On Trend: Smart Technology for the Modern Home

Early in 2018, the biggest retailer in the USA unveiled its latest range of home appliances. “Alexa, make me some popcorn” is one of the requests it accommodates, and Amazon’s latest microwave oven will prepare the snack. Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant with which you communicate by voice. It can do things like set reminders, dim the lights, or answer general knowledge queries. But unlike the popular Alexa speaker, also known as Echo, the smart oven isn’t able to tell you the weather or the latest score of a cricket match. It’s intended as an entry-level product in an entire ecosystem that’s being rolled out aggressively by Amazon.

Amazon is positioning itself as one of the many players in the smart home market, announcing a total of 70 new products toward the end of 2018. Household technology companies such as Apple, Huawei, Google-owned Nest, Philips, and Samsung alongside lesser-known brands such as Belkin and Ecobee are contributing to a multi-billion dollar revenue-generating market.

Today, a growing number of products in our homes are bought online. As large technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google launch their own platforms for smart functionality, homes today are becoming more automated, providing greater energy efficiency, convenience, comfort, and well-being. But beyond adding greater convenience and comfort, architectural designers are increasingly incorporating these features to adapt to the shifting lifestyles of the modern person.

According to Deloitte’s 2017 Smart Home: Technologies with a standard battle report, smart home revenue in the USA alone is expected to grow over threefold between 2016 and 2021, exceeding USD 32 billion. In China, revenue could exceed USD 13 billion in 2021, compared to only USD 1.2 billion in 2016. Europe is expected to represent a USD 19 billion market in 2021. The report further found that, in the UK, 52% of all households surveyed had at least one connected device in their smart home; the most popular were smart TVs followed by smart thermostats. Interestingly, the UK’s Office for National Statistics has in 2019 included smart speakers in its monthly ‘shopping basket’, which comprises goods and services monitored to measure consumer price inflation in the country.

A 2018 report by NPR and Edison Research entitled The Smart Audio Report, found that 43 million people in the USA owned a smart speaker like Amazon’s Echo. Smart homes are connected with electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and more subtle gadgets such as wifi-enabled thermostats that provide real-time monitoring and automation of a home’s appliance use, security, entertainment, and efficiency. Lights, heating, televisions, and microwaves can be virtually communicated with and adapted accordingly. Home access can furthermore be monitored using digital systems to increase the home’s security.

The popularity of smart homes stems from advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). AI refers to the use of powerful computing to perform complex statistics to make predictions, automate certain tasks, and do things otherwise thought to be limited to the capabilities of the human brain, and even beyond. The popularity of AI has grown alongside that of IoT, which also relies on modern advances in cloud storage infrastructure, access to more powerful computing power, and the availability of data. Whereas AI relies on data to make more accurate predictions, IoT captures that data. IoT is a network of physical objects — think cars, smartphones, and appliances — that use sensors to gather information and communicate with other applications in the network. According to technology company IBM there are more than 12 billion IoT devices around the world currently connected to the internet, from toasters and parking meters to vending machines and smartphones.

The Social Kitchen
Technology and design companies are at the forefront of determining how the modern home functions. “You don’t have to touch anything, it’s very clean, it’s very natural, and it’s something a bit new but with existing technology”, Italian design studio Tipic co-founder Tommaso Corà told Dezeen. In 2016, the studio unveiled a smart kitchen countertop called the Tulèr kitchen. The design integrates various interactive functions including a sink that appears out of the surface with a simple gesture.

Home automation has gained incredible popularity in recent years, with the attainment thereof increasingly influencing structural aspects of home design and construction

Swedish-German design studio Kram/Weisshaar is similarly merging the fields of tech and aesthetics. It has not only demonstrated how the smart home can influence the interior architecture of the home but also how it can accommodate smart living. In a bid to take the host out of the kitchen, the company’s SmartSlab Table allows the ceramic top to act as a hob for cooking, while plate-sized heating elements ensure served food stays at an optimal temperature. Users of the tabletop can keep their plates warm and their drinks cold on the same table. “We basically treat the tile as a circuit board and attach circuits to the back so they can all be installed in the factory”, says Clemens Weisshaar, adding that they are trying to work at the intersection between design and technology. Besides heating and cooling elements, the circuitry can be customized to include devices such as wireless charging modules, touch-control panels, and even wifi base stations.

In the USA, the global kitchen appliances market is expected to balloon to USD 253 billion by 2020, up from about USD 175 billion in 2014, according to Allied Market Research’s Kitchen Appliances Market report. Some of the world’s biggest technology brands are heading into this sector, adapting their products to modern lifestyles. For instance, leading Korean smartphone manufacturer Samsung this year unveiled a smart refrigerator that understands voice commands and sports a 21.5-inch touchscreen. The appliance is part of the brand’s Family Hub range and has three built-in cameras that can beam live images of the fridge’s contents to a phone. “From creating shopping lists to coordinating schedules to playing your favorite songs and movies, the Family Hub keeps your life more connected than ever”, describes Samsung.

Sustainably Smart
In order to save more money and have a smaller carbon-intensive footprint, consumers seek seamless systems to control energy use by automatically activating and deactivating lighting, heating, and air conditioning systems. While kitchen appliances are expected to boom and their technologies are striking a chord with novel designs, according to a 2017 survey conducted by PwC in the UK, Smart Home, Seamless Life, savings on utility bills were the most impactful benefit of smart home devices in the eyes of current non-users; 86% of Britons said that reducing their energy bill or increasing energy efficiency affected their decision to own a connected home device in the future.

Dutch multi-national Philips has a popular range of Hue smart light bulbs that can integrate with Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and Apple HomeKit, and can cycle through various colors and dim or switch off when a preset condition, such as the time of day, is triggered. Moreover, smart home product company Nest, along with Ecobee, helps customers automatically cut down on heating and cooling when electricity rates are at their highest. The systems use residents’ comfort preferences, home energy efficiency programming, and the weather forecast to modify the heat or air conditioning before peak times. Ecobee estimates that consumers can save an additional 10% on electricity bills.

Smart homes are gaining momentum within fields of architecture and design, influenced by ideas to ensure optimization of lighting, climate, and energy usage. German architect Rolf Disch, for example, claims to have built the first house in the world to generate more power than it uses. Built in Freiburg, Germany, the Heliotrope’s energy is entirely renewable and emissions-free, and the building rotates to make the most of the sun’s light and heat.

Big Ideas for Small Living
As much as there is a growing need for people to become more sustainable, smart homes are also designed to be more efficient. The tiny house movement has gained momentum in some parts of the world in the wake of rising house prices and living costs, as well as for meeting the need to be environmentally friendly.

Designed by nice&wise design studio, the Ecocapsule is a low-energy, internet-connected mobile dwelling packed into a compact, egg-shaped form. The energy-efficient pod is capable of accommodating two adults and includes a built-in kitchenette, a flushing toilet, and hot shower. “It allows you to stay in remote places out of reach of infrastructure [but] with the luxury of a hotel room”, the company notes. “We have engineered the product from scratch to be as self-sufficient, practical, and functional as possible.” The capsule includes a rainwater collection system and solar panels, ensuring self-sustainability.

Unveiled in late 2017, Dot Architects developed the Baitasi House of the Future for tech company Whaley in Beijing, China. The 30 m2 wood-framed house offers four different layout options that can shift according to the needs of its residents. For example, the layout can be changed from a three-bedroom house to a small office. The movable walls are operated by a smart TV that also controls lighting modes, curtains, a security alarm, and other appliances.

In late 2018, Amazon announced its partnership with homebuilder Lennar in an aim to showcase its smart home products powered by Alexa. The homes are equipped with wireless speakers, video doorbells and smart locks, thermostats, and lights. As interior design and technology merge into one, there will be countless benefits in both convenience and costs.

Smart home products manufacturer Nest recently launched its smart doorbell, Nest Hello, feeding into the interest in connected security systems. The doorbell provides HD footage of all activity at one’s doorstep, allowing home owners to access 24/7 streaming
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