First look at the Target Open House

By: Shane Miller

For anyone interested in the connected home space, the recent Target Open House endeavor probably struck you as a must-see for 2015. Housed within the Metreon shopping center in downtown San Francisco, this 3,500 sq ft space opened on July 10th as Target’s official foray into the connected home space. Target coined it “part retail space, part lab, part meeting venue for the connected home tech community,” and the sentiment is clear once you walk in through the 4th Street entrance. Posted next to a five-foot plastic model of their famous dog, Spot, the wall reads, “…where people meet and products talk to each other. Come in, see who’s here. Explore, shop and join the conversations.”

I was able to finagle a trip with my wife two days after its opening to see just how Target was going to execute this wild endeavor. Walking into the store, one can’t help but notice the Apple-inspired simplicity of the space. The term “acrylic chic” came to mind as I peered through the semi-transparent walls, doors, and cabinets.

The space is divided into several rooms intended to represent your average, albeit plastic, home. The minimalistic approach did yield an obvious observation — the store could easily accommodate three times the products and still leave ample white space for kitschy phrases and animated graphics. Top selling products and their corresponding prices are projected on the wall to reemphasize that the products are, in fact, for sale right now. During my visit, Tile was listed as the top selling product, followed by PetNet and iGrill.

What stood out?

The connected home market is heating up quickly and retailers are scrambling to figure out the best approach for making a splash in the market. Target claims approximately 50 vendors are represented in the Open House. Some of the players are the typical big names: GE, Nest, and Chamberlain. In contrast, the majority of the companies present were much smaller ventures that are less known to consumers. One line of devices was noticeably absent — anything marked as HomeKit compatible. Apple’s minimal lineup of HomeKit-supported devices on the market is not helping Apple make use of they hype surrounding HomeKit at WWDC this year. Interestingly enough, the rep indicated that the move to not carry HomeKit in the Target Open House was intentional, noting they “ want to avoid being locked down to a specific manufacturer.”

Target is taking the connected home market seriously, and they should. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be involved in this rapidly growing field with some estimates indicating a $235 billion global market by 2016. Connected home devices are undoubtedly improving, but the myriad of device manufacturers vying for early adopter dominance are muddying the waters.

What was lacking?

Cohesiveness. Seamlessness. A story. The top-ten selling items spanned much more than connected home. From finding your lost keys to a connected basketball, it seemed more like a retail space for connected devices across the board. The randomly placed, non-functional, non-connected faux motorcycle parked near the children’s room confirmed my wife’s sentiment that it was a real life Skymall.

Even in the minimally appointed, acrylic home, everything felt a tad disjointed. However, that is not Target’s fault. There are a lot of fascinating concepts in the store, but there is a distinct lack of cohesiveness and actual connectedness. I actually believe they did a great job organizing a venue in a complicated space where numerous big (and small) players want to be the “go to” for home automation products. Basic things like terminology are still very loose. Some products “work with Nest” while others “connect with Nest.” Petty as it may be, it is enough to confuse some of the millions of potential customers purchasing their first connected device.

What did I buy?

Nothing — and I’m not ashamed to say that. As an avid fan and consumer of items in the connected home space, I’m also a skeptic. I fall in that area right between early adopter and early majority.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t want any of the products. I just didn’t have it in me to purchase three Hue lightbulbs for $199. While I think the idea of a changing the color of light bulbs throughout the house is remarkable, my wife fears the repercussions of giving me such power. Romantic dinner to dance party at the flip of a switch. That, and it would cost over $1,000 just to outfit our living room. The technology is there, but we need prices and the gimmick-factor to drop before items like these become mainstream.

Strangely, it was the connected pet collar Whistle that caught my attention. I venture to say this doesn’t fall within the connected home, but Whistle — a FitBit for dogs — has the potential to lure dog owners into tracking their pet’s daily activity through the use of a clean looking device attached to a your dog’s collar. However, when it came time to actually purchasing one, I thought to myself, “Do I really need a device that guilts me into playing fetch with my pup?” No, I decided my dog’s loving, yet judgmental eyes do the trick.

What concerns me?

Remote home access stirred up the biggest conversation of the day. Devices such as the August lock and Chamberlain MyQ garage door opener, while fascinating, open up the door (pun intended) to a series of safety and security concerns that neither my wife nor are comfortable with yet. The balance between the pros and cons of remote home access will place me and my wife well on the laggard side of adoption, an issue only exacerbated by what was written on the wall above one of the locking devices, “No intruder can outsmart a smart home.” The overconfidence exhibited in that statement proved to me that it’s too early to trust smart home devices to control access into my home. When an intruder inevitably outsmarts a smart home, there will be some serious explaining to do. I just don’t want to be privy to it.

Another key concern is notification overload. Everyone wants to notify you. From your pet’s activity habits to reminders about filling the coffee machine before you go to bed. This is one area where we need to see the connected home turn into the smart home.

Untangling the compatibility matrix (works with / made for) will likely be the biggest problem in the near future. Consumers don’t want numerous apps for numerous devices. This is where the connected home community of vendors, application developers, and device manufacturers need to make sure they don’t become their own worst enemy.

Where do we go from here?

The connected home market is trending in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go. Early adopters will revel in the ability to connect with their crockpot, BBQs, and other miscellaneous devices. Whether or not that is useful, or technically a “connected home” is another question. There’s work to be done to exit the gimmick phase. A recent report from iControl eloquently states the problem: “a typical family home could contain more than 500 smart devices by 2022, but right now, most consumers see smart home as a nebulous term without a clear value proposition.”

Overall, companies are moving from a single app to control individual devices to pairs of devices tied to a single app. Thermostat + 1 (lock or camera) is a common pairing. Hopefully, this will continue to happen. We in the industry need to seek simplicity in a market that has missed the mark for decades. It is clearly evident that the key to the smart home resides within the experience needed to weave the devices together — a feat that no single hardware manufacturer can tackle.

Kudos to Target for taking this leap. The decision to invest a sizable amount of money and resources for the mile-wide Target Open House approach is a risky but potentially lucrative one.


Originally published at www.mutualmobile.com on August 19, 2015.