Connected Homes – The Coming Wars

The Data Wars

Unless you’ve just landed on planet earth from a galaxy far, far away, you would know that the story dominating the news is about phone hacking, News Corp’s transgressions, recriminations and apologies, with real questions being asked about misuse of power and information.

In a nutshell, some people in certain news gathering businesses exploited illegal access to private information about consumers. They did so by hacking into their voicemail and mobile phones.  Here’s how, if you’ve wondered.

In 10 years time, though, there will be a lot more information we will as consumers be generating about our lifestyles. Smart meter data can provide incredibly detailed information about our lifestyles. But it’s not only smart meters, but our home automation, telehealth and a whole bunch of M2M services which will be generating data streams which provide clues of varying degrees of insight into our lifestyles. Consequently, the opportunity for unscrupulous organizations to exploit this will only be matched by our need to protect our own data. Stay tuned for a volatile data battleground around connected homes and connected services, over the next decade.

The Energy Wars

We are reliably told that some 47 million smart meters will be rolled out in the UK over the next 10 odd years. What’s not clear is whether consumers will have any say over whether they want a smart meter, or what the recourse is for a consumer who actually does not want a smart meter in his/her home.

In America, where there is no clear mandate, this battle is  being played out in the media and in homes, across the states.  Many people have questioned the benefits and costs of smart meters. This article walks through the experience of a smart meter user who believes in energy management but finds at the end of the day that he’s saving very little and spending a lot of time and money in the process. He also questions the cost structure of the overall experience.

Meanwhile in Australia, there is a struggle to balance rhetoric with economic reality. As energy costs spiral, the government’s carbon tax will wipe out any savings from smart meters. Also the challenge of building enough capacity to handle usage surges created by extreme weather conditions is compounded by the need to replace the ageing infrastructure and the state’s commitment to renewable energy. Using smart meters with multiple tariff structures is one way of controlling demand rather than seek supply side solutions. But smart meters have their own challenges. The significant investment apart, communication is a key aspect. In this case, many consumers discovered they had smart meters only when the received their bills.

Battle For Hearts & Minds

Clearly, it’s not just a matter of rolling out smart meters. There is already enough on the Internet to suggest a consumer backlash is almost a certainty if the rollout is done in a ham-handed manner. There are plenty of valid and less valid concerns. Some of them may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, but they are nonetheless, real concerns and need to be addressed.

This article is a very good pointer to the kind of concerns that are prevalent across the consumer space, when it comes to smart meters. The reality is that any connected service will face similar concerns and challenges so the lessons should not be confined to smart meters alone. However, this kind of balanced view will invariably be lost in the fear mongering and extreme positions people are likely to take.

But are the healthcare concerns genuine? This article based on research from the Electric Power Research Institute suggests that the is no credible health risk from smart meters. The study concluded that the impact could be of the order of 0.6% of the FCC limits. This doesn’t stop people from choosing to believe that smart meters are dangerous, although any doubt that exists within the medical community applies to all electronic and radio frequency using devices, including mobile phones, for example. Especially mobile phones, if anything. But enough anecdotal evidence points to the tendency of consumers to believe what they want to believe.  

The Balanced Arguments

This piece is a well articulated outline of the specific benefits of smart grid and smart meter systems, comparisons & costs, outages, theft control, conservation and energy management.

This paper by Passiv Systems highlights the disparity between some of the numbers (providers claim to deliver almost 20% savings on advanced heating and cooling solutions, but almost 50% of the population doesn’t not know or understand how to program their existing heating & cooling solutions. Based on a sample size of 25, Passiv Systems tries to bridge this disparity. It concludes that 84% people are motivated by savings while 16% are swayed by comfort. The study unsurprisingly concludes that the Passiv Systems solution can deliver very good results. But take that how you will.  

Apart from everything else, the significant challenge of financing the home improvement style projects involved in putting in any smart systems is a very real one.  Which is why tiny examples such as this, in Camden, Maine, where the funding problem is being addressed, fill us with hope, as it ties in with one of the key recommendations we’ve made in our (soon to be published) report.  

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Do let us know about examples, anecdotes and research you might be undertaking if you’d like us to talk about it, in this blog. 

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Connected Home – 4 Perspectives #connhome

At this week’s Connected Home Summit, organized by Informa, where I had the privilege of chairing Day 2, one of the panels on the day had Google, HBBTV, BBC and MgMedia. Consequently, 4 distinct perspectives of the connected home emerged, which was quite fascinating. Because whatever you’re doing, it’s probably a good idea to look at all 4 to see if your idea makes sense.

The data perspective, from Google

In the super-engineering world of Google, the problem is broken down into its constituent parts. Data, processor, connection, network and the ability to bring these together to solve specific problems. In fact Kevin Mathers, from Google argued that the “home” was just a construct, and it could apply just as easily to the car or any other context. The problem would still be the same and would be addressed the same way.

The brilliance of this approach comes from the disaggregation – it allows you to look at different groupings of these elements to create the multiple contexts. And mastery over the elements means you can quickly create any context you choose – home, car, retail, etc. However, exclusive focus on the parts can create a danger of missing out on the importance of the ‘whole’ – the context. After all, Google has in the past been accused of being less good at the softer (social, consumer & design) aspects of the business than the engineering side. Here too, the question issue might well be that the understanding of the home as a context is as important as getting the engineering right. Therefore such a strong engineering oriented approach might need coupling with product and usability thinking.

The device perspective – BBC iPlayer

Gideon Summerfield works with the iPlayer and so his big challenge is about getting it to work on a plethora of devices. Unsurprisingly, his view of the connected home is a device centric one. It’s about getting devices to talk to each other, and be able to seamlessly share and play media. The TV is clearly the centrepiece of this view of the connected home. But there is significant growth across connected devices.

Informa suggest that 33% of all video playback devices will be connectable by 2016. The charge will be driven by connected TVs which are set to go through almost a tenfold growth to about 900 m by 2016. Other connectable devices will include blu-ray disc players, media streamers and games consoles.

By all accounts DLNA is still not as seamless as we’d like it to be, but there is near universal agreement that it’s the right way to go. The DLNA/ UPnP approach is being adopted by more and more devices. And an increasing number of services, such as media sharing service Zappo.TV are implementing DLNA. Other major initiatives such as Ultraviolet, from the DECE are going to find their way to market later this year, to provide another fillip to streaming content. The much heralded YouView devices should also help the market along.

The network perspective

David ‘Boris’ Felt from HBBTV took a more network centric view of the connected home. The home network is an area of huge innovation and change. Wired and wireless, new and old wires and any number of technologies ad standards abound. It seems like consumers ideally need a high speed network for content and possibly a low-speed network connecting many more appliances – for control, automation, energy management etc.

This informative piece from the Hidden Wires magazine cites research pointing to how the lower end DIY segment and the high end custom-install segment are both moving towards the more central mass market, through the no-new-wires approach. Key to this are PLC, G.hn, Zigbee, ZWave and the role of KNX.

Boris also pointed out the importance of distinguishing between the physical and virtual network, and also, the internal versus external network, for delivering information/ data / voice/ video solutions. I can set a program to record on my PVR, using my mobile phone, with no direct physical connection between the two. It’s the external network at play here, that is enabling this, and in a sense this is the virtual network of the home.

The content perspective

Jeronimo Macanas from MgMedia felt the connected home should be about content being streamed around the house. A slightly broader definition of content of course would suggest that any kind of packaged information – including healthcare or energy information is also content. While this is slightly limiting because it can exclude automation and control, it is certainly an important driver of connected homes. 

Of course, in the content space, a lot of the excitement is about the impact of connected TVs. The Strategy + Analytics presentation at the recently concluded Connected TV Summit suggested that there will be a significant value shift the gate keepers in the current model (PayTV providers) to the content creators and aggregators, as and when connected TV numbers shift. Of course, this is still under 10% globally, so the change is yet to come. But between connected TV sets, new set top boxes and every increasing broadband speeds, this is a reasonable surety.

Which is right?

The point is, ignoring any of these perspectives would be a mistake. If you’re planning a connected home service – either as a telco, a TV platform or an external service / content provider, you need to evaluate your service from each of these perspectives. Evaluate it from its modular data, processing and context perspective to ensure that it’s extensible and malleable enough. But also, understand very clearly the device, network and content/ data perspectives and ignoring any of these aspects will limit your service capability.

It was a great privilege to listen to the professionals on the panel and I certainly took away this idea of 4 distinct perspectives which are complementary viewpoints of the connected home. I hope this helps you too.