal to homeowners keen to embrace the new technology without having to dismantle their home in order to connect it back up again.
In the UK, the idea of the connected home is also gaining traction. British Gas launched its Hive Active eating system in late 2013 and now more than 200,000 households across the country use the tech to control their heating from their phone or tablet. The combination of a familiar brand name, an innovative technology and an acclaimed product designer also means that Hive’s second wave of apps and new thermostat design will bring the system into yet more homes. Yves Béhar’s thermostat eschews the beige plastic of traditional models and instead features an intuitive LED display with on-screen guide and is produced with a mirrored finish in a range of contemporary colours. Later this year, Hive is also introducing a fleet of other complementary products – smart plugs and lights, window, door and motion sensors that users can control remotely.
One of the most impressive advances, however, could be in a technology we can’t even see. The Massachusetts-based company WiTricity claims its wireless charging products will spell the end for power cables in five year’s time – it has patents on the foundational technology for wireless power over distance which uses a technique called ‘Highly Resonant Wireless Power Transfer (HRWPT)’. It’s essentially a ‘non-radiative’ mode of energy transfer that employs specially designed magnetic resonators to efficiently transfer power from a WiTricity device to an appliance. Electric cars could charge up if positioned over a plate in the garage, while any number of electrical devices could be powered without the use of wires or cabling.
But while new companies with innovative ideas for the home will continue to spring up, where does that leave a company as dominant in ‘connectivity’ as Apple? In 2014, the company unveiled its HomeKit suite of tools which, as MacWorld’s Susie Ochs reported at the time, “will allow users to control third-party smart-home gadgets from more places in iOS 8. HomeKit will let smart locks, lights, cameras, thermostats, plugs, and switches securely pair with your iPhone, so you can control individual devices, and even group devices together. You could tell Siri you’re going to bed, for example, and that could trigger a response from your entire home all at once, instead of you having to open the Nest app to turn down the heat, the Hue app to turn off your lights, and the August app to lock the front door.”
In June, the first set of physical HomeKit accessories were announced. While the Insteon Hub or the Ecobee3 thermostat might not be household names just yet, the connected home is beginning to seem like a place where anything is possible.
For more details on the products mentioned, see ikea.com, hivehome.com, nest.com and witricity.com. A video walk-through of Target’s Open House is at openhouse.target.com