Connected home centre stage at IFA

Consumer electronics show saw startups and big firms jumping firmly on board the smart home band wagon

 Bloggers and journalists look at new Sony products at the company’s booth during the first press day for the International Consumer Electronics Fair (IFA) at the exhibition grounds in Berlin, Germany. Photograph:  EPA/RAINER JENSEN

Bloggers and journalists look at new Sony products at the company’s booth during the first press day for the International Consumer Electronics Fair (IFA) at the exhibition grounds in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: EPA/RAINER JENSEN

 

The connected home may be nothing new, but at this year’s IFA consumer electronics exhibition, it seemed as if every manufacturer was keen to push its smart home credentials.

From Samsung and Intel to Panasonic and Sony, the big electronics companies joined smaller startups in jumping firmly on board the smart home band wagon.

Smart locks that keep out intruders but can be opened with your smartphone, smart cameras that watch your every move, and smart appliances that can be activated via your home network could all be part of your future home. Smart kettles and coffee makers that can be programmed through your phone, ovens where you can monitor the contents on a livestream and fridges that you can peek inside with cameras when you’re out of the house were just some of the inventions that are hoping to make our lives easier on display at IFA in Berlin.

Samsung announced that it would be getting into the connected home, with a starter kit dubbed Smart Things. The line includes a central hub that connects everything from electrical sockets and sensors, and links in with your home router to put your home online.

In Samsung’s vision of the future, your home will follow a routine in the morning, switching on the coffee maker and turning on the heating before you even get out of bed, or turn on your favourite music when you walk through the door at the end of the day. If your home alarm is tripped or motion sensors are activated, the system can trigger the sound of a dog barking.

Smart Things is an open platform, so it plays well with products from manufacturers such as D Link, Bose, Belkin and Honeywell.

In between unveiling the sixth generation of its Core chips, Intel said it was trying its hand at making all our lives easier. It’s chosen medium? Wireless charging. The company is still pushing the technology, ploughing on through standards confusion and slow take-up, showing off plates that could be fitted under desks and tables to charge those devices that are placed on top of them.

Meanwhile, Chinese firm Yeelink, which is one of the participants in SOSVentures’ Hax hardware accelerator programme, was set to push its connected lighting products in the market.

One of Sony’s smart home initiatives came through its Seed Acceleration programme, which aims to support promising new business ideas that were proposed by Sony employees. The Qrio smart lock, which blew past its funding target on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake, fits over existing locks but allows doors to be opened using encrypted keys shared via messaging apps on your smartphone.

Panasonic, meanwhile, will start taking preorders for a mobile connected security camera Nubo.

Mobile phones

Lenovo executive Jeffrey Meredith hit the nail on the head when he pointed out to the crowd attending the company press announcement that the phone had evolved far beyond simply using it for phone calls. That was a precursor to unveil the Phab, the Chinese firm’s 6.8 inch phone/tablet hybrid.

The new phablet has ways of making it accessible while using it one handed though, including a keyboard that pops out and attaches itself to one side of the display so you can reach the keys without dislocating a finger or two.

For those who consider the jump to 6.8 inch screens a leap too far, it’s worth remembering that only a couple of years ago Samsung’s Note was considered a niche product with its 5.3 inch screen. Now, screen sizes hover around 5 inches – even Apple has bumped its bigger iPhone 6 Plus up to 5.5 inches after determinedly sticking to 4 inch screens for the iPhone 5 and 5S handsets. Even Sony’s Xperia Z5 Compact comes in at 4.6 inches.

According to research from GfK, the share of mobile phones with screens above 5 inches increased to 48 per cent in the second quarter of 2015.

That was a jump of 5 per cent compared with the first quarter of the year, and 17 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2014. They’re more popular in Asian countries, with China boasting the highest regional share of large screened phones at 63 per cent.

Huawei was clearly taking aim at Apple’s larger phone with its 5.5 inch Mate S. Not just for the size, because there are any number of phones that are aiming at the same end of the ruler; but Huawei has opted to include Force Touch into its display. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Force Touch is the technology that Apple debuted in its newest 12 inch Macbook’s trackpad. The technology can distinguish between a light tap and a longer press, and performs various functions accordingly.

The Mate S is the first phone to include it in the display, but rumour has it that the upcoming iPhone, expected to be unveiled on September 9th at an event in San Francisco, will also include the technology. If Apple does as expected, it means the Chinese manufacturer stole a march on the tech giant. But Huawei still has some way to go to catch up to Cupertino; the latest figures from Gartner put it in third place in the rankings of the world’s biggest smart phone companies by sales, but it had 7.8 per cent of the market compared with 14.6 per cent for Apple and 21.9 per cent for Samsung.

Wearables

But the devices are moving beyond the simple fitness trackers and watches that need to be tethered to a phone to work correctly and into more serious health applications. Qardio, for example, has developed a range of medical grade products that includes an EEG/ECG sensor, a wireless blood pressure monitor and a scale that will break it to you gently if you’re keeping to your weight or fat loss targets through the use of smiley faces.

Zurich-based medical device firm Hocoma, meanwhile, was showing off its product intended to help prevent back pain.Valedo is aimed at promoting healthy movement, while keeping it fun for the patient.

The big companies were getting involved here too, with Samsung unveiling its SleepSense system that aims to improve your sleep quality. It does that through a sensor that monitors your movement, breathing rate and body temperature throughout the night, before giving you tips based on its analysis.

It’s not the only one targeting the bedroom though; Withings has signed a deal with Spotify that will bring the music service to its Aura sleep system – another that aims to improve how you sleep – and wake you to your favourite soundtrack.

There were other, more unusual devices. Resound offers smart hearing aids that can be controlled and customised through an app for your smartphone. The miniature devices are subtle, and can be fine-tuned for different environments through the accompanying smartphone or Apple Watch app. The ReSound Enzo also allows users to stream audio directly to their hearing aid as if they were wireless headphones, including phone calls and music.

There was also the expected slew of smartwatches at the event. After announcing six months ago that it would be taking a break from introducing any more new smartwatches – the company had rapidly added to its wearable tech line in the space of a year – Samsung returned to the fray with the Galaxy Gear S2. The Tizen-based watch has been decoupled from the latest Galaxy handsets, freeing it up to be paired with any Android handset – once it’s running Android 4.4 and above. Sony had already revealed the Smartband 2 ahead of the IFA exhibition, complete with its integrated heart rate sensor, but attention was mostly on the Wena watch, which was worn by Sony CEO Kaz Hirai during the company’s press event ahead of the official start of the show. The watch bucks the current smartwatch trend and builds all the smart stuff into the watch’s band rather than the timepiece itself.

It caught attention at a time when the standard fitness trackers and smartwatches are trying to differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded market. TomTom made its mark with the Spark Music, a running watch that not only keeps the heart rate monitor the company introduced with the Cardio line of sports watches, but has enough space to store 500 songs and listen to them using bluetooth headphones. It breaks the last link with the smartphone for runners; the watch also has its own standalone GPS.

Of course, along all the useful products there are some that will have people scratching their heads. Asus’s water cooled laptop seems to have caused a stir, as did the announcement of its gaming phone. We can expect more of the weird and wonderful devices to materialise before the show closes on September 9th.

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