In a darkened master bedroom, David Kaiserman stood in shirt sleeves next to a turned-down king bed.
“Good morning, Siri,” he said to the iPad in his hand, and the lights went on while the blackout shades retracted.
“Your home is ready to rise and shine,” the virtual assistant replied.
Inside this four-bedroom stucco house in Alameda, California, Kaiserman, president of the technology division at construction company Lennar, was pitching a vision of a home controlled via iPhone or iPad.
Tap your phone, and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blasts. Tap again, and the bath runs at a blissful 38 degrees. Sweet, right?
Of course, your dad might view it as a bit over the top. All told, $US30,000 ($38,850) of gadgets and gizmos were on display here, many run with Apple’s free HomeKit app.
As iPhone sales growth slows, Apple is teaming up with a handful of builders and using these kinds of test beds to inch its way into the market for internet-connected home furnishings, a nascent field that has attracted rivals like Alphabet’s Google and Amazon.com.
The gamble is that pricey wireless home devices will be an easier sell when bundled into the home itself. Builders market granite countertops and brushed-nickel fixtures at thousands of model homes across the US. Why not video doorbells?
Unlike Google and Amazon, however, Apple isn’t hawking hardware meant to connect the home. Instead, the HomeKit app could increase the value of its iOS ecosystem – and make it tougher for users to switch to Android phones and tablets.
“We want to bring home automation to the mainstream,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of product marketing. “The best place to start is at the beginning, when a house is just being created.”
The convenience on display in the Alameda stucco doesn’t come cheap. A single motorised, battery-operated Lutron shade starts at $US349.
Or consider the Schlage “touchscreen deadbolt”, which can be controlled remotely, so you can text an unexpected visitor a code. It can retail for $US200. A regular deadbolt fetches $US32 at Home Depot – and there’s always hiding a key under the flower pot.
In Fremont, California, about 15 minutes from Facebook’s headquarters, Los Angeles-based KB Home is also getting its own Apple house ready.
Along with the automated thermostat, lights, security system, locks, fans and shades, it lets you, on voice command, change the colour of the light underneath a vanity.
With the words “good night” the light turns purple. With a “good morning”, it switches to white.
KB offers wireless devices as upgrades. A basic package runs about $US2000, “which once rolled into a mortgage is pennies a month”, according to spokesman Craig LeMessurier.
Lennar builds the cost into the price of homes. The Alameda house sells for $US1.2 million, though it was a beta model and an actual dwelling wouldn’t include $US30,000 of gadgets.
Apple is also working with Brookfield Residential Properties and other builders. The companies declined to say when the homes would go on sale.
‘There’s too much crap out there’
Consumers will buy about $US24 billion of connected home devices this year, according to Strategy Analytics. Though that’s a drop in the bucket compared with smartphones, the research and consulting firm expects those sales to nearly double by 2020.
For most people, connected homes remain a way off, said Jonathan Gaw, an analyst with research firm IDC. The proliferating devices remain difficult to install in older homes and, in some cases, seem useless. Gaw cites the wireless candle he saw the other day.
“Give me a break,” he said. “That only hurts the message. It tells people that we have gone too far. There’s too much crap out there, it’s only diluting stuff that’s really cool.”
Even some who sell such gadgets say the hype may be getting ahead of the reality. Discount retailer Target opened its own Target Open House showroom a year ago in San Francisco. Shoppers walk through a futuristic home, watching pre-recorded displays projected onto its transparent acrylic walls and furniture.
In the nursery, a baby wears a Wi-Fi onesie – made by a company called Mimo, founded by whizzes from MIT. It tracks the infant’s breathing, skin temperature, sleep and body position. When she stirs, it triggers the home’s lights, turns on soothing music on the Sonos wireless speakers and even tells the coffee maker downstairs to start brewing java for red-eyed parents.
You can pick one up for $US199. Many parents brew the coffee themselves and let their babies wail – or buy a traditional baby monitor for as little as $US19.99. Connected home devices can cost five times the price of the old-fashioned version, according to Target spokeswoman Jenna Reck.
“The smart home will get there, but it’s not there yet,” Reck said. “Adoption is happening even slower than people predicted.”
As with all things tech, there is the matter of glitches, frustration and complexity. Markus Giesler, 40, equipped his 1924 house with an Apple home system so he could be a subject for his own academic research at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Canada.
When the associate professor of marketing pulls up to the house in his BMW, the GPS on his phone alerts the garage door to open and turns on lights in various colours and brightness throughout his home, depending on his preferences and the time of day. At least, in theory, they do.
“Certain devices obey, and some do not,” Giesler said.
Homebuilders started offering smart devices such as automatic locks and thermostats more than five years ago. In its current model homes, Miami-based Lennar works with a company called Nexia, a unit of Ingersoll-Rand.
Lennar’s Kaiserman hopes working with Apple will have a “halo effect”, helping convince customers that a new home in a subdivision can be a “cool” alternative to an existing one.
No doubt, Apple would be heartened by the experience of Ken Bieber. Last year, Bieber, a 39-year-old executive at a consulting firm, bought a $US357,000 Lennar smart home after visiting a model north of Tampa, Florida.
With his Nexia system, his lights automatically start dimming in the evening, signalling that it’s time to get ready for bed. When his wife, April, went into labour two months ago, he stayed with her in the hospital and texted a temporary entry code to a friend who walked the dog.
Since buying his house, Bieber has spent a further $US1000 for wireless motion detectors, a video camera and controls for his light dimmers, ceiling fans and irrigation system.
Neighbours ask him for advice on their own smart home device purchases, and he plans to add motorised blinds.
“I’ll be watching a movie and suddenly I have to get up and pull blinds – apparently it’s just too much for me at that point,” Bieber said. “I’m so used to saying things and they just happen.”
SOURCE: AFR Weekend
POSTED: October 20, 2016