Getting into the smart home world can be pretty difficult and confusing. Where do you even start? Do you begin with your lights? Your thermostat? Maybe your fridge or a security cam? And then, when you do start, you have to worry about how they're going to fit in with the other smart home products you buy.
The whole thing can get messy. Luckily, the past couple of years have seen the introduction of products that serve as the ideal gateway into the rest of the smart home universe: smart speakers. That's right, Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod and even Microsoft's Cortana speakers, are the best way to get people invested in smart home technology.
It's overwhelming trying to figure out how you should deck out your home with the latest technology. And that's me, someone who follows the tech world pretty closely. I can't imagine what it's like for a regular person to walk into a Best Buy and see a hundred different ways to make his or her home a little more intelligent.
A lot of that, however, is because we're still in early innings. The people who've adopted smart home products thus far are people who are really invested in trying out the latest technology. For other folks, they need more of a reason. For Nest, the reason is about properly managing energy usage to save money and the planet. For smart lock companies it's not so much about added security, but about having more control over that security. For the sector to hit mass adoption these benefits must be clear, but there's still a problem that hinders the smart home: the smartphone is the wrong device for controlling it.
Don't get me wrong - the smartphone is a wonderful thing and its impact on our lives feels immeasurable, but it's an extremely personal device. I mean, have you ever freaked out when someone else was going through your phone? Not because you're hiding anything, but because your iPhone or Android phone is an extension of who you are. That's not what you want to be using to control your home, which is a communal space.
It's become increasingly rare for people to live alone. People either rent with roommates or a significant other or live with family. This makes homes shared spaces, and every appliance in your home is built for that. Anyone can walk up to your refrigerator and open it. Anyone can turn on your TV. So why do we have to control our smart home devices with a phone? And then there are plenty of people people who don't carry around their phone everywhere while at home.
"When you walk in your home, sometimes your phone is not always around you," Todd Manegold, one of the business leads for Philips Hue in the US, told me in a recent conversation. "I often dump my phone on the kitchen counter and I'm in the family room or I'm with my son who is in a different room." In that case, you've got smart home products that you can't control because you don't have your phone on you. Some companies work on ways to combat that. There are motion-sensing cameras and lights, there's scheduling, and stuff like that. But that's automation, and the magic of control is lost.
Smart speakers, most notably the Amazon Echo series, solve the problem. They've got AI that's built to be assistive, and all you have to do is say a quick two-word trigger phrase to get them started. Ever since humanity began speaking, people have always pined for the ability to say something and then see it happen. It's empowering, despite being dehumanizing to other people. Luckily, that isn't the case with AI.
There are few smart home products where that instant satisfaction is more apparent than the smart lighting game. This isn't a new phenomena either. Remember the Clapper? Clap your hands twice and the lights go off, and people were blown away. But smart everything - locks, music, shutters, kitchen appliances - suddenly become a lot less daunting with that voice buffer.
That ability to walk into a room and feel like you can control it instantly, paired with the other abilities of smart speakers, like telling you jokes or setting alarms or reminders, are why they make such good devices for communal spaces. It's being born out by sales figures, too, as Park Associates says smart home speakers are driving smart home growth overall. In fact, smart home speakers are the fastest growing smart home category, and is set to grow 78.3% by 2020.
This is the bit where it gets good
The simplicity of these speakers - plug it in and talk to it! - combined with how cheap most of them are compared to more niche smart home products, and how magical they feel, make them a wonderful starting point for people. They give you the feeling that you could control more stuff in your home, and that's a powerful pull.
"We've done countless demonstrations, being able to walk into a room and be able to control it: that's pretty powerful with lighting," Manegold told me when I asked about voice. "That's why we've seen a strong attachment when people are actually looking to see what they can do with their voice platform they turn to lighting because of that magic factor."
Human beings are simple creatures. We use tools to help us get things done, or to make our lives easier. When we're looking for those tools, we'll always choose the option that makes us feel empowered. We will always go with the device that makes us feel like we have magic powers and can alter the world in wonderful ways.
Smart home products by themselves can't always do that, but when you throw in a smart home speaker, and you get talking to their assistants, the wider world of smart home tech comes much more naturally. The smart home has been a slow burner, but with the arrival of these smart assistants, it feels like we're really getting somewhere.