As we move inexorably towards a future right out of The Matrix, smart technology is now available across the UAE. Early adopters are already proudly showing off their internet-enabled appliances, but many of us have yet to make the switch. The only question is when.
We are a few months away from frantically calling up our vacuum cleaners on our way home from work because a few colleagues decided to tag along, or from our refrigerators phoning us when we're low on milk.
Although there are a few smart products in UAE stores right now, customers will be faced with a veritable barrage of new launches over the year. One of them is LG's new Styler — a cabinet that manages clothes while keeping them fresh, steamed and deodorised. Scheduled for release across the UAE in the summer, the cabinet features moving hangers and a customer-defined aroma spray.
The technology, which initially started with our mobile phones, is now moving rapidly towards home appliances. The International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year saw the word ‘smart' associated with a plethora of gadgets and appliances on exhibit.
However, the majority of us do not own a single smart appliance. "Cost-wise, I wouldn't want to go down that path right now," says Sneha Alexander, 20, a marketing specialist in Dubai. "Although integrating a lot more functions into one appliance seems interesting and may be able to save a lot of my time, I'm not sure if it's feasible for us to switch to smart technology. Perhaps once the novelty wears off and manufacturers decide to price their appliances according to their customer's wallets, I will think about it."
Nevertheless, electronics retailers in the UAE have picked up on the need for smart technology and are offering several products that could make our lives easier. Niranjan Gidwani, Deputy CEO of Eros Group explains, "We have refrigerators that sense the ambient temperature and automatically adjust the cooling inside. Also available are washing machines that sense the load of the clothes and take in the required amount of water; this in turn conserves energy. We are also going to introduce a range of air conditioners that will provide smart features for improved benefits."
But how smart is smart? Are the products available in the market enough to tick all the boxes?
Jacky's Electronics stocks home appliances from brands such as LG and Samsung. They are mainly in the refrigerator, washing machine, air-conditioner, oven and vacuum cleaner segments.
"These appliances feature some artificial intelligence capabilities, wireless access as well as efficient electricity and power control," says Ashish Panjabi, COO of Jacky's Electronics. Smart technology found within the home appliances of today have limited artificial intelligence and has yet to reach its peak. This doesn't stop some people. "Sales are starting to increase and this should come as no surprise in the UAE. This has typically been a society that's been willing to try something new and high end. It's been a question of having the products available and as more manufacturers start to come out with more smart appliances, we can expect to see sales increase here," says Panjabi.
Based on customer trends, Gidwani explains that cost, at the moment, is a major deterrent for customers. He adds that high-end customers, on the other hand, have already started making the switch to smarter technologies.
Manufacturers such as LG, which is at the forefront of the smart-home technological revolution, are in agreement. Chris Jung, President of Home Appliances, LG Electronics US, says, "More and more consumers have been seeking sophisticated designs and high performance features for their home appliances."
Room for improvement
One such consumer is Lorna Brown. The Dubai-based Indian expatriate has begun to surrender to the machines after welcoming a smart TV into her home. "It's very useful, but can be better. It has several applications but a majority of them aren't too exciting or attractive and the games are rather mediocre," she says.
A few years from now we can sit back while our refrigerators and ovens discuss recipes based on our groceries while we control our washing machines through our smartphones.
Yet, there may be certain segments where smart technology may never be required. "In the UAE, we expect most of the initial sales to be in the more affluent parts of the country, especially where the freehold villas and apartment complexes are located. For people renting an apartment on a year-by-year basis, they may not be fully inclined to spend extra money on a smart appliance as it isn't as easy to move them around with you," explains Panjabi.
Despite recent developments, smart-home technology has been around for quite a while. There was an earlier ‘smart age', 12 years ago, when Sharp released a microwave that could set the temperature automatically as per recipes it sourced from the Internet.
These attempts at automated technology proved unsuccessful at the time. Perhaps the world was not ready for them. But are we ready for these changes now? Having a robot roam freely around our homes or a refrigerator that talks to us during our midnight snacks might have scared our socks off ten years ago, but seems normal now — if not required.
A study by ABI Research shows us that the high prices of smart home appliances still remain a barrier though shipments are set to exceed 24 million units in five years. This technology costs a lot more than what you would usually expect to spend. Unfortunately, not many people put a price tag on their time — which is one commodity that is in short supply nowadays.
You can now wave and talk to your TV
Wouldn't it be nice to wave your hand, say a magic word and make your remote controls disappear for good? With a new generation of gesture and voice-controlled televisions, that's exactly what may happen. Viewers can control a new line of TV sets simply by speaking or gesturing at them, eliminating the need for clunky pointing devices and opening up a range of new ways people can use and interact with their televisions.
At a giant booth built by Samsung Electronics for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, a young woman gave a demonstration of the company's new line of Smart TV sets. "Hi TV," she said, issuing the verbal command for the TV to turn on. "Channel 1034." The TV switched to a news channel. "Web browser," she continued, and the Yahoo home page popped up. Next, the attendant waved her palm at the small camera built into the top of the television, activating its gesture sensor. By moving her hand, she was able to guide a cursor around the on-screen Web page, and to "click" on links and photos by closing her fist.
With the newer controls, "you can simply use what nature gave you: your hands or your body or your voice — and that's all you need," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research.
— With inputs from New York Times News Service and Los Angeles Times