Design — 04 March 2016
Tech trends advance safety, convenience, fun

By Felicia Levine

City & Shore Magazine

There’s no place like home, especially when it’s tricked out with convenient “smart” technology that tells us when the laundry is dry, the lights are on and the garage door is open – even when we’re not there. Thanks to cutting-edge innovations, we can answer our front doors from China, preheat our ovens from I-95, and peek inside our fridges from Publix to check if we’re low on eggs.

It’s like living in a sci-fi movie.

“We’re talking about game-changing technology,” says Steve Koenig, senior director of research for the Consumer Technology Association, which presents the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s largest technology innovation event of its kind. “We’re engineering homes to take care of us instead of us taking care of them. Devices are intelligent and learn our behavior so we don’t have to think about things.”

While once accessible solely to the wealthy of the world, in 2016 this smart technology is more affordable thanks to competitive pricing and expensive control panels being replaced by simple apps operated via smartphones and tablets.

“There’s an opportunity for anyone to smarten their home,” says Koenig, whose show drew 170,000 attendees in Las Vegas in January. “There are nearly an infinite number of ways for consumers to do this, and they’re doing so for reasons like convenience, peace of mind and energy savings.”

There are stand-alone products, suites of products, and fully connected hubs that act as ecosystems for all your products. Koenig likens these to potato chips, because it’s hard to stop at just one.

“Our research shows that once consumers adopt smart-home technology and experience the benefits, they’re much more likely to adopt a second, third or fourth.”

Rooms for Growth

One of the most popular categories for smart-home technology at this year’s CES was kitchen appliances, with consumers eating up everything from WiFi-enabled coffee machines and 3D food printers to food safety checkers and cooking robots.

Top-of-the-line “practical” appliances such as smart refrigerators can still be pricey, averaging in the thousands of dollars, but buyers say the technology is worth it. These fridges can sense when items are running low or expiring and act as vehicles for ordering, paying and having them delivered – all via touchscreen or smartphone. Some even suggest recipes based on content.

Available starting in May, the Samsung Family Hub refrigerator features a 21.5-inch screen for photos, calendars and notes, while smart Sub-Zero refrigerators protect freshness with temperature control, proper humidity and NASA-inspired air purification. Also worth noting is the Firstbuild Chillhub fridge, which offers eight USB ports and WiFi connectivity. The coolest part: the Milky Weigh (pun intended) accessory, which shows how much milk you have left.

But smart technology is about more than bells and whistles, says Rob Feinberg, Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD), showroom sales manager and designer with Allied Kitchen & Bath in Fort Lauderdale, who often is asked to incorporate smart products into his remodeling jobs.

“Smart technology also detects if an appliance is going bad or needs a part replaced,” Feinberg says. “It will actually contact the manufacturer. Then the manufacturer will call you and let you know what part you need changed and set up an appointment to replace it.”

Dishwasher technology is equally inspired, allowing users to check on the status of cleaning cycles and receive alerts when a load is done or a door is left open. Appliances such as the Whirlpool Dishwasher with Resource-Efficient Wash System uses half the water and energy as that of a standard machine, resulting in saved time and money. Also energy-efficient are faucets such as those produced by Delta, which not only gauge water usage but provide SpotShield Technology to resist fingerprints and stains (which means less cleaning required) and touch technology (you turn water on or off by touching anywhere on the spout or handle).

Delta offers similar technology for bathrooms, along with ActivTouch showerheads (turn on one of eight spray options with the touch of a button) and TempAssure Thermostatic valves (for maintaining perfect water temps). For a literal light show, there are LED-equipped showerheads that light up when you use too much water, with a customizable rainbow of colors. Other options, such as those provided by Allied Kitchen & Bath, include electric-lighted mirrors with hidden TVs that can be mounted in the shower and fixtures that save money by using less water, such as Delta Brizo brand faucets.

Smart bathrooms are not just convenient and energy-saving, they can also be sleek and stunning. Case in point is a modern white bathroom by Allied Kitchen & Bath (see our cover), which not only looks like a designer showplace but incorporates cutting-edge technology. Features include a TOTO Neorest® 700H Dual Flush Toilet, complete with remote control and automatic flushing. Also impressive are the timer-controlled electronic towel warmers and music speakers artfully hidden in the ceiling. Not to mention the pristine, irresistible tub (perfect for long bubble baths).

The sky’s the limit when it comes to smart-home technology in 2016: It can be synched so that lights, temperature and music follow us from room to room, high-definition artworks revolve at the press of a button, sensors tell us when the front-yard grass needs watering, and pool floats let us know how much sunscreen we need.

“The smart-home arena is just exploding,” Koenig says. “It’s enough to give you tingles.”

The Fear Factor 

huge trend continues to be safeguarding the nest. From smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors and home-security systems to tricked-out doorbells and mailboxes, there are myriad ways to keep out burglars, monitor porches and patios, and know when our kids get home from school in the afternoons (or try to sneak out at night). Cameras operate by facial recognition, door locks operate via thumbprint, and garage doors open from anywhere in the world.

Companies such as Andersen Corporation offer window-building kits with locking mechanisms and sensors so users can tell when they’re closed and secured for safety and energy conservation. Another company called Netatmo sells outdoor cameras that can decipher from a person, dog or car and alert homeowners if it “sees” anything out of the ordinary.

Running late for dinner? A home-security system by NuBryte lets you send a message to your home’s console so family members know you’re on your way.

That all sounds amazing if you’re tech-savvy. But what about those of us who are still figuring out how to use our smartphones?

“You have to be sure everything is set up properly,” cautions Feinberg. This can be a scary proposition for tech-challenged baby boomers, especially when the grandkids aren’t around to help. “Even when it’s a simple DIY setup, some look at the instructions and may as well be trying to fly a 747. Fortunately, there’s always someone out there to help.”

Richard Berrie, CEO of Delray Beach-based iHummingbird, is such a person. His company specializes in designing, installing and hooking up smart technology, as well as teaching people how to use it. From speakers, music and surveillance systems to thermostats, TVs and lighting, his company does it all.

“We bridge the gap between the technician, handyman and IT person,” says Berrie, who launched the company in 2014 and is contracted with Paramount Residences in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach to fit the high-end condos with Nest thermostats, Sonos wireless music systems and Samsung smart TVs in kitchen backsplashes. “Every device has a unique address, and we can identify and speak to it.”

The Future Is Now

So what’s next in the ever-changing smart-home stratosphere? Koenig says to expect more biometric devices for facial, fingerprint and voice recognition, as well as more smart systems such as the Amazon Echo, a cylinder-shaped wireless speaker and voice command device that includes the “Siri”-like Alexa cloud-based service.

He also anticipates prices to keep dropping as products flood the market, and for more name brands to jump on the bandwagon, similar to Lowes with its Iris smart home-management system and Schlage and its Sense iOS-compatible smart lock.

“This is reassuring to folks who have more confidence in brands they’re familiar with,” Koenig says. “Consumers are demanding this, and companies want to remain innovative.”

Companies are also joining forces to provide richer smart-home experiences. For example, Whirlpool and Dropcam have signed up for open-software collaborations with Works with Nest.

Is there a downside to all this new technology?

Maybe.

Feinberg notes, ironically, that all this smart technology may be dumbing down society.

“The smarter your home becomes, the less you need to know. I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing,” he says. “What happens if we lose power? Technology is advancing us, but it’s also making us stupid.” λ

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