Special Report: Robots in Real Estate

Mike Simonsen, a good friend of mine and founder of Altos Research, recently hosted a great conversation about robots on his Facebook timeline. “In an effort to usher in the age of our robot overlords, I got a Roomba.”

We’ve all seen the Roomba. It’s that little robot vacuum cleaner that cleans your house while you’re at work. They can be quite effective…most of the time. Mike relates, “In today’s episode, the thing literally ejected its dustbin on one side of the bed and then meandered across the room, to absolutely devour a Mac power cord, where it lay, choking on its gluttony, until I finally discovered it this evening.”


A picture of a Roomba vacuum that has eaten a computer power cord

A hungry robot meets an unsuspecting power cord. Photo by Mike Simonsen


Robots are still pretty far from perfect, and even farther from becoming our “overlords,” but they have been getting more and more effective over time. Robots are often described as a piece of machinery that can be programmed by a computer to perform a complex set of actions. In the past, robots have been able to automate many process jobs where the actions to be performed are repeatable. However, with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots are poised to impact many autonomous jobs, including many occupations in the real estate industry.

This report explores how advances in key technologies related to robots could impact the process of searching for a home.

Who is this report for?
While predicting what might happen in the future will always require some level of imagination, the impact of robots on the home search process will effect brokers, real estate agents, and any company buying, selling, or distributing Internet leads.

How can I get this report? You can download it here. (NOTE: We ask that if you are going to share the report, rather than mailing the pdf, you provide the link. Thanks!)

#011-Things Thursday: Which voice to use & what smart cities mean for you

A man working with one of the first televisions. The screen is about 3" inches big.

CE-Yes or CE-No? Some of the stuff was pretty head scratching at CES this year. Engadget gives you the scoop on the baddies.

In this week’s Things Thursday, we look at the pros and cons of the Amazon Echo and Google Home, as well as what makes a smart city valuable and who were the let downs at CES. Oh, speaking of CES, tomorrow our own Dave Conroy will give you a download of his findings at CES during our Facebook Live Office Hours at the NEW TIME of 3p EST!!!

  1. 5 key books to put on your reading list to understand IoT (via ReadWrite)
    The space is moving fast and there are a lot of challenges around IoT. This list is has a good mix of what’s happening, what’s coming and what you need to look out for. These will be in CRT’s library for sure.
  2. How a Smart City Tackles Rainfall (via Data-Smart City Solutions)
    Smart city data will become one of those components that will transform real estate. We will know more about how we’re living and that will go a long way to impact how people feel about properties, how we develop and impact decisions on where to live. One way we can get ahead of this is by seeing what’s out there and better understanding the technology and the opportunities and challenges it presents. One of the larger efforts happening in this arena is right here in Chicago. The Array of Things is coming online and this article talks about how it is already helping city planners think about how they tackle issues like stormwater runoff. Creating a green infrastructure is happening all over the world and smart city initiatives like the Array of Things will most likely lend to an increase in this trend. This is a good read.
  3. CES 2017: How the tiny Intel Compute Card could revolutionize IoT device management (via TechRepublic)
    This idea makes sense to me. It’s in line with how the Array of Things (above) is looking ot operate. Hot-swappable hardware that can be upgraded on the fly. Intel’s version is a credit-card sized computer that can be removed and upgraded in the future, thus helping with the cycle of security and maintenance updates needed for devices. This is a great step in getting there. Still, if you have a ton of devices with these in them, it could become costly and onerous to manually move and update…but then again, you’d need to install new equipment anyway. You see my problem? I’m never happy. Kudos to Intel for thinking in this way. Let’s see if others follow this modular approach.
  4. Wading through the Internet of Crap (via Engadget)
    I kind of wish Engadget would stop pulling punches with these unclear headlines. 😉 – Seriously, they’ve got some opinions. There were a lot of head scratchers at CES and I agree with the list pretty much down the line. They quote Nick Offerman – ‘sometimes the best tech is low-tech’. I agree. Tomorrow, our own Dave Conroy will give you a download of his findings at CES during our Facebook Live Office Hours at the NEW TIME of 3p EST!!!
  5. Part A: What can Amazon Echo do that Google Home can’t? (via The Real Daily)
    Part A is a very good overview of the benefits of the Amazon Echo over the Google Home. For fair comparison, only the Echo and Home were compared and not the cheaper Echo Dot because there is no Google Home equivalent. Great and fair comparison. Echo currently leads in smarthome integrations, but my opinion is this is temporary. A huge puzzler for me is how well Google Calendar works with the Amazon Echo, but not with Google Home. Not sure how Google missed that…
    Part B: What can Google Home do that Amazon Echo can’t? (via The Real Daily)Part B looks at where Google Home shines. It doesn’t shine in an existential debate with itself, that’s for sure. For me? I like the speaker better and it seems the voice search capabilities are MUCH better. Of course, Amazon doesn’t have 18 years of web search history to train its voice assistant either. To me, Google seems the more natural to communicate with of the two by way of functionality. In fact, my parents, who are typically pretty technophobic, bought one after visiting my house for the holidays and using one. I would say definitely read these companion pieces and decide which fits your needs better. On a side note, either one of these devices would make a GREAT CLOSING GIFT!!!!

That’s all for Things Thursday this week. Have questions? Want us to cover something? Let us know. You can follow us on Twitter @crtlabs or Facebook.

CRT Labs Predicts: 2017 Edition

UPDATE: We weigh in with how accurate our predictions were in MORE HITS THAN MISSES: WE REVIEW OUR PREDICTIONS FOR 2017.

With CES coming up this week, there is bound to be a lot of talk about the future of technology on all your favorite blogs. Here in the lab, we decided to give a stab at what we see happening in 2017 in smart homes, renewable energy, and more!


Now that Google Home has hit the ground running, I predict this year the company will integrate its popular home assistant into their mesh network platform, Google Wifi. Each router will act a lot like an Amazon Echo Dot, but bring in the added mesh networking capabilities. Right now, a 3-pack of the routers costs $299, with additional units costing $129 (the same as a Google Home); however, I believe the company will introduce a smaller router, without the ethernet ports and with tiny speakers, at around $69 to compete with the $49.99 Echo Dot. Google’s goal is to get an assistant in every room in order to control your smart home. They’ve already pulled ahead of Amazon with their multi-room support, which not only has intelligent voice detection to allow you to only interact with the Google Home closest to you but also allows you to control playback on other Google audio devices in other rooms. Of course, for Google to control your whole home, they’ll need to expand compatibility, but since their API opened to the public at the end of 2016, both third party and native support for devices will be coming in 2017.

After solar shingles, there will be solar siding and solar window offerings for traditional consumers. This would mean that homes wouldn’t need consistent direct sunlight to harvest energy. Homes in traditionally less-sunny places could harvest solar as effectively as homes in the southwest. Home energy battery storage will make this an even more viable option as batteries look less and less like batteries and more like traditional appliances. Cities will also begin implementing systems that aren’t one type of energy harvesting. Solar, wind and hydropower will take great steps to become prominent in large and small cities. Cities will find creative ways to gather energy from these three methods that are both practical and aren’t highly visible. Portland is already generating hydropower using its water mains. Expect smaller form factors in all three areas for ancillary energy harvesting. Solar sunflowers and wind trees are examples we may see deployed on boulevards and parks in 2017. 

In the managed smart home arena, we’ll see the telecommunications companies continue to grow in importance, and many of the “closed” managed smart home systems will loosen some of their restrictions, allowing consumers to bring their own devices. In order to secure the increasing number of internet-connected devices, the government will get involved in encryption and security requirements. Open-source software will continue to be incredibly important. Open-source distributed ledger applications such as Hyperledger and Corda will be among the first widely-used Blockchain apps, and open-source tools will also become increasingly important to journalists and citizen activists. Voice control, artificial intelligence, and deep machine learning will continue to redefine our relationship with devices, and self-driving trucks will disrupt the trucking industry (with cars and busses not too far behind). Monitoring the health of your home – CO2, energy efficiency, VOC, and water contamination – will see a rise in importance as rising CO2 levels and water contamination continue to make news.

I predict we have not seen the end of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks caused by consumer grade IoT devices. In fact, I feel it is possible we will see a large scale event in 2017 that would cause the disruption of legitimate internet traffic in the United States for up to 24 hours. As we covered in our Insecurity of Things blog series last October, it only takes a few dozen hardware manufacturers to not follow best practices to leave over a half million devices vulnerable to hijacking.  With these manufactures already facing heavy competition and slim profits margins, coupled with the influx of new startups rushing to into the space – security and privacy are not given the priority they deserve. Part of our mission here at CRT labs is to educate REALTORS® and consumers about these issues, and it is very promising to see both parties starting to prioritize them when they are deciding what devices to put in their homes. However, until the hardware vendors start taking on the responsibility, there is still a significant risk for large scale attacks.For more information about best practices and how you can keep your devices secure, please visit one of our partner organizations – the Online Trust Alliance.

In 2017 we’re likely to see an increase in the tension between our public and private identities. On the one hand, declaring exactly who we are — and where we are, and when we are there — is an essential part of customizing many user experiences. Concerns about surveillance, though, are prompting more people to use (or at least start asking about) Tor browsers, personal VPNs, and other tools that provide increased security and anonymity. Balancing the demands of both openness and privacy will be a huge story in 2017. (To learn more about Americans and their views on surveillance, visit the Pew Research Center.)

What Will Be Your Homeownership Score?- IoT as a Metric

A bottom of a log exposed to show tree rings with a pixelated version overlayed to give the sense of a digital tree ring

What if data from how you lived in a home were like rings in a tree?

This past fall, I was on a panel at the RESO Conference in Nashville where we were discussing the impact of technology on the future and what it would mean for real estate. There was a lot of discussion around the internet of things, privacy and security and this led me to talk about how this data could be used in the near future.

I’d been thinking about something in particular with respect to the internet of things and data privacy for a bit. There is a lot of good that the data from these things can teach us. There are also a lot of challenges around this data too. For example:

  • Who owns the data?
  • What do the terms of service allow the device manufacturer to do with your data?
  • How do you make sure your data are deleted from these devices?

These are just a few of the questions, but they’re not the one that I’ve been wondering about. The one that keeps me thinking is ‘Will smart home data become the new currency of homeownership?’ Will metrics like average CO2, air quality and humidity inform whether or not you get approved for a new home? Will nicks and dings in walls be recorded by our smart devices and add to our ‘homeownership score’?

About the time I started thinking deeply about this concept, Chris, our Lead Lab Engineer, mentioned there was an episode of the show Black Mirror called ‘Nosedive’ that hit upon some of these themes. In it, the young woman lives in a world where anyone can rate you and that rating is used for access to exclusive things in the world. In order for her to climb up the socio-economic ladder, she needs to have a score of 4.5 out of 5. I won’t spoil the episode for you, but I will say that some of the scenarios I was thinking about appeared in this episode. Overall, we are all messy in how we live our lives, but under this type of intense scrutiny, it becomes less of an honest picture of who we are as we try to meet a standard. Believe me, I don’t like the thought of it, but I see the potential for it to affect a transaction. Data is a great influencer in real estate and IoT might amplify that impact.

Data and Real Estate

Data has long been the currency of real estate. Listings are THE main ingredient to the work our members do. Having fresh data is an advantage to their business. As the internet has matured, these data sets have transformed. Rather than just data about the house, we now have data around the house and the community. Is it walkable? What is the average price around the house? What type of businesses are in the neighborhood? Are there schools nearby? What’s my drive time to work? What will it actually cost me a month to own this home? This is all data your buyers and sellers have access to already.

What about the data the industry has on buyers and sellers? There are data packages you can buy on consumer behavior and use for analysis, and some brokerages are undoubtedly using them. We can know what magazines people subscribe to, what their buying habits are and all sorts of other stuff. There are companies out there now that provide leads based on a level of certainty that a homeowner might be ready to sell.

But what the internet of things offers is a richer data set that could be used in the same way a FICO score is used. It could give us a sense of how a home has been lived in and taken care of.

The Internet of Things and Incentivizing Private Data Access

The value of the internet of things is it allows us the convenience of control but also gives us insight into how we live. Think of personal fitness trackers. They provide data on how many steps we take on any given day as well as for other physical activities. This information allows us to make better decisions about how we live. Insurance companies and corporate health programs are taking notice and incorporating these devices into their costs. They are providing discounts to policy holders for access to some of the data on the wearables. People are willing to part with this data because there’s an added benefit to them for it.

So, wearables are already seeing programs introduced to incentivize good behavior. What about smart home technology? Are there incentivized programs for data access? The answer is yes. There are examples in the utility industry and insurance industry. A common example I use when speaking is that of thermostats. Utilities are incentivizing access to thermostats for the ability to adjust them to manage load on the grid. In Chicago, for example, our utility will give us a $100 rebate if we install a smart thermostat from either Nest or Ecobee. The gas company will give us an additional $50. The programs you enroll in allow access and control of the thermostats for the express purpose of keeping load down. The hidden benefit for the consumer is reduced energy costs as well.

Insurance companies are working on home insurance and smart home devices. Liberty Mutual will give you a Nest Protect ($99 smoke/CO detector) and up to 5% off of premiums if you enroll in their home insurance. There are also insurance companies funding multi-function sensors and offering discounts on burglary insurance with smart cameras being incentivized as part of these programs.

What Could Private Data Access Look Like in Real Estate?

Seeing how insurance and utilities are incentivizing this data access, what does it mean for real estate? How soon will it be until a brokerage offers rebates to homeowners who give them access to their smart home data? What could they use this data for?

One of the scenarios that I hate thinking about but see it coming is incentivizing access to this data as a qualifier for a loan. So, let’s say you’ve been living in a home for 7 years and you’ve decided you want to move. In order to qualify for a loan to move into this new home, you need to give the bank access to data on a few things:

  • How quickly do you change air filters in the home?
  • What was the average CO2 in the home?
  • What type of VOCs are in the home? How quickly were they mitigated?
  • What was the average humidity level in the home?
  • What does HVAC maintenance look like?

You get the idea. Things that don’t matter to us now are questions that could drive how we qualify. Why would humidity matter? If your humidity levels get too high, you will foster mold and bacteria growth in the home. Does this mean your an irresponsible homeowner? Not in my view…but to someone looking at this from a security of investment perspective, it could.

What if this led to variable monthly mortgage payments based on how well you keep the house up? Imagine if data from your air quality sensors would inform how much you pay. What if constant higher humidity levels affected your rates and cost you more? What if you could receive a ‘good owner’s’ discount based on the condition of the HVAC in your house (after an algorithm that looks at airflow, energy usage and regular maintenance determined you were a ‘good owner”)?

Again, I’m not a fan of data being used in this way, but I see a path to it. What do you think? Would you like to have this data used in this way? Would it help you? Would it hinder you? Leave your comments below.

The Iterative Smart Home

Almost three years ago, Chad wrote a post about the beginnings of what he called the Iterative Smart Home. Smart home technology was just beginning to break out into the mainstream, and the need for a common, unifying system was coming to the forefront. Several players emerged (and I’ll cover their fates later in this post) with each vying to become the central hub of a smart home. Where is this technology now, what have we learned in the past three years, and what’s next for the iterative smart home?


The iterative smart home that Chad wrote about seems simple now, but was revolutionary even three years ago. You chose your own devices – which could span multiple product categories, brands, and even protocols – and put them together in a system that you, ultimately, would design yourself. Central to this concept was a smart hub that would talk to all these devices without you having to program anything on your own. There were four companies that Chad pointed out were creating hubs with this in mind: SmartThings, NinjaBlocks, Revolv, and Staples Connect. As of this post (December 2016), three of these four technologies no longer exist; only the SmartThings hub, which was bought by Samsung and is the cornerstone of their smart home product line, can be purchased today. And while covering the fleeting nature of some technology is a post all on its own, I have to acknowledge that in technology, especially in such a relatively new platform like smart home devices, companies will come and go quickly. This, of course, poses a problem when you tie it to devices that typically have long lifespans, like thermostats, refrigerators, and other home appliances; but it also highlights the need for a unifying and iterative smart home platform to emerge.

As I mentioned, SmartThings is one of the hubs that existed in 2016 and is still going strong, along with the Wink, which I covered in a previous look back at some of our old predictions. I personally have a SmartThings hub in my home, and it really brought me around to making that space “smarter.” I decided to use smart products to solve a problem that my apartment’s layout has – a lack of easy-to-access lighting. By replacing my regular CFL bulbs with Hue and GE Link bulbs, I can now control a variety of lights all from my phone; and to handle the bulbs that I couldn’t replace outright, I hooked up some WeMo Insight Switches. The Hue and GE Links can speak to each other with the bridge that Hue requires for use of its bulbs; but the bulbs had no way of speaking to the WeMo switches. On top of this, my new Google Home can only natively speak to the Hue bulbs – so asking Google to turn my lights on and off only worked with those bulbs, and again not the switches. I could create a series of programmed actions through a service like IFTTT; or I could have a hub do the legwork. I picked up SmartThings since it worked with the devices I had just installed as well as Google Home. It was easy to set up – I just plugged in the hub, ran the setup through an app on my iPhone, and within minutes the hub had discovered all my devices and I was up and running. Now, Google can turn on and off all my lights, not just the bulbs. Using SmartThings, I was also able to set up an automation – when my home network detects my phone is close to home, my hallway lights turn on, which is great since I have to fumble in the dark when I open my front door just to turn on my lights.

This iterative thought process is intuitive – I identified a problem, began breaking it down into small solutions, and by taking steps on my own, was able to completely change the way I interact with the lights in my home. Before coming to CRT Labs, I was a bit skeptical on the usefulness of this technology; but now I know I have the flexibility to create a home that works the way I want it to. This is possible because companies are working together to make their products work together, instead of closing off their ecosystems so that you have to buy in to one brand and stick with it.

I talked a bit last week about voice control and the future of IoT; I believe that an iterative smart home will be part of why voice control will become more popular. By allowing a homeowner to chose their products, including the voice controller that works best for them, the owner gains a level of control and familiarity with the system they are creating for themselves. And that DIY mentality is something that we noted in our Smart Home Survey as important to REALTOR® clients when talking about smart home technology. With voice control becoming more common, I think that device manufacturers will begin creating their products with voice control in mind; for example, I could have even more voice control of my lights than I currently do with my Google Home, being able to set lights to exact colors that I save as favorites. We’ll also be seeing a move to have more devices interact with each other out of the box – if your thermostat kicked on in one room, it could trigger a light in the room you’re in to let you know that you’ll be using HVAC at that time. This flexibility will allow us to begin seeing our homes as an entire ecosystem, not just a series of rooms.

Voice Control and the Future of IoT

Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and the Google Assistant – soon, one of these helpful voice assistants might just be the best way to control your smart devices, instead of pulling out your phone and tapping the screen. We think the future of the internet of things will be shaped by these three major assistants, and we’ve been testing all three in the lab and our own homes recently. In this post, we’ll talk about how they’ll be shaping the industry, and our thoughts on each offering.


There have been many voice-controlled user interfaces over the years, but it wasn’t until Siri was included on the iPhone 4S in 2011 that a voice assistant became part of our everyday life. At first, Siri was used for controlling functions of an iPhone – setting calendar events, creating timers and reminders, and answering simple questions. Now Siri can send text messages, tell you the next time your favorite team plays, and even hail you an Uber. On top of making it easier to use your phone, however, Siri (as well as Alexa and Google Assistant) can control your smart devices – it can turn off your lights, play music on your stereo, and adjust your thermostat – all just using your voice.

We love voice controllers, because they adhere to a zero UI (user interface) model – which we think is going to be incredibly important for the future of the smart home. Small digital screens, like a phone, can be hard to manipulate, especially for the old, young, or the disabled. A zero UI system means a system without reliance on a screen for controls; in the case of voice assistants, that interface is auditory, but there are systems that work with computer vision (the Microsoft Kinect, used mainly in gaming), haptics (touch controls, like the Logitech Pop Switch), and gestures (the Fibaro Swipe, a screen that uses hand gestures to control your smart home). These non-screen interfaces are great for addressing accessibility concerns; someone might not be able to easily navigate screens and get to their Philips Hue app, but asking their voice assistant to turn on the lights can be easy for them. All three major assistants – Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant –can handle these tasks, but all three do handle them quite differently. They all can be activated by a trigger phrase, but how you speak to them differs depending on the assistant itself. We’ll take a look at all three below and discuss what’s great – and not so great – about each. These assistant all handle a wide variety of commands, but for purposes of this article, we want to talk about how well they control internet of things devices, such as smart home products.

First up is Siri, which a lot of people already have in their pockets. Siri is great because you don’t need any additional equipment. Amazon’s Alexa, for instance, requires one of their devices, while any iPhone user is already carrying Siri with them. Siri can be set up for the trigger phrase “Hey Siri,” or to only activate while pressing the Home button if you don’t want Siri to always be listening. Siri is probably the least conversational of the three, requiring almost exact phrases to be said in order to control a device. Apple’s Home, which is the app that acts as a hub for your smart devices, only works with a small number of devices; in order to work with Home, a company has to work directly with Apple to install a special chip in their device. While this limits the number of devices that Siri can control, it does mean that any product that claims to work with Home will have to work directly with Siri as well. Another interesting thing that Siri has that the other two devices don’t are Apple’s AirPods, which allow you to use the voice assistant by just tapping on your earphones. This could be interesting because you could have not only voice controls, but perhaps haptic controls as well by different taps of the earphone. We’re speculating with that, but the more ways to interact with a device, the better in our minds.

Amazon’s Alexa works with three of their products so far – the flagship Echo, Echo Dot, or Tap. Alexa is also by far the most open ecosystem when it comes to voice assistants (although we suspect that Google will not be far behind once they open their development kits up for third parties). Through the use of programmable skills, Alexa works with a wide variety of smart home devices. An Alexa device is always listening (unless you manually turn off the microphone), so it’s as easy as saying a trigger phrase to get started. You can choose from three phrases – “Alexa,” “Echo,” or “Amazon.” It’s a bit more conversational than Siri, with a variety of phrases that can trigger controls. Talking to Alexa isn’t a fluid conversation; right now, there’s no contextual conversations like there are with Google’s Assistant. We really love the ability to create your own skills if you’re programming-minded. Overall, the Alexa is the most customizable of the three. And the price-point can’t be beat. The Echo Dot is only $49.99, making it the least expensive option on the list compared to buying a new phone or the Google Home. Amazon just announced that they’ll be partnering with Intel to bring Alexa to more devices; we’ll be watching to see what this means for Amazon’s voice assistant.

Lastly, we have the Google Assistant, which comes on the Google Pixel phone or their Google Home speaker. We’ll be focusing on Google Assistant when it’s used on the Google Home for this article, but there might be a time where people are more commonly using a Google or Android phone just as they use Siri. Like an Alexa device, the Google Home is activated by a trigger phrase – “Ok, Google” or “Hey, Google.” It also is slightly ahead in terms of ease-of-conversation, and even allows for context when asking it questions. But being the newest of these three assistants, it falls flat right now in terms of what devices it can control. This, of course, will likely change as the Google Home stays on the market; soon, the software development kit will be available for third parties to begin using, meaning more products will start to integrate. We’re excited to see what the future is for the Google Assistant, because of the three companies behind these voice controllers, Google is the one who has spent the most time thinking about how we casually interact with its products – just think about how vague a Google search can be that still produces the correct results, and how that information will allow for the widest possible ranges of control phrases that can work with your smart home devices.

Fully voice-controlled homes, like what Tony Stark or the Enterprise might have, are still a thing of the future, but with the three biggest corporations in the world focusing on voice assistants, the future might not be so far off. We’re excited at the possibilities that zero UI voice controlled systems bring, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how they can benefit your home.