Centrica explores aging-in-place, week after embarrassing Hive outage

One of the biggest future pressures on developed economies is going to be the growth of their elderly populations, and the consequent strain this demographic will place on healthcare systems, social welfare programs, housing markets, labor markets, and government tax revenues. To this end, this population represents a pretty lucrative chunk of the smart home market, as family, friends, and corporations, begin to provide ways on checking in on those more at risk of injury in their own homes.

It might seem a little morbid, but you can easily liken these people to machinery. A smart home system could provide you, the offspring or the healthcare provider for instance, with a way to keep tabs on how the machine is running. This will provide the equivalent of predictive maintenance, spotting small deviations in behavior that might be indicative of larger future problems.

In our time covering the sector, we have seen demonstrations and testimonial on how such systems can work. It ranges from fall detection and determining that grandma doesn’t usually spend an hour in the kitchen and maybe someone should check in on her, all the way through potential applications like gait and response-time analysis, with the home snitching on the resident to healthcare providers.

An example of the lattermost problem is patients seriously underestimating how many times they have been to the loo, or the duration of these visits, which is usually a good indicator of an underlying problem. Similarly, connected medication dispensers would go a long way to solving compliance, which is one of the biggest problems that the healthcare industry faces.

A number of companies have begun exploring the consumer side of this problem. We’ve covered Doro’s SmartCare offering in the past, and Antilles made a surprising pivot away from oil and gas to expand into this sector, by purchasing Homestay Care. Now though, Centrica, the energy giant that owns British Gas, is looking to push its Hive smart home platform into the breach.

Hive Link has been recently unveiled, and as the name suggests, focuses on using the existing Hive equipment to provide a way to link family members. The marketing focuses on elderly parents, whose children are able to keep tabs on them via a smartphone app – via current activity and timelines.

The hardware powering the system consists of sensors and smart plugs, installed by a British Gas engineer. The starter deployment uses 3 Hive Plugs, 2 Hive Motion Sensors, and 2 Hive Window and Door Sensors, all of which are connected to a Hive Hub in the home. This hub serves as the go-between, linking the home with the cloud application, and therefore with the person wanting to check in.

The goal is to let the system learn what a normal routine looks like, so that it can spot when it should alert the linked person to a deviation. Examples including not using a kitchen appliance, turning or leaving a TV on at an abnormal time, opening the front door and either not coming back or leaving it open. Using the app, you could get a pretty good idea of which room in the house the person is currently occupying.

A notable omission seems to be a connected lock. Being able to remotely unlock the door for a carer or member of the emergency services would be extremely useful, based on our experiences with elderly relatives, especially for those that have a habit of using the deadbolts and chains that result in the fire crew having to be dispatched in order to break down the door because the resident has fallen asleep watching TV with their hearing aids out … later resulting in a repeat of this farce after the resident had actually fallen over while not wearing her emergency alarm pendant, which was securely tucked away out of reach in a drawer.

Sensibly, the launch seems to be focusing on households that only have one occupant, and therefore no one else to keep tabs on them. Anecdotal experiences suggest that the chance of persuading an elderly couple to accept such an installation would be rather slim, but are much higher in the wake of a death or departure.

Also, there’s no mention of video cameras too, which ties in well with what we have found in our own research. People are receptive of these systems to a point, and that line in the sand is usually found when the system can let someone tap in and see what the resident is up to.

Such surveillance is not popular, but it is again odd that there doesn’t seem to be a way for the Hive Link system to act as a two-way radio, so that if an alarm is raised, the person using the smartphone app can’t simply call the home to check on their loved one. The app will let you call someone’s phone, but not their home, it seems. The application can provide the usual array of notifications, with the ability to create a ‘sharing circle’ of family members that can all receive and act on the notifications.

Hive is selling this as a £15/month service, but the installation and upfront cost will be £150. This is actually quite affordable, and for many people, it is a very small cost to pay for the peace of mind it could provide. As it stands, Hive doesn’t seem to be offering any way to expand the service, such as adding more motion sensors, so it seems to be relying on the expertise of its installers to create the most optimum layout.

So, it looks like a solid offering, but it does come a week after Hive suffered a pretty embarrassing outage. We have frequently lamented that the smart home can’t be called a smart home until it can continue to function without an internet connection, but this is especially true for something like Hive Link – where the worst case scenario for an outage isn’t a chilly home, but is potentially a dead or seriously ill relative.

But the market opportunity is huge. To this end, we expect to see many more bespoke offerings from many providers, as well as a more top-down approach from the Google and Amazon ecosystems, as they try to adapt their market power to expand into this area. We are still a very long way from saturation.