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Out of Milk? Someday Your Smart Home Could Fix That

How Amazon getting into the smart home game could change everything.
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With a click or a tap, Amazon users can buy everything from light bulbs to washing machines. Now imagine if those devices could send data back to Amazon and encourage their owners to buy more stuff from — you guessed it — Amazon.

Like Apple and Google, Amazon is reportedly getting into the smart home game. The company is investing $55 million into its Lab126 division over the next five years, according to Reuters, which includes money for developing smart home devices.

NBC News reached out Amazon to confirm the information but the company did not reply.

Citing two people familiar with the plans who were not authorized to speak with the media, Reuters reported that Amazon was testing a Wi-Fi-connected gadget for the home that would make ordering products as easy as pressing a button. While it's not clear what Amazon may be working on or if any of those products will ever reach the market, Amazon is uniquely situated to take advantage of the wired home of the future.

"It's interesting that it took this long," Anita Raja, professor of computer science at Cooper Union, told NBC News. "I would have thought that Amazon would be at the forefront of this."

Home Sweet Smart Home

The buzzwords "smart home" and the "Internet of things" refer to gadgets that can communicate with each other, smartphones and the cloud. Take Nest, which was bought by Google for $3.2 billion. It's a thermostat that learns its owner's preferences, sends data out for monthly energy reports and can be controlled via smartphone or tablet.

Apple's HomeKit software is meant to connect devices like the August Smart Lock, which lets people unlock their doors with their iPhones. Slightly more pricey is LG's line of Smart ThinQ smart appliances, which includes refrigerators, washing machines and ovens.

While Google and Apple have a head start, Amazon has one major advantage: the infrastructure and inventory to ship pretty much anything a smart home owner would ever need within a day or two.

Big Brother

At the heart of Amazon's success is its recommendation engine, which predicts what kind of products users might be interested in based on past behavior. Google serves up targeted ads in a similar way.

A smart home might be able to provide a similar picture based on what consumers do in real life.

"Your home could be a place that could analyze you and provide information to potential advertisers," Judith Donath, a faculty fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, told NBC News.

Google's Nest, she pointed out, already knows when its owners are home and when they are gone. Once enough homes are equipped with wired appliances, companies will be provided with data that blows any current market research methods out of the water.

"It’s not what people say they do or what they do under observation, but what they are really doing at home," Donath said.

That could eventually lead to product design and advertising based on reams of very personalized data — not to mention some real privacy concerns. Smart homes, like shopping websites and smartphones, have to walk the line between convenient and creepy.

"If you look at the research, there are some users that are very conservative when it comes to their privacy, and others who are much more liberal about it," Raja said.

Many Internet companies have found a balance that works for their balance sheets. People might complain about their privacy, but they don't necessarily stop using the service, especially when they get used to the convenience.

Raja gave the example of a smart fridge that knows when you are out of milk. Hooked up to a GPS-enabled app, it could remind you of that when you happen to be driving past a grocery store. Or it could just automatically send an order to Amazon.

"I would personally like something like that, being a busy parent, but they should be very clear about what information is being tracked," she said.

Uncertain Future

The real benefit of smart homes, however, could come from devices that save resources like water and electricity. Connected appliances could use real-time feedback to maximize energy efficiency, "inform residents about the house's own well-being" and even encourage people to make healthier life choices, Diane Cook, head of the Smart Home project at Washington State University, told NBC news.

A world where the majority of homes are connected to the cloud might help communities conserve water and energy.

"In people’s imaginations, it’s very consumer based with the goal of making you consume more," Donath said. "But there could be elements for the collective good."

Right now, several experts agreed, it's far too early to make a judgment about Amazon's smart home devices, since the company has not shared details on them or even acknowledged they are in development. Whatever they are cooking up in Seattle, however, needs to be seen as genuinely useful.

"A lot of depends on how it is presented," Donath said. "Amazon has been a little heavy-handed with this stuff in the past. There was the perception that the Fire Phone was just a product-ordering phone and people were not too excited about that."