My Trip Inside Target's Open House

The retailer hopes to bridge the gap between early adopter and curious consumer with its new experiential smart home store.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jul 14, 2015

Open House, the touch-and-test Internet of Things showroom that Target built in downtown San Francisco, is larger than most homes in that city. The 3,500-square-foot space, which is open to the general public, is bright, white and spare, with plenty of strolling space and a mock living room, bedroom and baby nursery, each filled with acrylic "furniture" and equipped with a range of connected devices. I toured its RF-filled halls this weekend, to see how the retailer is attempting to bring the smart home alive for shoppers.

Target is making a bet on the IoT—in part to compete with online-only merchants, such as Amazon, that can't dazzle consumers with real-world demonstrations. Plus, shoppers can get instant satisfaction by purchasing any of the demoed products on the spot.

Open House has a sort of museum quality. A row of products displayed along one wall actually reminded me of a Dieter Rams exhibit I attended at the SF Museum of Modern Art a few years ago—IoT product designers are clearly influenced by Rams' clean, Spartan style. But the intent is the opposite of a museum's, insofar as the whole point of Open House is to encourage visitors to touch and interact with the featured items. Infrared sensors embedded in the walls and displays help make interacting more fun, by prompting electronic displays when a shopper stands in front of a particular product (though most interactions happen via a linked smartphone or touchscreen, not the products themselves).

I kept my ears open and noticed a number of my fellow shoppers asking similar questions of the red-shirted Target associates. One guy asked, only half-jokingly, if he could set up a connected speaker (a Sonos model is on display) so that he could trigger various play lists by clapping a number of times. The woman he was with asked if she could use Siri to help her manage different products in one place. (So, for example, in order to view a video stream of her kitchen through her phone, she wanted to be able to press and hold her iPhone's home button and say, "Hey Siri, who is home?") In other words, they both wanted interactions with smart home products to be even easier than they're marketed to be.

The associate told both customers that no, neither of those things is possible (although I'm sure someone could hack a Bluetooth speaker to make it controllable using a Clapper light switch, assuming that person could find one to buy on late-night television). But the sales guys was quick to point out that Target has a great return policy, and that if someone purchased any of the 35 products featured in the Open House store, he or she could always return them if they didn't work as that person had hoped.

The entrance to the Open House showroom.
This kind of interchange seems to highlight the findings of a survey I wrote about in my last Editor's Note: Research firm Argus Group has detected a loss of interest in smart home products among consumers, because the early adopters have already deployed, while the rest of us are a little leery of the utility of an Internet-connected door lock or a sensor that can tell me, through my smartphone, when the fuel tank in my backyard grill is almost empty.

Target's approach with Open House is to not only show how products work, but also demonstrate how they'll work together inside your home. So as I entered the mock living room and kicked off a tour via the touchscreen mounted on a pedestal in the middle of the room, I was shown how the home's hub would trigger an alert to my phone if a window was opened during a day when the whole family was on vacation and the house's security system was armed, and how it would then trigger an IP security camera to send a video stream of the room's interior to my phone as well. The house, meanwhile, would scare the burglar away by triggering a connected red LED light bulb to flash on and off while a connected speaker emitted a loud siren.

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