I had an immediate pandemic flashback as I looked around at the thousands of people that filled the Las Vegas Convention Center at this week’s National Association of Home Builders annual International Builders Show.
I remember asking colleagues on virtual conferences at the height of the pandemic if anyone thought we’d ever have major, mask-less conventions again. The consensus was “no way.”
Yes, way. In fact, it was rare to see many masks at the latest builder show. And I probably saw more reporters wearing masks in the press room than in any other location.
And this Builder Show was massive, just like the ones that have drawn 100,000 attendees. It featured towering exhibits that filled several exhibit halls. If you haven’t been to an IBS, think NAR Exhibit Hall but Texas style: exponentially bigger.
Why attend IBS?
Plus, every time I attend, I get two other great opportunities: to put on my journalist hat and discover and write about the new home tech on display and to meet fellow National Association of Real Estate Editors members, as NAREE typically hosts an event.
Here is what I discovered on both fronts:
Smart tech in new homes making the same mistake
In 2016, just as Amazon’s Alexa was starting to become the smart home standard, I attended IBS for a press luncheon that NAREE was hosting on Smart House technology.
I listened to several experts from the home builder tech industry, all promoting their own siloed brand of smart home tech. I couldn’t believe the disconnect. Where was the interoperability with the fastest-growing home tech at the time, Alexa?
I finally asked Andrea Medeiros from TecHome Builder, who gave an overview of what was happening in the smart house space about Alexa, as none of the technology discussed integrated with Alexa. She agreed that players like Amazon and Apple would win because “people feel like they can trust them” to be around when other tech firms go away.
To me, the home tech industry not focusing on Alexa was an obvious miss. I also wrote that it was game over for these folks in March 2016 blog post: “Digital Dawn: Amazon is creating the smart house for the rest of us.”
Guess what? These technology firms and their tech are either gone or have fully embraced Alexa and other top smart tech like Google Home.
So, this year, as I journeyed through the Startup and Next exhibits at IBS, I noticed the same unfortunate pattern. But this time, all the software firms offering builder smart tech packages were hawking their interfaces: custom smart displays. The problem was that they were all vastly different; once again, there was no standardization.
Can you imagine buying a home with this new smart tech, then learning and getting comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of the display, only to move to another home with a completely different display and dashboard?
Sure, all these systems integrate with all the smart tech standards. In fact, most boast “Alexa built-in.” However, these vastly different hubs reek of making the same mistake: thinking your tech is better, so your display should be what the consumer uses.
To me, that’s the failed vision of a lot of tech, steaming back to Betamax vs. VHS tape. Beta was a better tech, but VHS was standardized. Sony held its tech too tightly while VHS was offered by more vendors and because more popular, aided by the fact you could tape more hours. VHS became the standard.
Better technology does not automatically trump a more widely used standard, which helps it become more popular. Often, popularity counts more. Amazon Alexa and Google Hubs dominate smart house tech because they created and shared widely adoptable standards that are easy to use – and are getting even easier.
My guess is that most homeowners will set everything up with their Alexa or Home software and talk to their tech, forgoing the displays altogether. I imagine these firms are collectively investing millions in creating these displays with their proprietary software. Once again, it seems like a misstep and a missed opportunity.
Where are the innovations?
Sadly, I found very little new tech. Some of the ones that caught my eye included various garage charging stations for your new EV. I can see most new homes eventually offering these as a standard feature, not an upgrade.
I was also pleased to see the extensive use of sensors to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of home temperature control and energy use. I wrote about sensors and the future of tech in 2017, and now they are impacting our homes more and more. One example: your thermostat will know when the oven is turned on and not overact to the temperature change, which is more intelligent management of your energy use.
Energy storage systems are bringing the “grid” to the home. With solar and other alternative power sources, firms are developing advanced energy management systems that change how we think about energy consumption. In some cases, homes are creating more energy than they are using. These new grids can monitor and manage power in a whole new way.
However, on the whole, I saw a lot more iteration than innovation. Of course, iteration is vital – it makes our innovations better. But I’ve seen the smart toilets lift their lids and turn on their lights as I walked by before.
I was hoping to see something really new – like the window tech I saw at the last builder show I attended that adjusts to the sunlight like an automated tinting system to improve energy efficiency.
If something cutting edge was at this IBS, I missed it…
Except for the Tesla-ride via the Las Vegas loop that shuttled me between the convention halls. No driverless cars, but the experience was a huge time-saver. A 20+-minute walk from the North to the West Hall was accomplished in a few minutes through a cooly lit tunnel. Now that was hot tech. (See video here https://vimeo.com/wavgroup/lasvegasloop)
IBS + NAREE
What I did not miss was attending a NAREE event at IBS. It was so good to be back with a Winter event.
I’ve been a NAREE member for more than 25 years. I probably attended more than a dozen IBS shows as well. IBS draws a much different crowd of attendees and reporters covering real estate.
At IBS, I immediately bumped into perennial NAREE attendees, including Eileen McEleney Woods at the Boston Globe (Chair of NAREE), Mary Doyle Kimball, NAREE Executive Director, Ralph Bivins at Realty News Report, and Clare Trapasso, News Editor at realtor.com.
A few other NAREE members I usually see at IBS planned to attend but didn’t make it as airline groundings, and other unpreventable circumstances prevailed. NAREE Past President Lew Sichelman, current NAREE President Jason Hidalgo at the Reno Gazette-Journal, and Jeff Collins at the Orange County Register/Southern California News Group were unable to attend.
I am sure there were others, as winter storms caused a slew of cancellations. There was even snow in the Las Vegas area the day before the convention began. As a result, thousands of flights were canceled.
I arrived in Vegas from Seattle, flying my favorite airline (Alaska). It was a breeze for me. However, getting to the hotel
took longer than usual and was twice the typical fee. I later discovered I could have cut the cost of my hotel trip in half if I had used the Taxi app – Curb. I used it in New York at Inman Connect the week before but did not realize it worked in Vegas.
Pro tip: The Curb app does not have the surge pricing you’ll see on Uber or Lyft. It’s great to use as an alternative for price comparison. It works great in NYC and reasonably well in Vegas.
The highlight of IBS was the NAREE event. They hosted a reception on the High Roller Observation Wheel. The 30-minute ride included a hosted bar with a talented and personable bartender and unlimited beverages. It was a fun event and a great way to socialize and see the lights that blanket the Vegas skyline from a helicopter view.
Not long ago, I thought I might never enjoy a tight space like the High Roller capsule packed with people and no masks. I was wrong. We all enjoyed it (at least those of us not afraid of heights), proving that being face-to-face with others is something tech can’t replicate – or replace.
Now excuse me, as I must take a COVID test.