It’s that time of year again—time to take a look at some of the biggest trends in home technology and figure out what it all means for next year. This year I break it down into the four areas that saw the most change or significant activity: Home Automation, Home Theater, Wireless Home Audio and Television.
Smart Home Automation
If you were waiting for smart home automation to get easier, cheaper and more available, well, you got your wish.
In the past year (actually it’s been building over three years, but whatever) the home automation market has gone from a rough dozen companies making custom installation products and a couple of odd DIY systems to hundreds of new smart home hubs, Internet of Things devices, wireless smart bulbs, multi-function sensors and wireless security cameras that do more than just record intruders.
The rise of the new DIY smart home systems has been fascinating and curious, since it seemed to come all in one surge. Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding platforms were partially responsible by giving garage inventors a way to share their ideas and bring in needed money without resorting to the venture capital route. Crowdfunding also seemed to lead to a number of me-too products by small inventors, who saw a successful product and decided they could do the same thing a little differently or maybe a little better. Many of those never made it past the fund-raising stage, and many that did probably won’t be around for the long haul.
One that did get a lot of attention, brought in substantial crowdfunding money and seemed to be on the road to success was Revolv, the smart home hub that wanted to be compatible with everything. Revolv’s success caught the eye of Nest (owned by Google) which bought the company late in 2014 and essentially shut it down. The acquisition of smart home hub SmartThings by Samsung is another sign that home automation has a bigger chance of going mainstream than ever before.
The custom home automation market was paying close attention to the DIY market. Several of the major players in custom-installed systems came out with their own cheaper and easy-to-program systems. One of the biggest surprises was from Crestron. That company launched the Crestron Pyng system, a wireless hub, smart phone/tablet app and line of products (dimmers, sensors…) to allow you to control things like lights, shades and thermostats. The $599 starter price is thousands less than anything else the company had offered, and it is designed so the home owner could add additional devices or do basic programming without calling their installer. Lutron made a similar move with its Smart Bridge hub that works with Lutron Caseta light and shade products.
One of the things making easy automation even easier is the evolution of wireless protocols. WiFi, Z-Wave, Zigbee, Thread, Bluetooth and others allow installation, setup and programming in a minimal number of steps if the system’s app is well-designed.
We expect a lot more from this area at the January Consumer Electronics Show in 2015. The pre-show CES buzz is that DIY smart home products will be everywhere.
In home theater this year there were only a few major developments, but they were pretty big. The first, and most significant, is the launch of Dolby Atmos and Auro 3D for the home. Dolby Atmos, the audio system initially launched in commercial theaters, treats sounds as objects, rather than channels, and allows the audio engineer to place specific sounds almost anywhere in a room, given there are enough speakers. For the home, new AV receivers work with ceiling speakers or up-firing Atmos-enabled speakers to give the most engrossing home theater audio experience ever. So far the number of Blu-ray discs with Dolby Atmos sound is a bit limited, but it’s bound to grow. Whether the system takes off in 2015 as practical for anything but professionally-installed home theaters is yet to be seen (especially with so many people opting for soundbars and speaker bases rather than full-surround systems). One sign that that this kind of immersive surround sound experience is moving ahead came late in this year when DTS hinted at its own 3D sound format, called DTS-X, which will appear next year in products from Anthem, Denon, Integra, Krell, Marantz, McIntosh, Onkyo, Outlaw Audio, Pioneer and others.
The other game-changing event is the rise of streaming media. This isn’t a brand new trend, but with the recent online release of Sony’s The Interview (which earned $15 in online revenue in its first days) and the growth of streaming-focused smart TVs (and streaming media accessories like Chromecast, Fire TV Stick and Roku Stick), it’s clear that streaming is positioned to be the dominant video-delivery format.
There is one potentially bright spot for physical media in 2015, and that’s the expectation that a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray format will be coming. We’ll look for more on this development at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
So with streaming taking over home video consumption, what do makers of video servers do? The leader in that category, Kaleidescape, has somewhat joined the parade. Due to a lengthy legal dispute, Kaleidescape stopped selling products that record DVD discs. The newest Kaleidescape server, the Alto, is a download-only device, which means internet-delivered content is the only content (downloaded to a hard drive, not streamed). Luckily, the company has an extensive video store, and the quality of its downloaded movies far surpasses any normal streaming service.
The home theater world also saw the addition of a few new 4K projectors, but not enough, and a few more laser and LED projectors (read about that here).
In home audio, the 2014 trend was continued dominance by Sonos, at least in terms of wireless multiroom speaker systems. That was complimented by a number of Sonos-like products (some announced in 2013) from companies like Samsung, LG, Bose, Bluesound and more.
Just like in video, the internet is the major source for music, so anything with a speaker grill better also have an app and a way to get online music out of it.
This should come as no surprise to people, but the biggest thing in TVs for 2014 was 4K Ultra HD. It will also be the biggest thing for TVs in 2015 (hopefully with more content). In 2013 there were a handful of super expensive 4K TVs. Today every TV maker has multiple models, and prices dropped rapidly throughout the year. A 4K TV is still a premium-priced TV, but as more manufacturers turn their factory lines over to 4K the prices will continue to decline through 2015 and beyond.
This was also the year that plasma TV technology was officially killed off.
Curved and OLED TV technology also received a fair bit of attention. LG so far has been the most bullish in keeping OLED in the limelight, but Samsung, too, had product in the market. The sidebar trend of curved TVs, again a Samsung and LG phenomenon, has a lot of people scratching their heads, but it doesn’t seem to be going away.
What home technology trend did I miss? The rise in smart home thermostats? Increased attention on home security systems? What about high-resolution audio or vinyl album fans. All that is true, too. Stay tuned for more from all of the above.