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Ikea previews its improved 2020 smart home experience

But can it get the software right?

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Now that the smart home is no longer just a hobby for Ikea, it’s addressing two of Home Smart’s biggest shortcomings: it lacks some of the basic features required to make homes truly smart, and the platform can be buggy and confusing to set up. The first issue will be addressed with the introduction of scenes and new Shortcut Buttons, and the second by a complete overhaul of the onboarding procedure, which is the way Ikea blinds, lights, and accessories are added to the Home Smart network.

Ikea demonstrated both solutions exclusively to The Verge at the company’s headquarters in Sweden.

Rumors of scenes began in October after a Federal Communications Commission filing leaked plans for the Ikea smart buttons. A scene is defined as a set of event-driven (leaving home, having dinner, etc.) commands that are issued simultaneously to multiple devices.

The Shortcut Buttons can display a variety of pictogram inserts.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

The Shortcut Buttons can be assigned to one specific scene at a time, and they will cost about $7 each. They’re scheduled to begin shipping in February with a selection of pictograms that slide beneath a translucent cover to help identify each button’s function. (You’ll also be able to draw your own.) The buttons are designed to sit on tables or attach to walls (by screw, magnet, or adhesive strip) where a single push can initiate a scene. Scenes are created in the Home Smart app. A “TV Time” button could, for example, lower the Fyrtur blinds, crank up the Symfonisk speaker, power on a fan, and dim the living room lights.

The buttons are a simple solution for guests to control your home, or for young children who don’t have access to a smartphone. They’re also good for rooms where you might not want an always-listening speaker. Place a “Good night” button next to the bed to turn off all of the lights and music in your home without shouting a command or launching an app. A second button could begin playing your favorite Spotify playlist at just the right volume.

“We’d like to go beyond the resident geek of the home and invite more people in,” says Bilgi Karan, who’s responsible for the Home Smart user experience. “Physical interfaces are a fantastic way of doing that.”

Karan demonstrated a variety of pre-production Shortcut Buttons and scenes linked to a large sampling of Home Smart products. Everything worked as expected. The scenes can also be controlled via a new interface coming to the Home Smart app.

Alpha Home Smart app showing new scene controls along the top.

The second change is an overhaul to the way devices are added to the Zigbee-based Home Smart network. Today, onboarding new Home Smart products like blinds, lights, and dimmers can be tricky at the best of times and downright infuriating at the worst. The software is buggy, and the instructions for how to do it are confusing or just plain wrong. (Ikea’s Symfonisk speakers are onboarded through a procedure developed by Sonos.)

The problem stems, at least partially, from the way the system was designed, based on assumptions for how it would be used and by whom. “Our customers are quite new to gadgets, they are not techie nerds,” says Johanna Nordell, business leader for Home Smart hardware. Ikea expects first-time buyers to start off with simple kits. One such kit consists of a motion sensor and pre-paired lightbulb that can automatically illuminate a stairwell as you approach it, for example. The Control outlet kit includes a wireless switch that can turn a table lamp on and off without you needing to get up from the couch. None of these require the $35 Trådfri Gateway or Home Smart app. Those are required for advanced operations, which is where all of the issues begin.

The Trådfri Gateway is required for Ikea blinds, lights, and speakers to interact and to control them via scenes, timers, the Home Smart and Sonos apps, or the Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant voice assistants. Right now, onboarding devices like blinds and lights is counterintuitive because you don’t add them directly to the Gateway. Instead, they’re added by proxy via so-called “steering devices” like dimmers, switches, and motion sensors. Ikea thought that this approach would be easier for people migrating kits to the Gateway. It’s not; it’s confusing for everybody.

“When it comes to migrating pre-paired kits onto a Gateway system, we know that there are certain things that don’t necessarily work the way that they are intended to in the beginning. So we’re working really hard to address some of those,” says Karan. “We know that the stability of the system and the onboarding of the devices to the Gateway are the two biggest things that we need to tackle. And we’re doing that. I can tell you that a very big portion of my day is spent working with those.”

Bilgi Karan with a selection of Home Smart products controlled by Shortcut Buttons. (The Gateway is in the middle.)

Karan then demonstrated the new onboarding process. It was the first time Ikea had shown it to anyone outside the company. No cameras were allowed to film the unfinished software communicating with unreleased hardware.

The demo worked. Adding the bulb directly to the Gateway was easy, intuitive, and fast. Ikea asked me not to divulge the steps as the details could change before the global rollout begins in 2020. Nevertheless, the new onboarding process will eventually come to every Home Smart light, blind, outlet, sensor, dimmer, switch, and accessory ever sold via a firmware update (when connected to a Gateway).

Ikea won’t commit to exact timings on the new onboarding process. However, I can say that scenes and the Shortcut Buttons are further along than the new onboarding procedure.

I also saw a preview of the clever new onboarding instructions that would augment the static pictograms and walls of text found in the Home Smart app and Ikea’s printed manuals. The wireframe animations being considered could help reduce confusion if displayed in the app during setup.

It’s all very promising. But what Ikea showed me were controlled demonstrations at its headquarters in Älmhult, Sweden, far from the real world. And so far, software hasn’t been an area of strength for the world’s largest furniture retailer. Still, there’s reason to be optimistic now that the Ikea machinery is fully aligned behind Home Smart, treating it with the same priority as its Living Room, Bedroom, Kitchen, and all of the other businesses that have come to define the company.

If it fails to improve the Home Smart experience now, Ikea will be all out of excuses.

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