Crowd Sourced Products Gain Traction

CEDIA EXPO experienced a bounce-back year this past September, and CES will surely serve as another hot-bed of consumer electronics innovations in January, but crowd source funding websites have become an increasingly popular “alternative source” for finding the latest and greatest in the world of connected electronics.
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Crowd source funding websites have become an increasingly popular “alternative source” for finding the latest and greatest in the world of connected electronics. CEDIA EXPO experienced a bounce-back year this past September, and CES will surely serve as another hot-bed of consumer electronics innovations in January, but crowd source funding websites have become an increasingly popular “alternative source” for finding the latest and greatest in the world of connected electronics.

Search Indiegogo and Kickstarter and you will find all sorts of products that could be quite disruptive to the custom integration world in that “$20K to $65K” sweet spot where a significant number of the average firms’ jobs bill. For example, Piper and Canary are very interesting security products with cloud connectivity. iDoorCam is a cloud-centric combination door-bell and web cam that runs off the voltage already there from the “old fashioned” doorbell wiring. LIFX, Limitless LED, iLumi, and others are start-ups with app-controllable LED lightbulbs that will go head to head with Philips’ Hue. Need a web-controlled irrigation controller? netAQUA has reached its Kickstarter funding goal. How about a “Smart Diapers” or a “sleep tracker” system that integrates with a mattress as part of a home-health system? Check Pixie Scientific for the former and Beddit, which has also reached its Kickstarter goal, for the latter.

Take a look at some of these and you begin to see two sides of the coin. On one hand, think back to the early days of the custom industry. Many of the early participants couldn’t buy the products they needed and simply designed and built their own. Many in our community definitely have the skills, knowledge and talent to design and build what we need but can’t buy today, but who has the time, staff, and energy to do that when there is a business to run and jobs to complete?

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Logitech’s Harmony Ultimate remote combines a traditional programmable remote with a consolidated app, Bluetooth capability for Playstation, and a powerful IR blaster for “behind the cabinet door” operation.

While the majority of products on the crowd source funding sites appear to be aimed at consumer-direct sale and DIY installation, there is no doubt that they could fit into a larger residential integrated system that you install. What’s wrong with that? For starters, one might reasonably ask that if these are “so easy that the teenager next door can install them,” then the next question might well come from consumers who could say, “If I can do it myself, then what do I need that ‘CEDIA guy’ for? That could be the start of a troublesome trend.

Keep in mind that while some consumers can and will do it themselves, many either can’t or won’t. First and foremost, consider these products as advertising for the value proposition of an integrated, connected home where audio/ video entertainment, device control, lighting, security, door control, and monitoring, HVAC, irrigation, cameras, and data networking are all properly installed, seamlessly meshed together and controlled by a unified, easy-to-use and secure interface accessible from smartphones, tablets, and in-wall keypads.

These crowd-sourced and similar standalone cloud-centric products may do their job well, but most only do only one or two things. Your goal is to promote and deliver the promise of everything, not one thing working together.

Where Your Skills Come into Play

We now live at the intersection of these new devices and what the industry-focused vendors showed at CEDIA EXPO. The key is whether or not the product lives in a “walled-garden” without an open API or SDK that will let you wrangle these disparate products. Some, such as LIFX and Hue, do. Others, such as iDoorCam, do not. Still others have them in the works, but the extent to which you can use them for integration remains to be seen.

Bottom line to this is that the device may be great, but if you can’t integrate it either through a supplier-provided SDK or third-party software, such as Extra Vegetables, you have a tree falling in the forest, and your integrated system won’t hear it. A good example is Koubachi, which is a terrific Wi-Fi-enabled moisture sensor for indoor plants and outdoor garden irrigation. netAGUA also is a Wi-Fi-enabled irrigation controller, but neither is open in a way that lets you directly integrate them so that the sensor and the irrigation system work in concert.

That type of sense/report/inform/ act/confirm task set is something that our industry has done for years, but with the broad proliferation of net- and cloud-controlled products, you may need to look outside the box for solutions, particularly when you need to do things with products that are seemingly closed to outside aggregation/integration but which you need to integrate into a more unified, professional control app.

One additional variable to throw into the pot here is that, in addition to disparate control schemes, there may often be a variety of RF “pipes” in use. Depending on the specific product, you might have Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth, Bluetooth LE/SMART, NFC, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and systems working in the 900MHz ISM band. Can the control device, whether it is a smartphone/tablet or a proprietary keypad system, talk directly to the device under control? Is an intermediary “translator” required? That’s just one of the things you’ll increasingly need to add to job projection questionnaires as time moves forward.

Indeed, the questions to ask are many. First up is if there is any dependency on “big data” and cloud servers? That is common these days, but make sure you don’t get on the wrong side of reliability, security, or privacy concerns. A prime example is in security/monitoring products. Presuming that the privacy concerns associated with cloud products and “big data” are met, what is the reliability? Not just product reliability, but in the monitoring app system.

Since going direct from device to consumer bypasses a UL-approved, state-licensed central station monitoring location, will a system based on these devices properly qualify for the homeowner’s insurance discount typically available for traditional alarm systems? Will these products and systems built around them meet any requirements for direct alerts to local police, fire or emergency medical responders? Indeed, as time is often of the essence when an event triggers a security system, can the product communicate directly with the appropriate agencies or does it only tell the user something is going on via an app? The seconds and minutes potentially lost might literally become a matter of life and death.

Virtually all of these crowd-sourced products are Wi-Fi enabled. Do you anticipate the additional requirements they will place on network reliability and bandwidth? If a client really goes with one of these options, will they need your help with enterprise-grade hardware and managed services software to make certain that up time is as close to 100 percent as possible? Many of the products do send out a message to the user’s app when either a power or home network outage takes them down, but then what? That’s where your expertise in remote access and managed care will help overcome the, “Why can’t I do this stuff myself,” questions.

Now that we have a bit of hindsight after returning from EXPO, it seems that there are solutions here or on the way. Both iRule and Roomie are taking on the “app wrangling” problem via software that lets you tailor a unified app to the collection of individual control apps you face out in the world. Logitech’s Harmony Ultimate and Harmony Smart Control are interesting approaches to not only integrating a wide range of control apps, mostly for home theater and audio products but also for some of the popular “direct control” lighting systems such as Philips Hue. They not only blend things into a single app for the smartphone or tablet, but they also include a more conventional hard remote, so when the homeowner is out for the evening, the babysitter or grandparents have something with which to run the audio/video system. Particularly unique is the ability to control a PS3, and presumably a PS4, via Bluetooth, including the illusive on/off command not available with some third-party products for PlayStation control.

Not All the Enemy

Don’t treat something as the enemy just because you can’t buy it directly and when its origin is on the likes of Kickstarter. Sometimes a product from outside our comfort zone can be your friend. Good example are wireless extensions, actuators, cases, and sensors that you’ll see in the crowd-sourced world for Raspberry Pi and Arduino. Is it worth “shopping” there to either get an idea about something you can replicate in small quantities to fit a job’s unique requirement, or just purchase as a “funder?”

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Koubachi (above) is a Wi-Fi-enabled moisture sensor for indoor plants and outdoor garden irrigation. netAGUA (right) also is a Wi-Fi-enabled irrigation controller, but neither is open in a way that allows direct integration so that the sensor and the irrigation system work in concert.

On the other hand, be very cautious about the risks of basing something in a job on a product you might get for supporting a crowd-sourced project. Kickstarter and Indiegogo both have side panels on the project sites that provide estimated availability dates and places for the sponsors to post updates.

More importantly, each project has a funding goal “thermometer” that you can use to see if the product will even raise enough money to move forward. Beyond that, you can also see the estimated availability date of the products that go to the funders. Don’t incorporate one of these products in a job you’ve bid out unless you’ve contacted the sponsor to see if the dates shown are real. Even better, check their own web site off the crowd source project to see what is said. A good example of that is iSmartAlarm. This company, started as an Indiegogo project, met and exceeded its funding goal, and you can order the products through its website. You can’t do that yet for many of the others.

Be Flexible

Giving new meaning to the old cliché of “great minds think alike,” if you see something in the world of crowd source that meets a need for something you didn’t find at EXPO, take a close look at the funding progress. “Smart Ring” on Indiegogo and “NFC Ring” on Kickstarter appear to be similar and both might meet a need in installations where you want to use NFC to let clients identify or authenticate themselves and start an activity. The issue isn’t whether one is better than the other. Rather, Smart Ring is only one percent funded at this date and NFC Ring is fully funded, having raised 806 percent of its targeted goal. Which product is likely to deliver first, if at all? Which would you select now?

At the end of the day, it all boils down to not what the products are or where they come from, presuming that they do the job reliably, securely, and are from a company that will be around to support them in the years ahead. The commitment of a company to display at CEDIA EXPO, whether they are a long-time exhibitor or a newbie, signals that they have the interest in our market, understand our needs as well as those of our clients and are prepared to help us make things work. That, as much as the products themselves, could be the most important factor. After all, no matter where the product originates, what matters most to the client is who installs the product, who designs the system, and who provides the most foolproof, reliable, secure, integrated, and unified system run through a single, simple, easy to understand interface. That is one thing you can’t crowd source, regardless of what the components are.

Michael Heiss (mhh@michaelheiss.com), a CEDIA Fellow and contributing editor to Residential Systems, resides in Sherman Oaks, CA.

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