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When Will the Smart Home Be Simpler? Lowe’s Iris General Manager Weighs In.

The smart home of the future will have safety features around kids and the elderly.

Lowe's and Easy2

The promise of the so-called “smart home,” one filled with appliances and devices that are Internet-connected or work on other wireless protocols, is that it’s supposed to make your home operate in a more efficient way. Or, at the very least, impress a few friends who come over, you with the automatic mood lights.

But one of the greatest ironies of the smart home in its current phase is that there are so many different gadgets, hubs and wireless protocols that setting it up is enough to make even a savvy techie feel dumb. (In fact, some companies in the space have even banded together to try to establish an agreed-upon wireless standard on which, theoretically, all of these connected devices would work.)

Recently we caught up with Kevin Meagher, vice president and general manager of the smart home division at Lowe’s, to ask how he’d resolve this fragmented, still-nascent area of technology and what the smart home of the future really looks like. Teaser: He thinks safety is an area that’s currently being overlooked.

Lowe’s Iris launched back in 2012, making it one of the earlier platforms for the “smart home.” What are your thoughts on the newer offerings from companies like SmartThings, or Google with Nest and Dropcam, or even Apple with [the upcoming] HomeKit?

It’s good news for the industry and for the concept. The concepts that they’re starting to bring to market align with the things we’ve been doing for the past two years. Like, they’re starting to talk about open standards, and the focus on the consumer experience — that’s fundamental to the whole idea of the smart home, right? The idea of a single user interface pulling it all together.

The reality is [that] this market has been on the cusp [of] great things for many years, but the problem hasn’t been technical, it’s been commercial. It’s been really messy.

Do you think more companies and products add to the fragmentation or confuse consumers?

No, because we’re starting to lock down on certain standards. In the past, everyone thought they could own the consumer, that the consumer would buy everything they sell. There’s still a lot of that around, sadly, a lot of that thinking. But actually, most people — and this is the way we’re thinking and the way Apple is going forward, although less clear around Google — but the idea is to give users a single interface and a single app and let them choose what they want to buy.

I’ll give a good example. The problem is that no consumer wants to walk up to their house and open up one app to control their door lock, another to control the thermostat, another to control the lighting — that’s just crazy. And manufacturers have been thinking, this is a great way to get consumers to buy more of our products. So we’ve got this walled garden of devices that will work.

But as soon as consumers buy into a walled garden, it isn’t long before they realize, “Here’s a cool camera or garage-door switch I really like, but it doesn’t work with the stuff I’ve already got.” And that’s what’s keeping people from buying more into the market.

I can see what Apple is doing as opening the standards. So we, for example, are totally comfortable with the idea that we will sell things that will work on the Apple platform.

What do you think about the smart home offerings from cable operators?

Well, the cable operators were, like us, very early to market. And they’ve operated from different drivers. They want to make things sticky — create new product bundles over existing products and make them more sticky. But that model is very restricted in its ability to scale. And it goes back to that concept of walled gardens. It will never be a fully scalable concept.

Which wireless standard, or standards, will emerge as the go-to?

I wish I knew. We bet on three: Zigbee, Z-wave and Wi-Fi. And that will fit 95 percent of the applications. We believe Bluetooth is close behind. So we will be bringing Bluetooth into the fold for certain apps with our next family of products.

What does this so-called smart home look like in three to five years?

It doesn’t matter if everything is Wi-Fi-connected. It connects somehow to a hub or to a server in the cloud. Individual devices can connect in different ways. If you look at Wi-Fi as French, but your door lock speaks German, or Zigbee, that translation can occur in the server.

When I walk out of the house and I lock the front door, the house knows that I’m the last person to leave because my key fob is gone. It might go into an automatic reveal, which means it’s looking to see whether I’ve left some lights on, or if the TV is on, so it starts to power the house down. It starts to lower the thermostat, take it down 3 degrees. If a door is opened, you’re notified.

I think one aspect that is overlooked in all of this is safety. In three to five years, we are already working to develop with partners devices that will [address this]. If your kids get home before you do, we will message you — we do that today. But in the future, you will be picking devices that you don’t want the kids to touch until you get home. Get on with your homework — you can’t touch Xbox until I get home. I have literally looked at solutions that stop kids from playing with Xbox. Or that don’t let the kids play with the stove when you’re not there.

There are many things we can do with the elderly as well. The kits we’re already selling today will give me a call at 8 o’clock if my mother’s not out of bed — my mom lives on her own. Using motion sensors, I will know if my mother doesn’t walk downstairs into the kitchen by 8:15 am, or open the fridge by 9 am.

Two-thirds of what I’ve described is already out there. But I feel confident [that] in three to five years, it will all be there.

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