CES 2021 preview: 6 things I’d like to see for the smart home and IoT

It’s nearly that time of year again for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Every January, Stacey and I walk dozens of miles to seek out the latest IoT devices, speaking to device makers and industry leaders at the show. Of course, this year CES is virtual due to the pandemic.

Source: CES 2021 preview: 6 things I’d like to see for the smart home and IoT

More “smarts” in the smart home

I said this in 2019 only to be disappointed both that year as well as in 2020. But it’s past time to move beyond convenient voice control of home devices and make the smart home smarter. The smart home of 2021 should behave like a cohesive system that learns our individual habits, needs, and preferences, and then deliver an automatically changing environment to provide them. Of course, we’ll need to balance AI with privacy to make that happen.

And we’ll also need homes that know exactly who is in what room, i.e.: personalized presence detection. And short of using Bluetooth in phones assumed to always be on our person, the smart home doesn’t offer that yet. The closest I’ve seen is when testing a solution called RoomMe and I’m sure there are similar solutions available. None, however, seem baked into a mainstream smart home ecosystem.

No more apps!

I’m borrowing this idea from Stacey because I love it: She says it’s time to stop with the one app per device or brand approach, and I agree. While it’s easy to ignore most smart home device apps after installation and configuration by using a “meta app” like Amazon Alexa, Apple Home, or Google Home, why clutter the experience?

Smart home devices have to go beyond turning things on or off from your phone.

To be fair, you can add smart devices to Apple Home without installing a companion app. That’s the right approach and it needs expansion beyond Apple.

If some device truly “Works with Alexa” or “Works with Google”, let it work natively without requiring a dedicated app. Sure there are, and should be, some exceptions. Maybe the app is needed for firmware upgrades, configuration changes, or some subscription service feature. But I’m hoping CES delivers new devices that truly work with an ecosystem natively, without requiring mobile software for the basics.

Better device support for mesh networks

I remember at the prior two CES events asking many device makers if their product was limited to 2.4GHz WiFi networks. I don’t recall how many times I posed that question but I do know that every response was “yes”. I’m specifically speaking about things like doorbells, cameras, and the like. 

Why did I ask? Because of how difficult it can be to set up a 2.4GHz device on a dual-band mesh network that combines both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies into a single network. I completely understand why a device maker would stick with 2.4GHz: It’s less expensive than providing a dual-band wireless chip inside a device. 

But it’s not worth the frustration a customer may have during the device setup process, particularly as mesh networking has become a mainstream implementation. So less 2.4GHz at this year’s CES device debuts and more dual-band support, please!  Or at the very least, let’s see some routers that make it easier to add IoT devices that use 2.4GHz WiFi.

New interface options: Voice and screens aren’t always ideal

I’ve been on a kick to see more gesture-based user interfaces in the smart home and I hope CES provides a glimmer of what’s to come in this area. Don’t get me wrong: I love voice control. I use one of MY many smart speakers or displays many times a day to control my smart home. It’s my “go-to” option in most cases.

Image courtesy University of Washington

When others are sleeping or don’t want to be disturbed, voice isn’t the ideal interface, however. In those cases, I resort to opening an app on my smartphone to tap out a command, and well… I’ve already mentioned that we need fewer apps and app interactions in the smart home.

Gestures would bring the silence of an app without requiring a phone or an app. To me, that’s a win all around. Granted, there are some challenges to gesture integration in the smart home. Devices will need some type of sensor to see and interpret the gestures. Perhaps the recently spied mystery Google device found at the FCC will be one of them, thanks to its Project Soli solution inside.

And we need some level of common sense gestures by type of device that could be used across all ecosystems. I don’t want to use one flip of the wrist to change the thermostat in an Amazon home and another if I switch to Apple or Google. Some set of standard gestures would be ideal. 

Info from device makers on what CHIP will really bring to their products

Now that it’s 2021 and a draft spec for Project CHIP is available to its members, they should provide us more information about the effort at CES. Specifically, I want to hear from device makers on what we can expect as their products adopt the CHIP standard. 

I say that because up to this point, we’ve really only been provided high-level expectations about CHIP. 

Image courtesy of Project CHIP.

Yes, it will be at the application layer and will work with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Thread, and Zigbee. But what does that really mean beyond “a new, royalty-free connectivity standard to increase compatibility among smart home products, with security as a fundamental design tenet”? That’s the main goal according to the CHIP website.

Will I be able to control all of my devices from the digital assistant of my choice? Can I seamlessly switch between those digital assistants or even hub devices with no loss of functionality? How and why will my devices be more secure in my smart home?

Waiting until CES 2022 to get answers to these and other related questions wouldn’t be ideal. It’s time to hear from CHIP members on what they’re planning to offer as a result of the draft specification.

LoRaWAN for consumers (outside of Amazon, that is)

I know Amazon is starting to make a big push with its Sidewalk project, expected to bring internet access to sensors and devices outside of WiFi range. Cellular connectivity is of course an option but it’s an expensive one, and often overkill for the occasional small packet of sensor data.

That’s where LoRaWAN comes in: Think of it as a type of low-power, long-range WiFi network for getting remote sensor data to the internet. And to be fair, LoRaWAN routers started becoming available last year for purchase. Stacey added one to her home, the Helium Hotspot, which provides a few miles of network coverage for sensors and tags to get their data online.

What she doesn’t have, however, are a large number of devices that she can connect to that LoRaWAN router.  She does have a location tracker that uses LoRaWAN but the software interface isn’t easy for a mainstream consumer to use. You can’t walk into a Best Buy, for example, and purchase LoRaWAN mailbox sensors, locator tags, or other sensor-enabled devices that reach beyond the coverage of your wireless home network.

Image courtesy Amazon

Again, Amazon is leading the charge early here; it has a $30 Ring Mailbox Sensor that will use Sidewalk, Amazon’s “flavor” of LoRaWAN. Even that, however, isn’t ready for prime time: There’s a Sidewalk-compatible radio inside, but for now, it’s using a proprietary sub-gigahertz radio as a stop-gap. We need to see more devices such as this and not just from Amazon. Hopefully, a handful or more are shown off next week at CES