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Smarthomes are not just for the young and hip (Updated)

by Sean P. Aune | January 8, 2016January 8, 2016 8:30 am PDT

Smarthomes. Internet of Things. Whatever you want to call it, I’m not sure people are looking at this product category in the exact right light.

CES 2016 has taught me something very valuable about the world of technology: It’s not just about the young or the gear heads. This was brought into clarity for me on Tuesday evening as I toured the Pepcom event at CES. One of my first stops was at the Ooma booth. As I asked them about what was new this year, the company’s representatives told me they had worked out integration with the Amazon Echo.

ooma and echo

As I stood there listening to them describe the integration, my initial reaction was, “So what if you can answer your phone without picking up the handset? Why would I want to listen to my voice mail out loud over the Echo?” And then it all clicked at once: I hand’t thought about the elderly and people with disabilities.

Speaking from personal experience, my parents are getting older and both suffer from various disabilities. If they get a phone call and they forgot to take a handset or their cellphone with them to the couch, it’s difficult for them to get to it. Or, and I know we all used to laugh at the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials, with this new integration they would truly be able to call out for help even if no one was around. If they fall at home, they can now say out loud, “Alexa, use Ooma to call Sean,” or “Alexa, use Ooma to call 911.” There is a safety and comfort in this to not only them, but to me as a concerned family member, too.

With that happening on the first night of my week at CES, I have now wandered the entire show with a different set of eyes. As I’ve seen people making fun of some smarthome features as being “lazy,” I see them as huge helps to the elderly and disabled. A lot of people have mocked the Samsung Family Hub refrigerator because it can show you what’s inside without the door being opened. Yes, for a healthy person in their early 20s, that may seem like the height of laziness, but think of someone that has trouble standing, or maneuvering around an open door, and it can be seen in an entirely different light.

There are, however, two drawbacks to the way I’m viewing this. The first is the price. The Samsung Family Hub is $5,000, and that’s not something someone living on a fixed income can commonly afford. I totally get that and wouldn’t try to suggest otherwise. It could be a very useful feature to some people a couple of years down the road as the cost of components drop, however.

As to the second point, the potentially larger hurdle than the finances is convincing someone of their ability to set up such devices. If I didn’t go and set up the Ooma and Echo for my parents, there is about a zero percent chance they would ever do it on their own. If someone lives far away from their family or has none left, it could be difficult for them to grasp the potential uses and feel confident enough in their ability to set it up.

All of this said, there is no question some things have been made for “smarthomes” that don’t need to exist. It is impossible to throw a blanket statement out for either side of the equation. You can’t possibly say “All smarthome products will help the elderly and people with disabilities,” and you equally can’t say “All smarthome products are stupid.” I fell more in the latter camp until the other evening, but before I had even walked out of Pepcom I had ordered an Echo for my parents and will be setting it up with their Ooma for them as soon as I get home from Las Vegas.

Next time you hear of a ‘silly’ smarthome announcement, take just a second and think about the people it could potentially impact in a positive way and you may think of it in a completely different light.

Update: Since publication of this editorial Ooma has reached out to us and clarified that while the Echo can initiate a call, it can not be used as a speakerphone at this time. That is a feature they are working on, but it is not quite there yet. They apologized for the confusion.


Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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