Microsoft Plays For The Smart Home Market

Microsoft appears to be gearing up for the home automation market with its Windows-based gesture and voice recognition package Kinect.
Published: Wed 27 Aug 2014

Although Microsoft has dominated the PC market, it has lost out primarily to Android in smartphones and tablets in a market which has also seen these devices become the device of choice for applications such as home control and energy management. But is Microsoft about to have the last laugh in the smart home automation market - one similar to that in which with its Hohm application, like Google with PowerMeter, it failed to crack at the start of this decade?

Kinect for smart homes

This time Microsoft is adopting a broader angle, approaching the market with its Kinect gesture recognition device, which has been around since late 2010 in the Xbox game consoles.

In April Microsoft announced the newest version, Kinect for Windows v2 (which started shipping for app developers last month), would be available for Windows 8.1 devices such as PCs, opening up its potential for a whole range of new applications – including smart homes.

The concept at its heart is the ‘natural user interface’ (NUI), with the Holy Grail “the ability to interact with a computer using speech, gesture and touch, seamlessly and simultaneously.” At its Envisioning Centre on the Redmond campus the company is working towards this goal with demos exploring the impact of technologies on lifestyles five to 10 years into the future.

“Just as Kinect for Windows sensors are everywhere, from walls to oven hoods, at the Envisioning Center, the team is working to bring NUI advances across Microsoft,” said Michael Mott, general manager of Xbox Apps and the Developer Ecosystem, in a Microsoft news feature.

In a recent interview with SlashGear, Mott suggested that home automation could be one of several potential killer apps for Kinect.

“With more devices that are now aware and controllable through software – and we’re doing it with the Internet of Things here at Microsoft – developers will be able to plug into that ecosystem,” Mott said. “So, with the hue lights for example, there’s no reason why you can’t just be sitting down and say “dim the lights.” Or say, “hue, match my mood” and hold up the color of your drink, so you want your mood to go Mai Tai that night. So that’s more in the way of “Hey, I’m engaged but I’m just controlling the environment.””

Support for home automation startups

Taking its interest in the home automation market a step further, the company’s startup support arm Microsoft Ventures, in a partnership with American Family Insurance, is to provide an accelerator for 10 market startups in the fall.

The company’s  stated goal: to help a new generation of companies create smarter and safer homes. The startups will receive “the mentorship, tools and connections they need to accelerate business growth.”

The 10 participating companies announced recently, notably covering a range of applications, are:

● Chai Energy, which delivers real-time energy understanding from the whole house to individual appliances.

● Heatworks, which claims to be the world's first fully electronic, connected, water heater that conserves water and energy in any application.

● Neura, which creates intuitive and intelligent experiences between users and their connected environments – devices gain contextual awareness and adaptive learning capabilities required for today’s developing physical internet.

● Novi Security, a portable smart-security system to seamlessly track activities across the home.

● Reemo, a wrist-worn, gesture control wearable, interoperable interface for both conventional appliances and more recent connected homes.

● Plum, Wi-Fi enabled light-pads, smart plugs and outlets that let the users control lights and electronics from a wall switch or from anywhere in the world using a smart phone.

● Red Balloon Security, a ubiquitous host-based defense for embedded devices.

● Scanalytics, a centerpiece for understanding consumer behaviour in the offline world.

● Sentri, whose HD camera and built-in sensors monitor the home's vital stats and trends, allowing users to track temperature, humidity, air quality, weather and more.

● Wallflowr, a connected home technology that helps consumers prevent and significantly reduce risks related to accidental fires caused by ranges, stoves and ovens.

Through these companies Kinect potentially could start appearing in the home automation market in different applications in as little as a few months.

Further reading

Kinect in focus: Xbox’s app chief talks Smart Homes & Cortana

Kinect for Windows and large Perceptive Pixel displays unlock futuristic scenarios