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Too many obstacles to 'smart homes' anytime soon: study

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Pew Research study says a lot of the elements of the much-anticipated 'smart home' will be arriving on the scene by 2020, but it will be a while before most homes are very smart and well-connected.

Will home appliances soon be tuned into the Smart Grid to the point where they can deliver consumption data, and appropriately power down during periods of peak demand? Will refrigerators soon be automatically placing orders to replenish food stocks identified by its sensors as running low? Will toilet seats automatically sense body weight and adjust to the user?

A lot of the elements of the much-anticipated "smart home" will be arriving on the scene by 2020, but the idea of a very smart, well-connected house may still be quite a ways off. That's the takeaway from a new survey of 1,021 Internet experts, researchers, observers, and critics, released by the Pew Research Center. Respondents are fairly evenly split between those who agreed that energy- and money-saving smart systems will be significantly closer to reality in people's homes by 2020 and those who said such homes will still remain a "marketing mirage."

Some 51% agreed with the statement that by 2020, "the connected household has become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money."

At the same time, 46% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited that by 2020, "most initiatives to embed IP-enabled devices in the home have failed due to difficulties in gaining consumer trust and because of the complexities in using new services. As a result, the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management. Once again, the Home of the Future does not come to resemble the future projected in the recent past."

While the experts tilt slightly in favor of realizing the smart home vision by 2020, most of their comments suggest that many still see the well-connected home of the future as a marketing mirage. The Pew report's authors observe that "the written responses were mostly negative and did not mirror the evenly split verdict when respondents made their scenario selection." Most of the experts, in fact, "poked holes in the ideal of smart systems being well-implemented by individuals in most connected homes by 2020.... There are difficult obstacles that are not likely to be overcome over the next few years."

One study participant, Jerry Michalski, president of Sociate and consultant for the Institute for the Future, puts things in perspective, noting that software-driven systems tend to be rife with errors and potential for abuse:

A few years back, BMW and Mercedes Benz had to turn off some of the onboard electronics on their high-end cars because complexity gremlins were making things break. Those are smart German companies that one assumes have a lot of control over their components and their software....The Internet of Things and the subsequent world of smart systems, from smart cars and smart highways to smarter cities and smart homes is mostly overblown, and, in fact, poses a significant risk of creating overwhelming complexity, which could take down the Internet we now have. It also opens the door to hacking scenarios we seem to not want to contemplate. Every security technology becomes obsolete. If we connect all these new things and expose them to external control, you can bet some of the forces controlling them won't be the designers or owners. As these connected devices age, they'll just become more vulnerable. Imagine also the court cases of people hit by autonomous vehicles, for example.

Another study participants, venture capitalist Richard Titus, echoed this sentiment, pointing out that there is too much risk in relying on systems to deliver day-to-day needs:

"There's movement toward such systems, but they are complicated and the advent of truly smart homes may not occur anytime soon... Our houses will be IP-connected. This is a fact. There will be some amazing products built on top of this platform, and I'm excited to see what they are. However, I suspect the system will still screw up and bring me soymilk when I really wanted goat's milk. And it will never ever, ever be able to properly order me a dozen ripe avocados, though I'll try again each time, as hope springs eternal.

The Aspen Institute's Charlie Firestone says technology providers still need to get their act together:

Smart homes are on their way, but this development is being delayed. Not so much by lack of trust as by lack of alignment of the key players utilities, ISPs, manufacturers.

Donald G. Barnes, former director of the Science Advisory Board at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says there is a bevy of obstacles that still need to be overcome:

Barriers include the following: economic weakness, economic uncertainties, building codes, lack of standardization, lack of oversight/regulation (which actually leads to an atmosphere of business confidence), lack of tested, mature technologies, and resistance from entrenched technologies."

Bottom line: There's still a lot of work to be done, and it will probably take more than a decade to get to the point where homes are successfully talking to utilities, and vice-versa.

(Photo by Joe McKendrick.)

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure