09 Jan Consumer ‘Smart Home’ Technology Predictions For 2019

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the premier consumer electronics event, where companies big and small get a chance to showcase their new technologies. It always provides a strong glimpse of where the industry is going, and as such, is a must-attend for analysts like myself. On the eve of the show, here are my top 5 Nostradamus-inspired predictions for 2019.

Temi robotics solution. TEMI

#5: We will start to see practical robot solutions for the consumer that are “sociable” in design, capable of natural interaction with humans. The solutions we’ll see in 2019 will still be a far cry from the lovable robots in The Jetsons, Star Wars, or Lost in Space, but they will be an important step forward from the single usage model products (e.g. Roomba) that we have today.

Advances in digital assistant technology such as Amazon.com'sAMZN -3.06% Alexa, Google GOOGL -2.32% Assistant, and (to a lesser extent) Apple AAPL -1.96% Siri, have laid the groundwork for the human interface capabilities needed to make these solutions useful and intuitive to use. Companies like Boston Dynamics have done amazing work with robots that utilize high resolutions cameras to sense the environment and move with animal-like dexterity. Given the developments we’re already seeing in the AI and machine learning area that will allow robots to “mature” and become more useful over time, I suspect we’ll see products similar to Sony ’s next generation Aibo (which was announced at last year’s CES). Genuine robotic pets may indeed have mainstream appeal, for uses such as giving comfort to the elderly or providing “roaming” home security surveillance in a way that a fixed camera cannot.

Mobile robot solutions like Temi, which performs a number of interesting entertainment, news dissemination, and video conferencing functions, point in the direction of where the market is headed. Roomba, look out.

The new 802.11ax Wi-Fi standard promises to be a game changer. IEEE WEBSITE

#4: 802.11ax, otherwise known as Wi-Fi 6, is going to be the next “big thing” in wireless connectivity—particularly in the connected home. Both Qualcomm QCOM -1.74% and Intel INTC -1.79%introduced new chipsets supporting this new specification, and new routers with 802.11ax-based radios will start to hit the market this year from all the major routers companies (including Netgear and Linksys).

Why is 802.11ax going to be such a game changer? The essential problem with today’s Wi-Fi is not purely speed—802.11ac provides sufficient amounts of bandwidth for most home users, with theoretical speeds over the Gigabit threshold. The much larger problem is Wi-Fi congestion in the typical home, with many devices (sometimes up to 15 or 20) competing for bandwidth. The 802.11ax standard takes its cue from how LTE cellular technology solves network overcrowding, with wider and multiple channels that significantly increase throughput.  Yes, 802.11ax will be anywhere from 5X to 10X faster than existing Wi-Fi technology, but more importantly, it will handle these competing client requests for bandwidth in a more organized, intelligent and robust manner. In addition, 802.11ax promises to improve battery life on devices, since the range will be (generally) further and the transmission of data will be faster.  In that manner, the clients will not need to work as hard.

As always, the downside to new wireless standard transitions is the proverbial “chicken and egg” phenomenon—the client device and the router must both have 802.11ax support to realize these benefits. Still, there is enough industry momentum behind 802.11ax to make me believe that the transition will begin in earnest this year. Consumers will benefit from the upgrade cycle.

On a tangential note, I’m also excited about what Plume and others have done in the “beyond wireless” area with OpenSync. OpenSync is an open source initiative focused on assisting service providers by opening up hardware ecosystems to enable an improved foundation of new smart home services and apps. This type of “outside the box” initiative has already garnered support by several major service providers and device manufacturers and I expect to see a lot of traction around this later this year.

Amazon Alexa will likely become even more pervasive in the new year. AMAZON

#3: If you think Amazon Alexa is already pervasive in your home, you haven’t seen anything yet. 2019 will be the year that Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant become an inescapable presence in homes and public venues. According to Amazon, by the end of 2018, tens of millions of smart devices were already connected to Alexa. Additionally, more than 28,000 smart home devices, among 4,500 unique brands, are compatible with Alexa—a 600% increase over 2017.

While I’m not prepared to declare that the voice assistant wars are over—Google Assistant has also made impressive market share gains in this area—Amazon is clearly the leader in this space. The proliferation of digital assistant devices—not just speakers, but lamps, cars, microwave ovens, TVs, clocks, and more—will be an ongoing big story for 2019. It won’t just be in the home: Amazon announced last year it was partnering with Marriott Hotels to put Echo devices in their hotel rooms to improve guest access to amenities.

Putting aside all the thorny privacy issues that will undoubtedly get more attention in 2019 as “ambient computing” in our daily lives becomes more pervasive, the bottom line is that we are rapidly becoming a world where something is always listening. While some will view this (understandably) as an Orwellian nightmare, there are undisputed productivity and lifestyle benefits to gain as well.

Wi-Charge is developing true wireless charging technology. WI-CHARGE

#2: “Genuine” wireless charging of devices will start to emerge in 2019.  Consumers have been fooled a bit by companies like Apple and Samsung who have tried to convince them that “inductive charging,” a technology that has been around for over 20 years that requires two surfaces to be touching each other for a charging connection to be enabled, is the same as genuine wireless charging. Nothing could be further from the truth. While inductive charging for cell phones and other devices eliminates the need for a cable, several innovative companies are working on genuine wireless charging that frees devices from power outlets and battery changes.

One company that shows significant potential in this area is Wi-Charge. Using safe, invisible light, Wi-Charge’s technology provides enough power to charge a phone across a room. The implications of their technology are enormous. Not only could it help solve the battery charging dilemma that nearly every consumer face on a daily basis, it could also enable the use of more IoT devices (e.g. smart locks, door and window sensors, etc.) in the home, where battery replacement is irritating, and power outlets are not available.

Wi-Charge’s technology is already FDA-approved and complies with worldwide government standards. It is currently collaborating with several well-known partners to create wire-free appliances and charging devices. This truly could be one of the big technology stories in 2019.

Facebook’s Portal device may be in trouble. FACEBOOK

#1: Facebook Portal may be the first truly great home video conferencing solution that gets doomed because of privacy concerns. It pains me say this, but I can’t remember a similar product like Facebook Portal that has gotten such tremendously positive reviews from a technology, ease of use, and design standpoint, but an almost universal slap in the face from the media because of Facebook FB -1.55%’s bad track record in the privacy area. The major press reviews have been almost universally consistent: great hardware but you simply can’t trust Facebook.

Having been one of the early users of Portal, I can attest to Portal’s superb video quality, excellent user experience, beautiful product design, and innovation (the camera smoothly follows you as you’re speaking to someone). But to my chagrin, I haven’t been able to convince a single member of my extended family to buy one (even devoted Facebook users like my mom and aunts) because they think Facebook might spy on them when Portal is not being used.  Interestingly, they don’t have any issue using Apple’s FaceTime to video conference with families.

I recognize these fears are largely emotional since Facebook has taken many precautions, both in its backend infrastructure and with the product itself (the ability to cover up the camera to prevent the company from spying on you). Still, many consumers, particularly older ones who remain committed to the traditional Facebook platform, have been put off by the company’s rash of bad press around privacy over the past year. In that sense, Facebook has a much bigger problem than just Portal. Sales of Portal over the holiday season have been modest (even light by some reports). I won’t be surprised if Portal makes an early exit from the scene later this year. It’s a shame, but it’s self-inflicted in my view.

Beyond CES

There are numerous indications that this year’s Consumer Electronics Show will be substantially bigger this year in terms of the number of product exhibitors and attendees. After I return from CES, I will publish a recap of some the more interesting products on display next week.  At CES, I’ll be fortunate enough to attend media-only events like CES UnveiledPepcom’s Digital Experience, and ShowStoppers, in which hundreds of startups show off their wares in a convenient, egalitarian format. These annual events truly provide great insight into where the general consumer market is headed and I won’t be surprised if many of the products that are shown speak to many of the themes I’ve described above. Stay tuned.