In Unruly’s Home of the Future, the mirror recommends outfits and the bathroom scales know what’s in the fridge. This offers huge opportunities for brands – but it’s a delicate game

What if your bathroom scales could talk to your fridge? If a smartphone app could tell those scales a goal weight and then pass on progress to the kitchen? If the fridge could then use the information to recommend healthier alternatives and add them to a digital shopping list, replenishing automatically each time you ran out? A smart mirror in your bedroom could get involved, linking a dream outfit to squeeze into if you hit that goal weight, the mirror scrolling encouragement across its surface each time you peer sleepily into it in the morning.

You might think it’s intriguing. Or terrifying. But certainly too far off in the future to worry about.

But though it’s currently built into an office block in Whitechapel, London, this prototype ‘Home of the Future’, says its creator Unruly, could be a far closer reality than we think, with a meteoric growth in connected devices - or the Internet of Things - predicted in the next couple of years. By 2020 the data being created from these devices could reach 44 zettabytes, says the video distribution company’s associate director of strategy Ella Gribben, a 10-fold increase on 2013. Spend last year on voice tech was around $2bn. By 2020, that could be $40bn, while we could be looking at anything up to 200 billion active connected devices.

All of which has the potential to transform homes into ultra-connected ecosystems just like the one Gribben is showing me around, where everything - from the fridge to the coffee machine to the bathroom mirror - can talk to you, and to each other. The fridge can make you a coffee, the dishwasher tells you when you’re low on tablets and the fridge tracks expiration dates on its contents. For fmcg brands, where the shift to e-commerce has been slow so far, all this could have huge implications for how we buy, and discover, brands. Not least as in grocery, more than almost any other sector, “we buy brands for the home and we consume them in the home” says Gribben.

On the one hand, this growth in the IoT gathers huge amounts of new granular data. “Every time we talk and have a conversation about something, Alexa is listening,” says Gribben. “Or if we’re making searches or having conversations with Google, that data is being gathered and it’s creating a profile of who we are.” That provides brands with unprecedented levels of personalised data that they can use to sell and communicate back through these same devices.

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That could mean a branded AR lens across a smart TV that allows you to order pizza and beer without looking away from the screen, or partnering with a smart mirror that provides skin analysis and recommends products. Already, forward-looking brands are innovating in this space. Ask Alexa to open ‘the bar’ and up pops a Diageo tutorial on your screen, taking you through drinks recipes. Have a few too many and spill those drinks all over the floor, and Unilever’s Cleanipedia platform provides tips on how to get rid of the stain.

Fmcg brands all need to have a voice strategy in place creating skills like these, advises Gribben. And even an AR lens strategy, as the technology around multiple ‘realities’ evolves quickly and the right accompanying tech takes time to get right. “Think about what problem your brand could solve within a household that gives you the ability to talk to consumers inside their home.”

That’s even truer for brands like dishwasher tablets, loo roll or vinegar, where consumers are more likely to ask Alexa for a product rather than a brand. If you’re Kit Kat or Pantene, how do you build enough ‘brand love’ that consumers will ask for your brand?

With all of this though, the “key to working in the home space is that it has to be non-intrusive and it has to be personal”, cautions Gribben. The big risk otherwise is “brand bypass”. In short, in a system that relies on voice, search and auto-replenishment, rather than shelf-edge appeal and impulse, frustrate a consumer once and that could be it. “If I say I never want to hear from Nestlé again, that’s a whole lot of products that never get to come into your house.”

In other words, the future might see brands become familiar house guests with an intimate knowledge of their hosts. But misbehave and those same hosts could be quicker than ever to ask Alexa to show them the door.