Elevators of the future will have “virtual windows,” voice-activated controls, music-streaming, and more — that’s if Kone has its way, at least. The Finnish engineering giant, best known for autowalks, automatic doors, escalators, and — yes — elevators, unveiled its grand vision at an event in London yesterday.

For its endeavor, Kone has taken a cue from the automobile industry, which has increasingly platformized with connected services spanning diagnostics, entertainment, navigation, food delivery, and more. Translated into the skyscraper realm, Kone is striving to make elevators a platform, allowing its clients to tailor services such as music, customize digital displays with local information or panoramic views via “virtual windows,” improve accessibility, and enable voice commands.

“We’re trying to move from selling equipment to selling services,” Tomio Pihkala, Kone’s executive vice president for new equipment business, said in a conversation with VentureBeat.

For those unfamiliar with the company, Kone is among the top providers of elevators and escalators globally, with 450,000 customers and around $9 billion in annual revenues. The company’s various installations transport 1 billion people each day.

Remote control

The new Kone DX Class elevators build on a digital platform first unveiled by Kone last year, and which has been available as an upgrade to customers looking to modernize their elevator systems. Yesterday’s announcement concerned new elevators designed from the get-go with connectivity built in, allowing building owners to remotely control, activate, and deactivate specific services from a central dashboard. The setup includes a dynamic display, acoustics, and lighting that can be used to tailor the ambiance and interior.

Above: Kone DX Class elevator with display

Moreover, the display can adapt as the elevator goes up and down, with lights serving as cues to the car’s movement and how close they are to reaching their desired floor.

Above: The new Kone DX Class elevator

Among the examples demonstrated at the event yesterday, Kone illustrated how the display could effectively serve as a virtual window into the outside world. So if the building faces London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, for example, the landmark could be shown inside the elevator, with the visual perspective changing as the elevator moves.

Partners

One of the more high-profile service integration partners for Kone’s digital platform is Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, which residents could use to beckon a lift while they’re still inside their apartment, thus saving them from having to wait. But in the future, this could be extended to other use cases. “There are many possibilities,” Pihkala said.

Other API partners on board for the launch include Spotify-backed Soundtrack Your Brand, which has a self-stated mission to “kill bad background music” via a Spotify-like B2B music-streaming service*. For anyone that loves existing elevator music, this probably spells bad news, but for everyone else this partnership will allow landlords and building owners to customize the mood inside their elevators. Among the other partners mentioned at the launch event are service robot company Robotise and accessibility-focused navigation company BlindSquare. Indeed, BlindSquare, alongside Alexa, hint at the possibilities offered by connected elevators in terms of improving accessibility. The fledgling Finnish startup is working with Kone to help building owners direct visually impaired users toward the elevator using beacons and an app — BlindSquare essentially tracks the location of the user in relation to the elevator to keep them on the right path via a mobile app.

The Kone DX Class elevators will be available in Europe first from December 2019, with other markets following in 2020. Given that the platform can be retrofitted to existing installations as well as new builds, this hints at the potential for the platform to be expanded with new feature sets further down the line. One obvious use case here would be facial recognition services that automatically identify individuals to take them to the correct floor, though it could also have accessibility ramifications alongside — or in place of — voice services.

Computer vision-based technology isn’t part of the Kone DX Class elevator lineup at launch, but the company is already working on this kind of technology elsewhere in its business, so this could feature as part of the platform in the future.

“Computer vision is really one of the big things which we are working on quite a lot,” Pihkala added. “There are many use cases — facial recognition in the context of accessibility is a really obvious one for us.”

Above: The new Kone DX Class elevator

The connected elevator isn’t a new phenomenon, as most of the big providers — including Kone — already leverage sensors and analytics for predictive maintenance. But Kone’s embrace of connected services is notable from a business perspective, as it highlights how it’s pushing to monetize beyond mere elevator installations and maintenance. As seems to be the case for just about every company in the 21st century, Kone is adopting a subscription-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) model to generate recurring revenues after it sells its equipment.

“We are merging the technologies of tomorrow with the buildings of today to put the ‘smart’ into smart buildings,” Pihkala said. “We are changing our business profoundly towards a platform business. This means combining products and services over the lifetime of a building, which is very powerful.”

Lift off

Elevators don’t often constitute part of the narrative when urban innovation is discussed, but the mass transport system — and that is what it is — has transformed the very fabric of cities over the past century. The emergence of elevator safety systems specifically enabled cities to build higher and higher, transforming the upper floors — which were once servants’ quarters — into penthouses and plush apartments. It’s true that innovations such as steel and reinforced concrete contributed to the growth of high-rise properties, but without elevators nobody would want to live or work in them.

The world will be home to an estimated 10 billion people by 2050, one-quarter more than the Earth’s population today — and two-thirds of those will live in cities, according to United Nations figures. That’s a 10 percentage-point increase on today, and the only way to accommodate this influx of city-dwellers will be to build upwards. This will likely require more elevators.

“New technologies give us opportunities to create an integrated and easily adaptable building experience,” noted Kone president and CEO Henrik Ehrnrooth. “As buildings evolve, the elevators can also evolve in ways we have not seen before.”

*Article updated 12/02/19 to clarify that despite its affiliations with Spotify, Soundtrack Your Brand operates a separate licensing and technical infrastructure to Spotify.