…But this time around, just as we started to talk about "smart home", AI and the content revolution stopped being separate entities and rolled up into one, mega-tsunami of complexity.
This year is particularly perplexing. Suddenly the attention has shifted from the screened device to what are rapidly becoming connected ecosystems of objects, applications and sensations. Queer amalgams of physical gadgets, helpful utilities, new connected forms of home entertainment and ever-improving, personalised features that are always listening and learning. Always listening...
A momentum is building in connected home, because voice and AI combine to create a convenience and intuitiveness that makes them ripe for mainstream adoption. And because the stakes are so high, and it’s not gadget vs gadget but ecosystem vs ecosystem, the arms race is hotting up nicely!
If we can create the best speaker and voice-activation device and undercut the incumbents, we’ll win on both counts
Just take speakers. With voice control here on all the main platforms, we’ve seen huge steps in the capability of these devices, not just in processing voice, but also undercutting and outperforming dumb, Bluetooth-connected speakers, which also feel as if they’ve only just arrived. The thinking clearly goes: "If we can create the best speaker and voice-activation device and undercut the incumbents, we’ll win on both counts." The industrial design reflects this, with devices starting to understand that the sleek, neutral aluminiums and beiges of computing, and hard, black boxes of mobile need to soften into more homely guises. So they sit comfortably in the living room, muting any sense of dread around these insanely powerful and insightful devices.
We mustn’t be fooled into thinking that these internet giants are just moving in to snatch market share from household electronic brands, this is about bringing connectivity to markets in their most convenient forms.
Smart home 1.0 has done little to light up mass markets with enthusiasm, because while the individual attributes of connected products may have been compelling, they’ve only ever played solo, not as a harmonious orchestra. With voice control, mixed with seamless interconnectivity, great product design and all the content, apps, services and experiences piped through each platform so elegantly, what was awkward in the first wave of smart, has become smooth, sexy and irresistible.
And what does this mean for brands? In short, it means more places to exist and compete, but also a requirement to behave in new ways and adopt new shapes to fit these environments. That means personalities with more detail and texture than are detailed in social-media playbooks, as well as the plumbing to make sure content, engagement and experience stream neatly into commerce and transaction. How does your brand insert itself into the stack and be front-of-mind enough to be called on by users no longer interacting via a screen, mouse and fingers?
The first smart story thrived on the wonder of controlling appliances from across the world, or room, via an omnipotent device. Smart was about optimised heating and getting an alert when your turkey was done – tawdry domestic reality reimagined for a connected world.
But not only did it underdeliver against the old alternatives, this vision of a connected home also missed more than half of the spectrum of at-home experience. In the home, we’re chilled and playful, keen to be entertained, not a sheep in a hypnotised herd, desperate to optimise domestic operations over all else. That’s why this round of releases sows some seeds for a more fun future. And I’m not just talking about Google powering up its speakers to stadium strength; the clues are actually clearer in Amazon’s Echo Buttons.
Not to be confused with the boring Dash buttons, used by children to accidentally stockpile washing powder, Echo Buttons can be used to interact with Alexa’s games. Knowing this is an ecosystem-play, Amazon has been careful to announce the APIs that will allow game-, media- and advertiser-access to this Charlie and the Chocolate-Factory version of the connected home. A two-pack for $20 continues the irresistibility.
The next few Christmases will be connected-home ones, for sure. And the few after that? It won’t be up to us to decide. We’ll just all have to ask Alexa, as, by then, she’ll know best.
Nicolas Roope is the creative partner and co-founder of Poke London | @nikroope