Home is where the digital heartbeat is

‘Smart homes’ will soon be a reality thanks to better technology and lower prices

It’s still early days for connected homes in Ireland. Just one in 10 Irish people say they have a smart home, but with Google, Amazon and Apple smart speakers now on the Irish market,   consumers’ curiosity  may grow.

It’s still early days for connected homes in Ireland. Just one in 10 Irish people say they have a smart home, but with Google, Amazon and Apple smart speakers now on the Irish market, consumers’ curiosity may grow.

 

Parts of the puzzle have been in place for some time: products from makers like Nest and Hive let you control your home’s heating, lighting or security systems through an app. So far, so convenient.

“The current state of connected homes is largely at the stage of individual gadgets. They are just starting to work together. Recently we’ve seen fully integrated systems that can look after all the aspects of your house. When you introduce voice control, the advantage is that it reduces the number of screens and buttons you need to use,” says Prof John Barrett, head of academic studies at the Nimbus research centre in Cork IT.

Just imagine by kitting out a home with smart thermostats, lightbulbs, TVs and more, it can be transformed from a mute group of rooms and floors to an interactive space where you can play your favourite music, cue up a show on your digital TV, dim the lights and adjust the temperature.

Arguably the most powerful piece of the jigsaw, voice recognition, is finally available to Irish consumers. This year, some of the products creating the biggest buzz around managing the smart home, like Google Home, Amazon Echo and Apple HomePod, finally launched in Ireland.

Smart speakers use natural language processing and voice-recognition technology, so instead of whipping out your phone to manage your smart home by tapping on a screen, you can check the weather forecast and the traffic for your morning commute just by talking to the nearest speaker. You activate it by saying “Alexa…” or “Okay Google”, make your request the way you would normally speak, and it will talk back to you.

The speakers are widely available and competitively priced. Small entry-level systems can let wary consumers test the water for less than €100. Amazon sells its Echo (£89.99/€99.90), Echo Dot (£49.99/€55.50) and Echo Show (£199.99/€222) devices from its website. You can pick up a Google Home (€149) or Home Mini (€59) from retailers like DID Electrical, Harvey Norman, Curry’s PC World, Expert Electrical, and Power City.

Partnerships

Apple’s HomePod sells for about €360 and is widely available. Other smart home gadgets like smart thermostats are often available through energy companies, who often use them as hooks to attract new customers.

Behind the scenes, makers are tying up partnerships with technology companies to extend the range of services that you can access by voice, from entertainment to home automation. Connecting a Nest Thermostat to Alexa, for example, means you can tell the speaker to raise or lower the temperature in the house. Speaker providers are also doing deals with third-party brands so that in the United States it’s possible to order from Pizza Hut through Alexa and Google Home.

Tríona Butler, Google Home’s Irish-born user experience designer, with the company’s smart speaker. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennells
Tríona Butler, Google Home’s Irish-born user experience designer, with the company’s smart speaker. Photograph: Colm Mahady/Fennells

Personalisation will be the next stage of the connected home, says Tríona Butler, Google Home’s Irish-born user experience designer. “We recently launched a feature called voice match where you can train your own voice, so your home can recognise you and get personal results. For example, I might love music from Spotify and another family member might want TuneIn radio. That allows you to have the notion of shared devices that serve the family and are also personalised.”

What’s striking about the latest batch of smart speakers is how little they resemble traditional technology products. No dull grey boxes to foul up the feng shui in a livingroom. The sleek industrial design is a deliberate move to blend in with the modern house, says Butler.

“We use the phrase ‘inspired by the home’,” she explains. “They’re products that can really fit the style of your home: for example, the Google Mini has a fabric yarn that reminds you of furniture. It gives a sense of homeliness.” Even the humble thermostat has got a makeover; Netatmo hired the renowned designer Philippe Starck to give its product line a minimalist look.

Connectivity

While designs are improving all the time, and makers are adding more features to their in-home systems, there’s no avoiding the connectivity question. A home can only become truly smart if it’s connected to high-speed broadband. More smart devices per home could put a strain on a limited broadband line. That’s why, for example, mobile operators are making a big play about their investment in high-capacity 5G networks.

The Amazon Echo: you activate it by saying “Alexa…” and then make your request the way you would normally speak, and it will talk back to you.
The Amazon Echo: you activate it by saying “Alexa…” and then make your request the way you would normally speak, and it will talk back to you.

“5G will enable a lot more data at lower latency, which enables a new wave of technology devices like a 4K TV. You might have three, four or five devices in your home today, but a few years from now, you might have 20,” says Three’s head of commercial products Mark Gardiner.

It’s still early days for connected homes in Ireland. Just one in 10 Irish people say they have a smart home, says research company iReach, but 83 per cent think it makes their life much easier, 64 per cent say it saves them money and 62 per cent say they feel safer because of it.

As connected homes monitor more of the conditions, the data they gather could be valuable to the homeowner, says Prof Barrett. “You can save money by reducing energy consumption. Home insurance companies are beginning to offer premium reductions for having smart homes,” he says.

Gardiner predicts that the cost for various parts of the connected home will drop further. “The devices are being aimed more at the mass market. You will still be able to get a high-end Samsung smart fridge but at the entry level, smart home devices will get cheaper and more accessible over next couple of years,” he says.

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