View from China: Designing the blueprint for smart living

3 min read
From left: Lu Gang, founder TechNode (moderator); Wang Xionghui (ORVIBO), Xu Chengmao (Midea Corporate Research Center), and Chen Xiaoping (Viomi) at 2018 International DTech Conference. (Image Credit: TechNode/Nicole Jao)

We are moving closer to a reality of ubiquitous AI, where the technology could be and will be in our smartphones, computers, cars, and in every nook in our homes.

One highlight at the International Design and Technology Conference held in Fuzhou’s Shunde district on Dec. 9 was the discussion on the design and user experience of future homes.

Xu Chengmao, vice president of Midea’s Corporate Research Center, points out that in the past the look and feel of smart home products was important to consumers. But in the digital age, other factors such as a product’s functionality, and how it interacts with people also account for the overall user experience.

“Human-machine interaction is becoming prevalent,” Xu said the company is still learning about the technology, especially exploring how to make products more human and personalized.

This where the challenges lie, he said. The Shunde-headquartered electrical appliance manufacturer opened an AI R&D center in Silicon Valley in 2016. It was the first manufacturing company in China to do so.

Chen Xiaoping, co-founder and CEO of smart home startup?Viomi, said there are three crucial aspects to consider when it comes to smart home product design.

First, whether the product addresses real problems and serves human needs? Second, how to showcase the company’s technology and innovation through design. Third, how to improve users’ experience—such as in touch-based interaction or voice interaction—through design.

Voice assistants are an example of how design can facilitate the shift from machine-led interaction to human-led interaction and improve user experience. “Design is a vehicle, it’s tool to connect product with end users,” Chen said. The Xiaomi-backed four-year-old startup listed earlier this year.

Based in Fuzhou, in the eastern Chinese province of Fujian, Midea and Viomi have launched a wide range of smart home appliances and electronics.

From the standpoint of a lean startup that doesn’t have the resources or cash necessary to develop and produce smart home products, Wang Xionghui, founder of ORVIBO, an IoT and smart-home hardware startup that was established in 2011.

“If you think of an intelligent living space as a system, then there should be a core,” Wang said. The core of the system, he explained, is four key terms: human-machine interaction, computing capability, connectivity, and application.

ORVIBO’s focus is on in-wall interactive products. Intelligent door locks, for example, serve as a point of entry and core for basic home appliances or other electronics.

Are we there yet?

When Midea opened an R&D center in Silicon Valley, Xu said the first two years were arduous. He said the bubble in AI is still massive as the technology is not yet mature.

Voice-based solutions in China is already relatively advanced, he acknowledged, but “we have to face the reality that the most advanced AI technology is not in China, but in the US, the UK, and Canada.”

Wang said the question is not whether AI technology is mature enough, but how AI products are positioned.

For smart speakers to engage in real life conversations is indeed extremely challenging, said Wang, but his expectation for smart speakers in homes, rather, is to be capable of receiving short and precise commands.

As AI development is still in its early stage, Wang said the company’s approach is practical when thinking about use cases and vision for its AI products. Still, Wang stressed that he has high expectations for AI.

Chen, on the other hand, seems more optimistic towards the development of AI technology. He noted that voice-based interactive technology advanced rapidly in recent years—especially in internet applications.

“Two years ago, voice interactive applications were almost non-existent. Now, it is being used in many different settings,” Chen said companies and designers should be bold in applying AI to their products and services.

“We are moving into a world where AI is going to be put inside every product,” Chen told TechNode in an interview.

He said, that having gone through 2018—the year that smart speakers become more prevalent—companies have a better idea of how to commercialize AI technology. Before, there were a lot of companies focusing on computing rather than AI applications, he added.

Chen believes in the age of AI, startups and large corporations share the same starting line. Startups might even have a greater advantage because they are still young, he said.

When asked if it was a difficult transition from manufacturing appliances and electronics to smart home products, Xu said that, even though there is the saying “the bigger the ship the more difficult it is to turn around,” he sees it as an advantage—that a larger company can devote more resources and capital for AI research.