Monday, January 29, 2007

Take a Hint from MINI?

Did anyone see the new feature that BMW's MINI division announced last week? It's not built into the car... it's in the keyfob. Keyfobs for selected Mini owners will contain a RFID chip, which the company says can trigger a personalized message on Mini billboards from up to 500 feet away. Participating drivers fill out an online questionnaire that asks about them (including their birthday), their driving habits and their affection for their car. A company executive proclaimed the system generates "unique, playful and unexpected messages triggered by Mini owners." Interestingly, the company also says the cryptographically protected RFID tags contain no user data. At the very least, the system is supposed to know enough about a driver so that a lawyer might see a customized message reading "Moving at the speed of justice!" or a driver named Tom might trigger a message such as "Motor like you mean it, Tom!"

You might ask, why bother? Well, it's all about building community... Mini owners are fanatical about their cars, and this is just another step that the carmaker is taking to make their owners feel like part of a community.

So why do you care as a multifamily professional? Because nowhere do people want to feel more at home and feel like they're part of a community than the place where they live. It's a comfortable feeling, coming home to a place that knows you and welcomes you with open arms. And there are a number of different opportunities thoroughout a community to offer personalized experiences to make residents feel more at home... pulling into the garage, entering the building, walking through a lobby, in the elevator - all are places to touch your residents in the ways that they choose and prefer on a very regular basis. It might not be the first technology that you consider putting into your building, but in a world where customized content is quickly becoming the norm, adding an element of personalization may be worth considering.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Thursday Think Tank

I want to expand on an idea that I touched on in my last post... I think we've only scratched the surface of the possibilities for technology in multifamily communities, primarily because these buildings have never truly been considered as a separate, unique market from single-family homes. Let me explain.

Don't get me wrong... developers of luxury condos and apartments have gone to great efforts to improve the technology systems that go into their buildings, both to increase appeal to potential residents and to improve operational efficiencies. These include access control systems, video surveillance, burglar alarms, intercoms, posh lounges and theater rooms, business centers, "state-of-the-art" exercise facilities, and so on. Features such as these are common today in most newer communities.

:: New Possibilities

There still seems to be a real lack of creativity when it comes to technology services that are truly designed specifically for the urban, high-rise lifestyle. For now, let's just focus on what the audio and video services could look like at a property that's optimized for community connectivity. (Communectivity, perhaps...?)

For example, I've mentioned previously about how so many people can't live without their TiVo. Verizon has introduced a multi-room DVR that will give users the opportunity to access saved shows, as well as music and photos, from anywhere in their home. Great news for the 4-bedroom house in the suburbs... but if it's for my studio in the city, then who really cares? Let's take that idea a step further though, and apply it more specifically to a multifamily environment. Let me access my personal content in the clubhouse lounge or theater room, and now we're talking. My 42" plasma is great for watching Jack Bauer on 24, unless I can watch those same saved programs with some friends on the six-foot screen downstairs! The network is already there - one screen to enter my unit and a PIN number, and there are my shows. And if people start leaving and I need to get some work done back upstairs... no problem, I hit pause and finish the episode later from the comfort of my own couch. Seems simple enough, but that's not how service providers, or property owners, think... yet.

But I'm not a huge TV buff... music is my thing. Whether it's from my iPod or Pandora, I like being able to access my music when I want it. I recently saw a video profiling a high-rise in mid-town Atlanta that has CD/DVD players at each piece of equipment in the fitness center, so residents can bring their own discs to watch. This makes no sense to me, because I would guess that most residents are not going to carry a case of DVDs or music down to the gym. Heck, I don't even like having to bring my keys! So why shouldn't a resident be able to access their personal music and playlists from the fitness center, or the lounge, or at the pool? These are just a few examples - properties today have robust networks that could enable a lot of great new services with only a little creativity and a user-friendly interface.

:: Any Drawbacks?
I suppose that most content producers, not surprisingly, would contend that this would somehow go beyond the user's allowed usage rights. I agree that digital rights is a issue that needs to be reasonably addressed, but content that I purchase or select, that is only accessible at my command, seems like it should pass muster. We'll have to see how things play out with Cablevision's network DVR, although I think distributing content throughout a building is significantly different than content that is stored on a service provider's centralized servers. (Engadget, Multichannel News)

The greatest obstacle that I see is that there would be a perception that there is a lack of demand for these types of capabilities. I would argue that services like these will become a regular part of life for the typical 20-something urbanite. They already understand the capabilities that today's electronics enable, and their homes should be places that allow them to embrace the lifestyle of their choice.

So what else is possible? What happens when we throw wireless in the mix? Bluetooth? Social networking? Building amenities could get a lot more interesting, don't you think?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What Comes Down Must Go Up

Offering broadband Internet service to residents has becoming increasingly important in the past decade - NMHC reports that 84% of renters with Internet service have high-speed access. This high-speed connection has always placed a much greater emphasis on download speeds; many people never ask about or even refer to the upload speed. ("It's not bad, I get 5 Megs...") But a host of devices announced last week by companies like Apple, Sony, Sling Media and others intend to change this unbalanced equation, and they're coming soon to a retailer near you. These devices allow users to send digital content from their PC to their TVs, as well as other users or locations. Forbes, InfoWorld

Here's a rough demo of how the Sling system will work in their partnership with CBS:

Sending video and music files over the network like this will require much greater upload speeds that those typically offered by ISPs today. Additionally, the amount of "user-generated" content being produced for YouTube, Revver and other sites has increased exponentially over the past few years. Property managers need to be aware of these trends, and should be looking at opportunities to work with their service providers to increase upload speeds to give residents a better overall user experience, whether they are downloading a file to their email or sending a video clip to a friend.

Once the connection is there, this two-way technology could open the doors to a number of interesting possible applications in a "networked" multifamily community. For instance, if I can send movies to my TV in my unit, why couldn't I send them to the screen in the clubhouse theater room. Maybe I could do the same with movies that I saved on my DVR back upstairs. Providers need to be thinking about ways to protect against piracy, but also enable property networks to offer the much better services and rich experiences that today's networks could easily deliver. But we want to hear from you... what other kinds of services should content providers be offering in the ultimate connected community?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

No Disappointments So Far

At MacWorld, Apple made a few big announcements yesterday, including the highly anticipated iPhone that combines an iPod with a unique smartphone that will be available through Cingular later this year. Apple also announced AppleTV, a small device that allows users to wirelessly stream music, movies and TV shows from the iTunes library on their PC or Mac to their televisions. This device has a lot of features that will interest users, and should be a viable competitor to the Windows Media Center. Watch the Apple presentation.

Only a night earlier in Vegas, Bill Gates headlined the Microsoft keynote presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show. Microsoft's new lineup of products including the Vista operating system, Office 2007, the Home Server and the Zune portable media player all promise to deliver users "connected experiences" in more ways than ever before. Perhaps most interestingly, Gates announced that the Xbox 360 gaming system will be able to serve as a set-top box option for IPTV providers such as AT&T by the end of the year. Xbox 360 already allows users to download movies from the Internet. It will be very interesting to watch as this develops, because it could give some service providers a new equipment option to offer to residents - offering a gaming system that doubles as a cable box would likely be particularly appealing in student housing communities, although the cost of such a service may end up being a point of contention for those residents that have already purchased their own device.

Here's a quick tour of Microsoft's latest offerings featuring Bill Gates:

Monday, January 08, 2007

Big Week in Consumer Electronics

The annual Consumer Electronics Show kicks off this week in Las Vegas, and it is accompanied by Apple's MacWorld conference in San Francisco. The hot items at this year's CES are expected to be flat-panel TVs in all shapes and sizes, portable media players that will attempt to dethrone the iPod, and HD DVDs that come in two different formats. We'll have more details from these shows throughout the week, and we'll let you know what stories will have the greatest impact on the multifamily industry down the road. This video from CNBC is a quick introduction to just a few of the thousands of gadgets being introduced this week. CNBC Video

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Home Automation "Hitting Its Stride"?

Home automation has always been very slick, but until recently has been very expensive and unreliable. Here's a piece from BusinessWeek covering some of the new systems available on the market, and the features that customers are asking for most. As you'll see, many of these systems now communicate wirelessly, so it will be interesting to see how well they will work as developers begin to offer these amenities in dense communities that might produce a lot of interference.

Prices are nearing the point of feasibility for many luxury developments in competitive markets, but the equipment should be designed into the building early on in the process, and it will be important to do some homework to understand which features will get the most positive responses from your potential residents.