Look at any technology gift guide for this Christmas and from an Internet of Things perspective you’re left with a pretty clear impression… The smart home is well and truly upon us. The convenience of online connectivity has been brought to household tasks and functions, with the big companies fighting it out to ‘own’ your smart home and startups building a plethora of specific solutions. Whether through home hubs, security systems, or central appliances, the smart home is developing at such a pace that by 2020 it’s a market predicted to be worth $150billion globally.
Yet despite such predictions the smart home is not without its critics. Blogs and articles referencing the latest smart refrigerator come dripped with cynicism whilst a new smart kettle is seemingly hacked every month. In the past few years simplicity, basic usefulness and security have been sacrificed for the latest trend with the result that many consumers don’t trust the proclaimed potential of IoT technology.
At Startupbootcamp that’s something we’re looking to change within two particular areas of the smart home: Food Tech and Kid Tech. Our IoT | Connected Devices program is currently accelerating two startups within the former field, CityCrop and Eskesso, and one in the latter, Woogie.
Developing Food Tech within the Smart Home
If we keep farming at our current pace two billion more people will go hungry by the year 2050 so perhaps it’s no surprise that investors have made Food Tech one of the hottest spaces of development in the past 18 months.
From production all the way through to eating, the food industry is looking to technology and new methods of cultivation such as vertical farming – a technique being utilised by CityCrop in the home. Their device, about the size of a small fridge, uses the method with hydroponics to let you grow fresh and healthy food in the shortest time possible.
For Co-Founder Christos Raftogiannis, CityCrop’s aim is to nail one key problem at a time and not rush to build the smart home of the future all at once. “The smart home market is growing everyday, but our main goal is to make sure we’re actually making people’s lives easier with CityCrop. It’s exciting to see how we can embed technology in people’s day to day tasks, ultimately creating a way for them to be healthier quicker, yet we cannot expect mass consumer adoption based on a product’s ‘coolness’. It has to be at least 2 or 3 times better than the non-tech alternative.”
Creating one’s own produce is one thing, cooking it is quite another. For many, living in an increasingly busy environment has led to the absence of a healthy or consistent diet, something highlighted by the rise of companies such as Deliveroo. Quite simply, people are cooking less. That’s something being addressed by Eskesso, who have developed a simple to use appliance to help improve people’s cooking ability, whilst ensuring that making a meal is a simple three step process. Having placed a prepared meal parcel in a pot of water with their device, you simply tell their app what you’re cooking, and let Eskesso get to work even if you’re not at home.
Adding this flexibility to people’s lives is what the smart home is all about for Eskesso’s CEO Pedro Núñez: “For us, the best technology is invisible – it’s working for you even if you don’t realise it’s there, and thanks to the cloud we’re no longer limited to location. Technology is adapting to our habits to help us fundamentally lead a better and healthier life.”
Playtime in the Smart Home
Of course leading such a life isn’t just limited to our food habits. Ironically, for all the positive advancements technology has made there have also been huge negatives, something Kid Tech startups like Woogie are addressing. Children are increasingly drawn to the addictive nature of LCD screens, a habit which can disrupt their social, language and learning skills. Looking to improve a child’s development companies such as littleBits and Kano are setting the benchmark for beneficial interactions between children and technology.
Following in this vein, Woogie is providing children with a voice activated companion who begins and sustains ongoing conversations around both entertainment and educational content. With its machine learning capabilities Woogie learns about a child’s interests and habits and customises how he or she experiences the toy, making it more relevant every time a child interacts with it. Less a temporary toy and more a personalised pal that parents can also benefit from.
That in mind, Co-Founder Oana Korda says that the greatest challenge in developing a smart-home solution lies around interoperability. “Smart homes are becoming increasingly smart thanks to artificial intelligence and voice activation, but this brings big challenges around security and integration. At the moment most IoT devices are not able to communicate with each other, meaning we have a system that’s not really connected and doesn’t work well. If we’re not careful people will start to see IoT as just a bit of a hassle.”
The Elephant in the Room… Security.
Despite their work across two different areas of the smart home, Raftogiannis, Núñez and Korda share one major concern: the security vulnerabilities in many of today’s connected devices. “These are often the result of unauthenticated and unencrypted communications, outdated software, malware, or service interruptions… Areas that any IoT startup needs to have a handle on,” says Núñez.
Yet how do we combat such widespread security flaws? “A lot of security groups and alliances are presenting good recommendations for this but we need to have one organisation – perhaps even a government body – that is empowered to act on and, most importantly, enforce them,” believes Korda.
It’s a view shared by Raftogiannis, who argues that this is something we need sooner rather than later. “If we’re not careful we’ll completely erode consumer trust and IoT’s proclaimed potential will be just that… A potential that is never truly realised.”
A New Way of Doing Business
This year Amazon has taken the smart home mainstream thanks to the Amazon Echo and their Dash Button, and we expect this development to ramp up in 2017. Advancements across mobile technology has made electronic components cheaper with an average phone now containing more than 10 sensors. This gives us the ability to measure almost anything around the house, with the result being the likely switch to new business models around data subscription packages as we begin to scratch the surface of how much data our homes can generate.
This will take time and it will be a number of years until we’re enjoying the benefits of a fully connected, easier and more flexible life in our home. For now though the immediate future lies in the hands of companies perfecting useful solutions such as Woogie, CityCrop and Eskesso. Three more devices to add to that Christmas list then.