While the world was quietly sleeping, in their Malm beds and Blekvide duvets most likely, Ikea slipped out its very first smart home product.
Announced rather casually back in February – during the mobile phone and smartwatch bonanza going on at the MWC trade show - the Ikea wireless charging collection has finally arrived in thick catalogues and over-sized yellow and blue painted warehouse stores everywhere.
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Most people don't own a Nest thermostat and it's very easy even for British Gas's own customers not to get involved in Hive but, now that Ikea's gone tech, surely the smart home has finally arrived and impossible for Joe Public to ignore? Is this just a toe in the water for Ikea or does the world's largest home furnishing company have a vision for all our connected self needs?
Wareable caught up with Ikea spokesperson and range manager for Lighting Business and Wireless Charging, Björn Block, to assemble the story.
"The journey started about two and a half years ago when we got the task," said Block. "We're seeing more technical solutions to our everyday dilemmas and the question was whether there was something in this for Ikea in terms of integrating technology into our furniture and solving problems in our daily lives?"
The answer, of course, was yes and so Block and his team set about market researching on a grand scale to find out about these daily dilemmas that their typical customers, which, let's face it, is basically everyone, experience in their homes. Wireless charging, it turns out, was a biggie.
"That you're fighting for the charger, that you can't find the charger, that there's not a power outlet near you when you're on the sofa or simply that you hate all the cable mess that you create in the kitchen or the hallway or by your bed at night; that was a really strong insight from our interviews. So, we thought we'd look into this and solve it for people around the world."
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And solve it, Ikea has done in true company style with a range of tasteful and inexpensive bedside tables, lamps, dedicated pads and adaptable modules. As promised, it's as wire-free as possible with the power provided along the same cables as the light source or discretely tucked down the leg of the furniture. You can charge up to two mobile phones on the item at any one time thanks to the Micro USB port that's tucked into most of the products as well.
As far as the wonders of the smart home goes, wireless charging is fairly low hanging fruit but, as Block explains, that's part of the responsibility of working in such a big company. Any large, miscalculated risk, any bets on non-safe, unapproved and unreliable technology could ruin two of Ikea's main pillars – that of simplicity and user-friendliness.
"That was one of the main criteria; that it's actually new but available technology. We're not doing this to launch some gadgets. We're doing this because it's a sustainable solution to make everyday life at home easier and more convenient. So, it's not technology that's in R&D stage. It is technology that is tested certified and approved. But, by utilizing it in a new context, that's where it becomes innovative."
Wireless charging for wearables incoming
Naturally, it's not Ikea that's supplying the technology. For that, it's teamed up with the Wireless Power Consortium with its commitment from 217 of the top consumer tech manufacturers and the Qi magnetic induction standard. But, while Motorola, LG, BlackBerry, Nokia and Google's Nexus devices have worked hard to integrate Qi at the phone end, it's still not a feature that all their customers are using or even know actually exists and that's, quite probably, because no one's got it right at the smart home end of the chain.
Until now, the best customers have had are some fairly unappealing pad accessories which you still have to have link to your power socket by trailing a cable across your desk. Ikea's arrival marks a visible and actual difference to how your home, your office and even your local cafe, bar and restaurant can be; particularly given the modular Jyssen chargers which can be neatly cut into any surface. As Block, admits, however, it's still not an ideal proposal.
"Really, you shouldn't need to find a spot on the table to charge it at all. You should just be able to throw it on the table and then it charges automatically. That is a technology that exists today in a lab environment but it's not yet certified and approved. So, we said that's a good wish position. We'd like to have that solution as well but, as for now, that's not possible to do with current technology in a safe manner."
"Another wish would be to be able to charge your tablet in the same way. That requires more power and the step after that of that, of course, is to be able to charge your laptop but I think there's a wish and demand for both."
The other current sticking point for many users is that, if your device doesn't have the full Qi integration – and that includes all iPhone users and anyone with a Samsung older than the S6 – then you'll need a special phone case. Naturally, Ikea is happy to sell you one but plenty of people will take convincing that it's worth parting company with the one that they already have for a solution that they're getting on just fine without for the time being. All the same, Block reiterates the company's commitment.
"This isn't only one launch to show that we're being innovative. This is part of a long term strategy that we will step more and more into the smart home, the internet of things and so on and this is on that journey.
"If there can be more companies joining in, like the wearable companies, or having dual chips into the transmitter and so on, then we'll make sure that we upgrade to that. We will follow on the journey and that will be part of it."
So, sticking your smartwatch or fitness tracker on those same charging pads is very much in mind. As for the next smart products that are on Ikea's road map, Block remained understandably tight-lipped on the specifics but there was at least some indication of the problems that the company will be looking to solve.
"Life at home; we're going to have the same dilemmas in five years as we do have today. Fundamentally, we care about our loved ones, we'll want to make sure we have good air in the home, good water in the home, that we live a sustainable life and those are the paths that we will pursue in years to come."
Let a blanket be a blanket
So, does this mean that you won't be able to move for furniture augmented with technology in the showroom floor five years from now? Fortunately, that's something that Block and his team already have a good sense of.
"We should think twice before we start connecting every object. The most important part is that it serves a purpose; it actually enhances a product. If a product does not become better by connecting it or giving it some kind of AI, then it's just for the fun of it and it's going to be very short lived. Smart solutions need to solve real problems."
"And we should not forget about the tactile experience of a product. I think there are a lot of products that serve a fantastic purpose by just being cuddly. If you take a blanket, for example, maybe just leave it. Let a blanket be a blanket."
Oddly, the more we hear about Ikea's common sense ideas on the smart home, the clearer it seems that the company is in this for all the right reasons and in entirely the best way.
While for this enormous brand, it's a question of small steps in an obvious direction, for the customers they serve it's a giant leap in mindset. Whether or not Ikea wanted the responsibility, it's the final piece in the puzzle. The smart home is here. Today it's going to charge your phone but soon it's going to get to know you on an entirely personal level.