Taking The IoT Home Beyond Four Walls And A Roof
IOTAS learns your preferences and lets you take them with you when you move
The idea of a smart home is an appealing one. Light switches that turn on and off when you enter or leave a room, or heating that knows what time you’ll be home and warms the house for your arrival. At the same time that these features are becoming more common, only 35 percent of millennials own their own home, leaving a sizable gap in the market for a smart home system that appeals to a generation of renters. Enter IOTAS, a Portland-based startup that lets apartment-dwellers enjoy these same perks. The company’s platform gives renters in IOTAS-enabled apartments a unique profile that keeps track of and learns their preferences. These “stories,” as the company calls them, can then be taken with renters as they move to other properties with the same system.
IOTAS works with up to 30 devices per unit, and enables renters or property managers to control utilities via a mobile app. The software also works with third-party devices from the likes of Nest, Google, Amazon, and more.
IOTAS is now in hundreds of apartments in Portland and San Fransisco, with more projects in the works in cities across the country, including Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Costa Mesa and Omaha. As the company continues to expand, we sat down with Sce Pike, IOTAS founder and CEO, and discussed how IoT is changing the way people think about the idea of home.
IOTAS stands for Internet of Things as Service. How are you expanding IoT into people’s homes?
I fundamentally believe that the way IoT is going to have to happen is it’s going to require connectivity. What’s the point of an Internet of Things if those things are not connected—if they’re just siloed things? If you don’t have that scale, which is what the Internet of Things is supposed to be, it’s just not interesting. That’s why we decided to go after multifamily homes, because the floor plans are smaller and very similar. It’s very much a cookie-cutter approach, where we can create software for [an apartment] that would automate what we call ‘stories,’ like a ‘welcome-home’ story, or an ‘out-for-the-day’ story. That’s where it becomes really interesting, to be able to essentially copy and paste your stories from one apartment to another. That’s why we decided to go after the multifamily home, and why we’re focused on how to scale IoT.
Is IOTAS only in new constructions or are you deploying into existing buildings as well?
We actually prefer the retrofit market, mainly because there’s a much larger volume. There’s actually no difference in installing our system into a retrofit or a new construction. We go in and change out 100 percent of the light switches, 80 percent of the outlets. We place sensors throughout, like open/close door sensors, temperature, humidity, and motion sensors. We change out the thermostat, and we’ll change out the locks if requested. The reason why we do that is because we’re trying to get data off of the complete home. If the whole apartment is not smart, it doesn’t make sense to us, because then it’s not a smart apartment, it’s just a few connected things inside your apartment.
Any examples of how that might work?
If the apartment knows, for example, that you plug in your phone at night, and that that’s the last thing you do before you go to bed, then it might be able to send out a message on Facebook to your girlfriend or boyfriend saying, “Hey, good night. I love you. I’m going to bed.” You couldn’t do that unless you had full coverage of your apartment. For us, the notion of home is not four walls and a roof anymore. It’s really your interactions with the apartment. That home follows you from home to home, home to hotel, home to car, home to work. All your preferences and settings theoretically should follow you to another environment. That’s why we’re covering the entire apartment versus just a few devices here and there, because we really want to digitize the physical space.
Why do people want these features?
Comfort and convenience. I know security comes up as being very high in the single-family home market, but in a high rise, or where it’s a gated community, or the entry to that building is already pretty secure, we have not found security to be the number one reason why people like what we do. We found that the reasons—from a resident’s perspective—are the comfort and convenience. And it should be that way. That’s the kind of response we get. It’s like, “Why is my apartment not already smart?” It should be a given and a part of the home’s fabric.
One of your biggest demographics is millennials. Why this group?
So much of the millennial population is living in apartments. The whole trend is towards urbanization and city living, so the demand is quite large. That also means [millennials] would never walk into a Home Depot or a Lowe’s to buy smart home kits, because they don’t need to walk into Home Depot or Lowe’s. That’s why they’re renting. When we looked at how many millennial are renters, and saw how many renters move out within one year—50 percent—we didn’t understand why they would buy a lot of stuff, install it, set it up, then when they move six or 12 months later, uninstall it, pack it, move it, and reinstall it. It’s like asking them to have a huge collection of CDs that they would move every six to 12 months. This is why Spotify and other streaming services have been taking off. It’s more about access to value. We looked at that, and looked at the single-family home market, and said that’s probably not where this is going to play out.
What are the differences then between doing what you do in an apartment versus a single-family home?
Single-family homes are very hard because of the amount of customer acquisition you have to do, the marketing that you have to do. It’s the wrong target market. Multifamily homes give us scale. We’re actually going after the entire portfolio of multifamily housing of particular developers. Large developers that have 50,000 doors or more. With single-family homes you can’t get thousands of homes at once with one offer. That’s what we’re after—the scale, the volume, and also ease of deployment. With single-family home there’s so many variables that we couldn’t easily get IOTAS to work. In apartments, we have a floor plan view, and users can tell exactly where everything’s at. As soon as things are put into the walls, it gets paired with the technology.
What sort of impact does this technology have on the behaviors of the inhabitants in these apartments?
We had one resident who has a good night story where everything shuts off behind her. She’s in a two-story town house. When she goes into the bedroom everything shuts off. One night her IOTAS hub didn’t work, and the story didn’t fire. She said that she literally had to retrain her brain for a minute to think about where the kitchen lights were because she got so used to it turning on and off for her automatically. That was something that we found interesting, that hopefully in the future, kids might not know how to use a light switch because they don’t ever have to interact with it.
How exactly does IOTAS monitor your habits, and how does it actually learn what preferences you have?
It’s typical machine learning. We know where everything is at so we can put it into a story immediately for you. There’s 10 default stories they can run right out of the box at move-in, and they can control everything. If [IOTAS] recognizes that you go to the bathroom at 7 a.m. and turn on your radio every time you go into the bathroom, we could suggest, “Hey, do you want to alter your good morning story to add the radio?” If you say yes, then we would add putting on the radio to the good morning story, where maybe your coffeemaker also turns on, and it turns on your lights for you. If you say no, then [IOTAS] would slow down its assessment and not offer up so many suggestions.
Are there any other benefits to IOTAS, outside of the convenience?
Because we’re doing energy monitoring, and because we control every outlet, plug, and switch—anything that’s plugged in and switched on—we can see that. IOTAS can see that you switched on the coffee machine and have used it 25 times. After using it that many times, you might be running low on coffee filters, so IOTAS could suggest, “Do you want to purchase coffee filters from Amazon, Target, Wal-Mart?” Whoever it is, we don’t care. But that’s how we think about what digitizing a physical environment is. It’s all about your choices and whether or not you want us to alert you to certain things. Whatever it is that you normally do, we would watch that pattern for a while and then offer up suggestions. There is also a huge environmental component to what we’re doing. We hope to help save energy from a resident’s perspective, as well as from the building owner’s perspective. We’re testing that right now. We predict that we’ll see 10 to 12 percent in energy savings on average, because we’re controlling the thermostat. We’re controlling every outlet, every light switch, the HVAC system.
How does IOTAS work with the myriad of connected devices out on the market? Does it enhance the user’s experience?
We’re completely hardware-agnostic. We’re partnered with Honeywell, with Nest. What we do is give context to hardware like Google Home or Amazon Alexa, and whoever else comes out, like Comcast’s XFINITY Home, or Microsoft’s Cortana. That’s where we fit within the entire vertical of smart home technology. For us, we’re happy to play that role and to give Alexa something to do when it comes into an apartment. Without our presence there, Alexa’s still a great speaker, great at playing music, but with our presence, Alexa has a lot more things to control and do.
Obviously IOTAS is collecting a lot of data when it’s learning your habits. In terms of monetization, do you guys do anything with that data at all?
Right now we’re not doing anything with the data. If we did decide to do anything with the data, we’d be completely transparent about that choice, and actually do a web share back to the users. I’m a strong believer that if we can create income through this mechanism for any of our residents, we want to try.
How much interest is there in the development community in bringing smart features to apartments? Do they see it as a positive selling point?
They do. We get three to four inbound calls a day from real estate developers all over the United States, as well as internationally, who want to license our technology overseas. But we’re squarely focused on the United States and Canada right now. The real estate industry is a huge, huge market that nobody’s really thought about. Everybody has turned over and are trying to disrupt healthcare through connected healthcare. They’re trying to disrupt autos through connected cars. I think real estate tech will be the next industry that gets disrupted with technology.
How do you see that disruption playing out? It seems there’s a lot of innovation around IoT in the home these days.
To us, we believe that smart homes will be the consumer IoT battleground, where lots of standardization happens in the smart home space that then translates to other IoT battlegrounds, whether it’s cars, drones, whatever. All the protocols that may get standardized in the consumer smart home space will translate everywhere else. We think that it’s important to develop in this space, but doing it at scale and doing it with forethought of what it means to bring in smart devices that are collecting data. How do you protect that? How do you make it so that if it is being monetized in any way, that the people who are getting monetized are the ones who reap the most benefits from it, monetarily? When you asked about the privacy and data collection that we’re doing, we want to be very cognizant of that, that the home is a sacred space. We want to respect that. At the same time, we want to understand how we could help protect [your data] and also make that something that is not necessarily tied to a place, but something that could travel with you.
What does the future of the home look like to you? How does IOTAS fit into that?
Home is your most sacred space. It’s this place where you’re supposed to feel safe, and secure, and free to be yourself. To me, the future of the home is not a physical place. It’s a home that follows you, knows you, interacts with you—and that is something that is not too far off. If you have a certain way that you want that home environment to react to you when you walk in the door, or go to bed, or wake up—it should know that. And [your preferences] should translate to, say, an Airbnb, or a hotel, or even to your office or a car to some extent. If you want to really get out there, the home of the future could be where you come back to a particular physical space and it can recognize you and give you a history of your interaction with that physical space. If you go back to your parents’ home after being away from college, maybe it could give you a recap of what your life has been like there.