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March 30, 2017

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Smart living finds a home in the digital age

“SMARTENING up” one’s home used to mean buying a new sofa or installing air conditioning. No more. Today’s “smart” home is much more sophisticated, with air purifiers that also catch mosquitoes, voice-controlled fans and electric rice cookers made of natural clay.

The digital revolution has evolved beyond computers and phones. It is now entering the threshold of our homes, promising a whole new way of defining lifestyle.

The younger generation, unlike its more price-conscious predecessors, is willing to splash out for the latest home gadgetry that promised safer, healthier and easier living.

Security, ecosystem-based services, artificial intelligence and personalized entertainment are forecast to become the hot new trends this year in China’s smart home industry, according to US-based research firm International Data Corp (IDC).

“The real driving force for the development of the smart home will come through connecting devices to provide users with ecosystem of services,” said Jin Di, research manager at IDC China.

Pointing to that future was last year’s takeover of Japan-based Sharp Corp by Taiwan’s Foxconn in a US$3.8 billion deal.

The next-generation of smart home appliance devices should offer people clean air and water, a comfortable home environment and the feeling of safety, according to Foxconn, the world’s biggest maker of made-to-order electronics. That can be achieved by technologies integrating and connecting different home devices, such as digital entertainment, the company said.

Foxconn produces more than 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics, including iPhones and iPads. The combination of Foxconn’s strong, low-cost manufacturing base and Sharp’s design and brand profile will lead to sales of 300,000 Sharp air purifiers in China this year, said Freddie Yuan, chief marketing officer of Foxconn.

The highlight of Sharp’s air purifier series is a unit that can catch mosquitoes. The first of its kind in the world, the purifier’s starting price is 1,999 yuan (US$290).

The product tackles two everyday headaches of modern urban life: polluted air and insects. The unit’s HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter is capable of trapping air particulates as small as 2.5 microns (PM2.5). The device also has a specially designed glue trap that uses ultraviolet light to attract and ensnare mosquitoes. No chemicals are used, which makes the purifier especially welcome in homes with elderly residents or young children.

Personalized gadgets

To succeed in the smart home market, manufacturers need to come up with products that offer personalized services and can be geared to a family’s lifestyle habits.

Guangdong-based firm Enaiter created China-clay rice cookers to try to encourage more people “to stay at home for family dinners,” said Yang Guangliang, Enaiter’s chairman.

The cooker is made with special red clay, giving rice a unique and natural taste different from cookers made with metals, the company said. Enaiter is also developing Wi-Fi connected rice cookers and other appliances with artificial intelligence features that can draw on a database of recipes.

Cooking appliances of all sorts constitute a 30 billion yuan market a year in China, creating huge potentials for companies that come up with innovative ideas.

At a recent home appliances show in Shanghai, Shenzhen-based AirMate showcased a fan that can be controlled by voice commands. The company is also among the first in China with products supporting Apple’s HomeKit services, which allow users to control home devices by iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch.

It’s all part of the Internet of Things — that emerging realm of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data and to interconnect wirelessly.

The Internet of Things market in China is expected to grow at about 13 percent annually to a value of US$361 billion by 2020.

Smart home products have already begun using artificial intelligence. In the future, image and voice recognition technology will be able to correctly interpreting images in real time, said IDC.

China is drafting a national blueprint for the development of artificial intelligence. It is expected to be released soon.

The technology is expected to play important roles in economic efficiency, social development, environmental protection and national security, said Wan Gang, minister of science and technology.

Artificial Intelligence will create 25 million to 50 million new jobs in the next decade globally as it exerts increasing influence over manufacturing, finance and smart home sectors in China, investment bank UBS said recently.

In overseas markets, Amazon’s Echo, a home appliance device with artificial intelligence features, can connect with more than 7,000 different apps and services, greatly enhancing entertainment options available in the smart home.

Liu Qingfeng, chairman of IFlytek, China’s biggest voice-recognition company, has urged mainland authorities to establish a nation-level artificial intelligence lab and an industrial alliance to hasten development.

He pointed to an industrial alliance founded in the United States by Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, Amazon and other major players.

Aside from IFlytek, the top-tier names in the industry in China include Baidu, Huawei and Xiaomi.

IDC said a wide gap still exists between smart home technology applications and scenario-based services. The market needs more research and development to improve the functionality of the future smart home.


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