A year ago at Berlin’s IFA tech trade show (think European CES), Verge reporter Jon Porter witnessed a Google Nest Hub control an Apple HomeKit smart plug. This “lightbulb moment for the smart home” was the first public demonstration of Matter. The new smart home standard is designed to fix the biggest issue facing tech in our homes: interoperability, and witnessing two fierce competitors in the space working together was exciting. Twelve months later, on the eve of IFA 2023, we’re still waiting for that lightbulb to turn on across the industry.
The smart home remains fragmented. Despite being developed by the biggest names in the industry — Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung, and more — Matter has yet to deliver on its main promise. You still can’t just buy a smart light bulb, screw it in, and have it work with every other smart light you have (no matter who made it) and with any ecosystem you want.
The industry needs to provide a more compelling reason for people to bring smart tech into their homes — beyond “it’s cool”
Today, if you want the full benefits of home automation, you still need to pick a smart home platform and largely stay within its walled gardens unless you want to tinker with more hardcore DIY options involving Raspberry Pis.
But trade shows like IFA, which kicks off this week, are about tomorrow. And I’m hoping the future that’s on display at this year’s show is more connected and less fragmented than what we’ve seen from the smart home so far.
That’s not to say I’m not excited for a new generation of smart home tech, which, from the list of companies holding press conferences at the show, could include all manner of security cameras, video doorbells, smart speakers, robot vacuum cleaners, and smart lighting products.
South Korean tech giants Samsung and LG will be in attendance, with the latter having already preannounced plenty of its IFA showing. We’re expecting news from robot vacuum giants Ecovacs and Roborock, and smaller smart home players such as Eve, Nanoleaf, SwitchBot, Aqara, Aeotec, and Yeelight are all on the show floor. Honor also plans to hold a keynote focused around its Honor Magic V2 foldable phone, which recently launched in China.
No doubt, there are cool smart home announcements on the way. But what’s more important is the long and boring task of getting them to seamlessly work together to create a home that’s actually smart, not just a collection of disparate gadgets that solve specific problems. A video doorbell showing me who is at my front door no matter where I am is useful. But what if my doorbell was smart enough to recognize that person and either tell the smart lock to let them in or the security system to call the police?
Take Philips Hue’s rumored new security system, likely to launch this week. By adding cameras and new sensors to its line of smart lighting — presumably flashing all your lights to alert you to danger — the company is leveraging its ecosystem to make it more functional. Saving electricity by having your lights turn on and off automatically is one thing, but if that same ecosystem can also protect your home, then it becomes a far easier sell.
Or what about SwitchBot’s new robot vacuum and mop, which will not only refill itself with water directly from your water lines but can take that water to a humidifier to fill it up, removing another boring chore from your To-do list? The company also tells me it has plans to use the robot’s battery as a roaming charger for different household products.
If this works, it could make for a device that you can delegate chores to entirely, rather than needing to supervise, and it’s not hard to imagine a future where this charging functionality could even take over chores relating to other gadgets like charging smartphones or wireless air purifiers.
Speaking of smart air, Ecovacs’ will show off its Airbot T2 at IFA next week. A robot air purifier that roams around your house in search of stale air, it may look like a Dalek, but it’s a glimpse at a “Rosie” future. Add some suction power and a pair of robot arms, and you’ve got the multifunctional household robot that helped the Jetson family manage daily life 40 years from now.
I’m not suggesting any of these innovations we expect to see at IFA are at the level of smart home nirvana, but they are pointing toward the type of symbiosis we need. And it’s a need that’s been put into sharp relief by the current energy crisis.
Just as the Nest Learning Thermostat kicked off the most recent home automation moment in 2011 with its promise of saving energy and money, so are energy bills a wake-up call for how we live in our homes in 2023. Technology has the potential to be part of the solution, but the biggest benefits will be felt when all these sensor-equipped devices can work in tandem.
For us to feel comfortable allowing access to those things, we need privacy and security. All of this is why Matter (forgive me) matters. It’s a reset for the smart home. The smart home standard introduces a secure, basic communication layer that allows for interoperability and local control. It moves us away from proprietary protocols, dubious security standards, and cloud dependency to the point where — if appropriately implemented — we can feel comfortable allowing technology intimate access to our homes.
Matter still has a long way to go, partly because some companies are still holding back, waiting to see what’s really in it for them (Philips Hue still hasn’t pulled the trigger despite early enthusiasm), partly because the technology still hasn’t caught up to the dream, and mainly because the regular consumer is yet to be convinced that the whole thing is worth their time and expense. The industry needs to provide a more compelling reason for people to bring smart tech into their homes — beyond “it’s cool.”
The smart home needs to be essential, and today it’s not. Robots and folding phones will never not be cool, but a part of me is hoping for an IFA that’s more focused on the boring essentials.