More than 180,000 people descended on Las Vegas last week to see what the future holds.

The Consumer Electronics Show, a week-long festival of gadgets, televisions and cars, is one of the biggest fixtures in the tech calendar. More people attend than there are hotel rooms in the city.

Every year, attendees and analysts try to use CES as a barometer for where the world is going, and what the next big thing will be. In spite of the increasing grip that devices have over our lives, manufacturers have been missing that eureka moment for some time.

The touchscreen smartphone revolution was kicked off by the iPhone 12 years ago, and there have been no shortage of false dawns since. Tablet sales spiked but have been in decline since 2014. Virtual reality has been a disappointment.


The new gold rush is the smart home. The show floor hosted hundreds of companies exhibiting their latest connected appliances, household items and fittings. Not one but two companies unveiled smart cat-litter trays, one of which, the LavvieBot, "automatically monitors litter and waste levels" in order to relay the information to a smartphone app. A smart sofa is capable of wirelessly charging a smartphone, and can be controlled by speaking to it.

Home automation is far from a new idea but many pundits believe the technology has reached a tipping point.

"We're starting to see that hockey-stick growth," says Jitesh Ubrani, an analyst at tech researchers IDC, referring to a phenomenon often seen in a new technology where its adoption rate accelerates dramatically. "Adoption is growing, it's coming from a small base but we don't see it slowing down."

Name a household item and an enterprising tech startup has made it "smart" by giving it an internet connection and a smartphone app. Only a handful have gained traction outside of trade shows, however.

They include smart lighting systems, which allow users to turn off or dim lights over the internet, smart thermostats, which can be set to turn off the heating when everybody leaves the house, and smart security systems. Locks and doorbells can be set to grant temporary access to guests or package couriers, while smart security cameras can stream video feeds to someone halfway around the world.

The market remains relatively small. According to Orbis Research, global sales of smart home products were valued at US$36 billion ($52.6b) in 2017, less than a 10th of smartphone sales. But unlike the smartphone, their market is growing. In 2023, analysts say, smart home sales could be worth US$150b.

Some of the biggest technology companies are chasing a slice of the action. In 2014, Google bought Nest, a pioneer in smart thermostats, for US$3.2b. Last year, Amazon paid US$1b for Ring, which makes camera-equipped doorbells.

Smart home gadgets have become cheaper and more capable for some of the reasons that brought on the smartphone revolution - the rise of China's electronics hub of Shenzhen, the growing capabilities of low-power microchips and the plummeting cost of components.


But another contribution from Amazon and Google, the age of the voice assistants, has turbocharged their popularity.

Before voice assistants, smart home devices were largely controlled with a smartphone app or even by sending a text message. The results were clunky, and rarely offered more convenience than the "dumb" home alternative. Voice assistants meant lights could be turned off, or the temperature changed, by barking a command, so long as a smart speaker was within range. Makers of smart home devices have also scrambled to make their devices compatible with Amazon and Google's systems.

"Smart assistants are one of the biggest catalysts - it's simplified the interface," says Ubrani.

Smart speakers have been one of the fastest-growing smart home categories. Almost 100 million were sold last year worldwide. "Adding connectivity on its own is not useful," says Paul Lee, technology specialist at Deloitte. "A light switch is something you flick on or off once or twice a day. It's a fun exercise but I would not say it's a mainstream thing."

He says objects that benefit from being connected to the internet are those used often. "The most common application of smart speakers is connected music. A lot of people have historically listened to the radio for a couple of hours a day. Adjusting the thermostat is not something people do for an hour a day."

He says the companies selling smart home devices are well ahead of the average consumer. He says many of the current sales of smart plugs and lights can be put down to them being sold in bundles with the speakers consumers are really after.

As sales increase, more companies are likely to jump on to the bandwagon, increasing competition and driving down prices but it will also drive down profit margins, a phenomenon repeatedly observed in the electronics industry.

"Many of [them] are going to come to the hard realisation that selling hardware is not enough," says Ubrani.

"The money may be there now, but it won't be tomorrow."