Google recently paid $3.2 bn to acquire Nest, the makers of connected smart thermostats and smoke alarms. It is a strategic coup for the company, partly because it brings Nest’s CEO Tony Fadell on board, an engineer with a proven eye for design honed during his time as Apple where he lead the design of the iPod. However, it is also a major move as it positions Google strongly to capitalise on a new frontier: enabling web-enabled devices in the home, more commonly known as the “Internet of Things”.
This is a pretty grand ideal in theory, but what concrete, near term opportunities are there for the company to innovate? Specifically, what are the “low hanging fruit” of the Internet of Things?
Home Security System/Burglar Alarm
A prime example of a pre-digital device that is essentially redundant in its current form is the home security system or burglar alarm. Great though they must have been during an age of tight-knit local communities, the audio signal emitted when an alarm is triggered nowadays is delivered to a largely unconcerned audience. Close neighbours in big cities or even towns are largely unknown to each other, so burglar alarms tend to just add to the cacophony of the urban ether rather than acting as a call to action to apprehend burglars or call the police.
Features of a smart burglar alarm
A smart burglar alarm would be able to send the signal to the relevant parties by SMS, email or signal to an app on the user’s smartphone, tablet, or other connected device. In addition, GPS trackers on the devices of nominated parties (relatives, friends, and maybe the emergency services) would show the central system of the app when they are near to the house and if they are within a certain response time, they will be also sent an alert by the app so that they can intervene if the householder is too far away to do it themselves.
Nature of pre-smart alarm signal is redundant
Another critical characteristic of pre-smart burglar alarms is that the information carried by the signal is too generic to call for action in a compelling or efficient way. They are binary, with an off state (“silent”) or an on state (LOUD NOISE!!!). This leads to a confusing call to action, as there is too much ambiguity for an actor to investgiate: is there really an intrusion or is it a false alarm? Is the burglar still inside the house? Has somebody already been informed and are they already in the process of dealing with it?
The exponential decrease in the cost of sensors means that a smart burglar alarm could actually convey more specific and hence useful data to the nominated parties, enabling a more effective call to action.
For example, the specific trigger point could be communicated (roof, ground floor windows, front door) so that the alarm points can be investigated quickly and the possibility of a false alarm ruled out in less time. Infra-red cameras could measure if there are people inside the house, counting them and perhaps even identifying them using facial recognition.
The triggering app would allow the user to see who precisely has been signalled, who has acknowledged the signal, who is acting on it, their estimated response time, and their current location.
Competitors and Innovators
There are some impressive innovations in this field such as Piper and Canary, which are standalone video and sensor units acting as a “mini sentinel” in the home. Piper, which is already available for purchase, also acts as a household device controller and could therefore turn on lights in the home if signalled to do so. They both have the awesome idea of adding video to the equation, meaning that if the motion sensor is triggered, the user could immediately switch to video to see who the intruder is. I imagine the video stream could also be recorded for legal purposes in the event of a burglary.
Priced at $239 and $199 respectively for a single basic unit, the issue is that the devices only cover one room each, which makes them an expensive solution for a whole home, although a promising start and a massive leap forward. Canary smashed its request for crowdfunding on IndieGogo so expect to see the first units available later this year.
The miGuard alarm system from Response Electronics uses an integrated mobile phone SIM card to communicate with your phone by GSM/SMS and has a total system cost of £269.95 (about $452). This is a much more attractive price point for a whole-home system, but the technology is not smart enough to capture the full range of possibilities offered by the rapidly decreasing costs of technology and increasing connectivity of web-enabled devices.
Other potential players
Of course, this concept is not just a possibility for Nest and the innovators outlined above, as there are other innovative technology companies who are trying to get into the smart home space.
As a Brit and Imperial college alumnus, the most notable example I can think of would be Dyson. My rationale here is that Dyson are one of the great innovators of UK industry and a global pioneer in domestic technology, highlighted by its recent partnership with Imperial College on robotic vision with a view to implementation for autonomous vacuum cleaners.
This is an intriguing partnership, given the promise of Imperial’s recent contributions to the field of Simultaneous Localisation And Mapping (SLAM) in addition to the fact that the unlocked value of Dyson’s disruption of household technology markets runs into the billions.
AlertMe, the British home monitoring controls company could also have a say in the development of this industry on the software side through their Smart Monitoring platform, linking all devices in the home.
A connected home security system is a complex endeavour, given all the possible flows of information and control that are being unleashed by the digital revolution. There is a range of possible ideas already in the market, addressing the various price points that could be considered by consumers.
The advantage that Nest could have if they developed a smart home security device or burglar alarm is that they already have two products on the market that could feed into it, not to mention their experience of successfully designing the necessary user interfaces and hardware for mass consumer uptake. Combined with Google’s expertise with algorithms and handling large data sets, it is a mouthwatering prospect to think what they could do together in this area.
Given the fact that smart burglar alarms will be such an improvement on the pre-digital state-of-the-art, I wouldn’t be surprised if the eggheads at Nest have already been incubating something like this for some time. This guy has even mocked up a great example of how Nest’s existing thermostat interface could be converted into a burglar alarm.
I would not be surprised if there are further acquisitions in this sector in the coming months. These are very exciting times for this emerging technology market.