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Can a Smart Home Be Too Smart?

December 14, 2015 | By

Not so long ago, smart home features like automated lighting systems, remote-controlled thermostats, and “The Clapper” counted as relatively exotic technologies.

Today’s homeowners can choose from hundreds if not thousands of options that do more than just close a garage door. There are thermostats that can be controlled through a smartphone app, LED light bulbs that can change different colors, and a pot that self-waters plants. And the pace of new technology gets faster and faster each day.

The biggest challenge is to sort through the sea of smart technology and find what offers the most meaningful improvements in a homeowner’s daily routine, says Michael Izatt, co-founder of One Button, a Brooklyn-based firm specializing in integration of smart home technologies.

“There’s a tendency in [the smart home] industry to say, the more cool stuff you can do, the better,” he explains.

But with an ever-growing number of apps and gadgets hitting the market, this notion is being called into question.

Your Refrigerator Called. You’re Out of Milk

The “Internet of Things” has ushered in a new era when smart technology can keep you informed of just about anything concerning your home. If you’re low on milk or you left a window open, technologies such as LG’s HomeChat (which allows people to mobile message with their appliances) will notify you on your phone.

Venture capital is pouring into startups, and established manufacturers are hustling to develop the next big thing, but are all the new products coming to market useful?

“I don’t know that, for instance, my toaster needs to email me when my toast is done,” Izatt says. “There is so much stuff out there now, and the value of [much of] it I think is low, and sometimes even negative.”

In this crowded market, he notes, one of his company’s primary roles is helping homeowners decide just what smart home features they do and don’t need and which of their many options will work best for them.

“Probably 90 percent of our value is curation, helping people understand what their real needs are,” Izatt says. “I can control my music in 30 different ways, but which is the best way? I don’t know.”

And there’s data that developers and vendors in the home industry can leverage to learn what tech flips buyers’ switches.

Izatt’s observations are in line with findings from smart home firm iControl Networks’ 2015 State of the Smart Home Report. The report, which is based on surveys of 1,600 consumers in the United States and Canada, found that more than high-end tech wizardry, homeowners are looking for simple, easy-to-use smart devices that address everyday needs.

According to the report, among the most popular smart home features are self-adjusting thermostats, automated outdoor lighting, and doors that can be locked remotely.

Izatt likewise noted that environmental controls such as automated lighting and thermostats top his customers’ lists. Also a perennial favorite, he says, are integrated music systems.

It’s the kind of knowledge that can help guide the improvements to boost the attractiveness of an older property when fixing it up to put on the market.

How Safe Is Your Smart Home?

Security issues like hacking are a commonly raised concern with buyers who are wary of smart home technology, but, Izatt says, he feels that to an extent this issue is “more hype than real.” The real key to easing the worries is putting things in perspective.

“I think it is something to be aware of, but I think the reality is that people should be much more concerned about the data living on their networks than if people can log in and turn their lights on,” he says.

Experts advise that a strong password on the wireless router is probably the most important thing to implement.

He makes an exception for features such as home security systems, which, he says, should come with necessary safeguards like firewalls to protect against potential hacks.

Indeed, says Keith Brandon, director of residential access solutions at lock manufacturer Kwikset, it’s important that device manufacturers and platform providers “stay up on the latest and greatest in terms of how hackers are [accessing devices] to ensure that products are being deployed [in a way] that limits the exposure to being hacked.”

Kwikset, which offers smart home options including keyless entry and its Kevo digital key system, uses third parties to pressure test its products, helping it identify potential security gaps before they are uncovered by unscrupulous individuals, Brandon says.

“As consumers continue to get educated on large scale hacks of data, those concerns continue to grow [with regard to smart home technology],” he says.

There seems little chance, though, that such concerns will slow the smart home industry’s rapid expansion.

“A big part of what we do is try to get everything in and test it,” Izatt says of his company’s work. “But we are now approaching the point where we literally could not purchase everything that is available, and I think it is only going to become more that way.”

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