Picture the home of the future: new labour-saving devices all talking to each other and knowing what we want before we do. Generally life will be easier, less of a grind and people will be able to fit yet more activities into already packed schedules.
But smart homes will not develop in linear fashion. Across international boundaries, they will diverge so that the technology profile of a home in one part of the world could look very different to another, despite of the unifying effect of globalisation.
This is not just due to the varying spending power of economies, but also their cultural preferences and demographic priorities. Globalised companies already curate product lines to suit individual markets, but this will become magnified as sales grow.
Social trends, attitudes towards health and the environment, and the perceived threat from crime are playing a part in how people choose to spend their pounds, dollars and yen.
Research involving 2,000 tech enthusiasts by GSMA, an international organisation representing mobile operators, highlights this divergence. For example, UK households are proportionally more likely to have installed a smart energy meter than those in Germany, Japan or the United States.
Estimates suggest that across the planet the number of connected devices will swell to 26 billion by 2020
Techies in Japan are more likely to have smart lighting systems, while those in the US may prefer to have connected fitness trackers. Germans were more enamoured than the others with smart watches; 24 per cent of respondents to the survey had already purchased one.
Technology company Honeywell estimates that across the planet the number of connected devices will swell to 26 billion by 2020, an enormous increase on today’s figure and the equivalent of more than three devices each for everyone on Earth.
Taken together the stats make for stark reading and provide some insight into the technological shift we are embarking on.
“Everyone is thinking about the home now, and how we can use technologies that have matured in the smartphone age to make both our homes and the products we put in them more connected and intelligent,” says Marie Schmidt, head of brand, design and marketing at Bang & Olufsen.
“The proliferation of devices is paving the way for future advances in technology, enabling consumers to enjoy seamless, quality experiences in the home. We are going to see more changes to the concept of ‘the home’ in the next ten years than in the last ninety.”
For 30 years or more Japan has been stereotyped as technology-obsessed, so it makes sense the country that devised heated loo seats and connected shopping on the Tokyo Metro should lead the pack in the creation of smart homes. But experts tell a different story.
“Tokyo has long been at the forefront of global technology. Japan was the first country to introduce the camera phone in 2000, 3G in 2001 and mobile payments in 2004, many years before their Western counterparts did the same,” says Isabelle Demaude, an Asia specialist at PHA Media.
“But to confuse being good at development and innovation with being tech-mad would be a mistake, because while smartphones, bullet trains and heated toilet seats are all commonplace, Japan’s everyday technology is quite outdated.
“It’s not unusual for homes and offices to use a fax machine, social media is very much in its infancy and the number of people who are computer illiterate is astonishingly high. The reason is simple: it’s rare for technology to be used in education, making people hesitate about new innovations.”
But this technophobia is changing, largely due to the pressing challenge of an ageing society. The World Health Organization says Japan has the longest life expectancy on the planet. In 2012 the average lifespan was 86.2 years. In the UK it was 81, while in the US – sitting a lowly 36th in the world – it was 79.8.
Ms Demaude says: “Japan needs as many of its young people in work as possible in order to support its economy, meaning there will be no one left behind to care for the elderly. In order to ensure ageing relatives don’t become isolated, robots will become a key feature in households.”
Emma Crowe, client strategy chief at Somo, who believes younger carers will drive tech adoption, adds: “Due to Japan’s ageing and dense urban population, ensuring a safe and secure living environment is one of the key drivers of home automation. Millennials caring for their elderly relatives are seeking assisted-living solutions and sophisticated remote monitoring technologies.”
Homes will, therefore, be fitted to complete chores, such as cleaning and cooking automatically, while wearable technology, synched to the home, will take care of health monitoring and communication with loved ones in the outside world.
In contrast, US households will focus on convenience, according to Nicky Danino, senior lecturer in computing at the University of Central Lancashire. She has identified an upward trend in tools that take care of location-specific tasks inside and outside the home.
All this assumes that broadband infrastructure in countries will keep pace with technological change and, at the moment, you could argue it’s falling behind
“We could see the US developing home technology that saves effort for users,” she says. “For example, devices that will put food on the table from the initial buying to preparing it and physically bringing it to be eaten at the table.”
But in health-obsessed states, such as California, a different trend could emerge. Well-heeled fitness fanatics will expect climate control to cool them down after a run, while the fridge prepares a cool drink and the thermostat cranks up the hot water for a shower.
In general, however, priorities for Americans are less energetic, says Ms Crowe, and these overlap with UK consumers. “In the UK and US, energy-saving, cost efficiency and comfort are the driving forces behind smart homes,” she adds.
All this assumes that broadband infrastructure in countries will keep pace with technological change and, at the moment, you could argue it’s falling behind. The UK government pledged to provide universal broadband access by 2012, but in that year 87 per cent of people had access to any kind of connection, including dial-up.
That was still enough to beat the US with 81 per cent coverage and Japan with a lowly 79 per cent. Meanwhile, the UK government has made a new commitment to achieve 95 per cent broadband connectivity by 2017, though even this seems an ambitious target.
Alberto Prado, head of Philips Digital Accelerator, argues that a few more important infrastructural upgrades need to happen for countries to enjoy the full benefits of connected homes. One is device interoperability, which would see connected devices from different brands working together.
With luck this will happen faster than with other home appliances. The humble electrical plug, for example, took half a century to go from invention to standardisation and even then it didn’t happen globally.
“This area is highly fragmented, leading to a situation where devices from different brands cannot ‘talk’ to each other for the purpose of delivering broader use-cases,” says Mr Prado, adding that the appetite for consolidation has grown in the last couple of years.
Data personalisation, the convergence of user interfaces and new methods for interaction will also all play a part in how homes develop, regardless of their location, he says.
What the average home will look like in ten, twenty or fifty years is anyone’s guess. What’s more assured is that demographics, culture, health and politics will play just as big a part in the development of how we live and our preference for this or that gadget.