10 Enabling Technologies Transforming Your Home: Making Sense of CES

Woman Sitting on a Couch Using Home Robot Cleaning App on Mobile Phone

This woman is using her smartphone to control a robotic vacuum. Is this sort of smart home technology useful or a gimmick?

Let’s face it, we’re all numbed by the rate of technological change and innovation. Keeping up seems like an impossibility. And developing a game plan to vet new technologies has become one of the most challenging issues for today’s leaders.

To see what’s driving all of this innovation, I attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Each January, the world convenes in Las Vegas for CES. I was joined by more than 184,000 attendees, each exploring 2.6 million square feet of floor space with more than 4,000 exhibiting companies.

The shock and awe impact of CES can cause even the most confident technologist to fear they’re falling woefully behind. How can you make sense of what’s new — and what’s next? Asking a simple question can reveal an overlying taxonomy to the technology landscape and help bring innovation into focus.

What’s the one question to ask? Simply this: What are the core technologies that underlie and enable the thousands of individual new products and service offerings that are vying for success in the marketplace?

The answer may surprise you. Across the literally thousands of seemingly unrelated new products and services launched at CES, most are based on a relatively short list of enabling technologies. Think of these enabling technologies as building blocks that can be combined in a myriad of combinations worldwide.

For example, let’s focus in on new products and technologies that are impacting the home. Many are based on 10 key enabling technologies. Product manufacturers and service providers put them together in various combinations to create new products as diverse as robotic vacuum cleaners, smartphone-enabled doorbells, weight-sensing subfloors and voice-activated window shades.

While not a complete list, the following technologies are clearly at the center of the new smart home:

• Battery capacity/energy density
• The electrification of everything
• Lightweight materials
• Sensor technologies
• Low-cost/high-capability microprocessors
• Smartphone capability
• Artificial intelligence
• Robotics — both terrestrial and airborne
• Voice as a control system
• Wireless communication

Almost every new product we saw at CES this year combined three, four or five of these core-enabling technologies. Take drones, for example: Lightweight batteries and materials, artificial intelligence, sensors, robotics — all of these combine to enable drones to fly. Without one of these aspects, we wouldn’t even be talking about drones, needless to say buying them.

What makes a new product a hit is putting these enabling technologies together to create truly innovative products that solve real problems. A lot of new products fail — and not because the technology doesn’t work, but because a given product simply doesn’t solve the real needs of real consumers in a practical manner.

A case in point from CES: A Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush that would communicate your brushing habits to your dentist in real time. Wow! Someone put their lifeblood into making that a reality?

Sometimes, new products fail because they combine things that are best not combined. There’s a great book by Charles Fine of MIT, called Clockspeed. In this important work, Fine established an important new metric, which he called clockspeed. According to Fine, clockspeed is a measure of how fast industries (and their products) change. One of the key insights from this book is that different Industries and products have different clockspeeds.

Take cars, for example. New car and truck models launch every five to six years. Smart phones and other consumer technologies change much faster, 12-24 months. A proven path to new product failure is to integrate products or technologies with different clockspeeds.

Imagine the issues that arise when you integrate consumer technology that changes quickly (such as a phone) into a car or truck) into a vehicle that changes less quickly and is expected to last far longer. After two years, your car — which still has a decade of useful life — is saddled with an albatross of a phone system. Younger folks may find this hard to imagine, but luxury cars once included hard-wired, built-in phones. Doing so today is unthinkable. The typical car owner will have two to four smartphones over the course of owning one vehicle — and, today, no vehicle owner would want an out-of-date phone bolted permanently to their vehicle.

The latest example of this folly is the integration of touch screens into refrigerator doors. Keep in mind we expect refrigerators to last 10 to 20 years. However, that currently state-of-the art touch pad integrated into the front door of your fancy fridge will be obsolete in a couple of years — and functionally worn out in five years. Are consumers expected to buy a new $2,500 refrigerator every couple of years, just to keep the touchscreen current?

For every product or service that fails to add true value, consider those that do make a difference. For example, I saw a weight-sensing floor underlayment with great promise at CES. Recently, an active adult new home community being built near our headquarters in Austin, Texas, placed these sensors under the flooring — in the living apace of each resident.

If too much time elapses with no footsteps detected, or the time passes that a resident usually gets out of bed, the community’s manager can check on their well-being. That’s genius! The resident’s well-being is assured — in a simple, unobtrusive and useful way — without the indignity of wearing a bracelet or necklace advertised on late-night TV that signals, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

As you seek to make sense of thousands of new products demanding your time and a share of your money, ask yourself these questions:

1) Does this new product or service truly solve an important problems?
2) Does it do so in ways that are simple and intuitive — and, most of all, useful?
3) What are the building-block technologies that underlie — and enable — this new product?
4) Does a new product mix technologies with vastly differ rates of change? If so, how will you feel about the partial obsolescence that can result?

Good luck navigating the waves of change, innovation and disruption. If you focus on the questions above, you have a good chance of investing your money in new products that truly make sense for you.

I’ll be back at CES again in January, combing through 2.6 million square feet of change. I’ll be continuing my search for those rare examples of new products that combine these enabling technologies in ways that solve real problems in sustainable, approachable and useful ways. See you on the show floor!
Tim Costello is Chairman and CEO of Builder Homesite, Inc. Dedicated to the digital transformation of the homebuilding industry, BHI is owned by a consortium of 30 leading builders and also serves thousands of client builders. NewHomeSource.com, the firm's flagship website, is the leading real estate website for newly built homes.

Related Articles

Sign up for the Home of the Week

New Home 101
New eBook Available

Expert Advice on Buying & Building a New Home

The eBook will be delivered to your inbox. We will not share your email address.