Remember the last time you needed to tweet from your refrigerator’s built in LCD?
Neither do I.
Yet features like this continue to make headlines in the world of the “smart” home. Dim your lights from the couch. Adjust your thermostat with an app. Close your shades with a voice command. Are these things cool? Definitely. But are they truly smart? I’m not convinced.
Today’s Smart Home
Don’t get me wrong, I love home automation and all of these products. It’s why I’m writing this and why Modern Smart Home exists in the first place. If it can connect to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, I’ve connected it. I’ve spent countless hours wiring up LEDs and motion sensors and programming microcontrollers. If you’re an enthusiast, you’ve probably done the same. And if you’re an enthusiast, you can create some amazing things with the tools and sensors readily available today. But the key word here is enthusiast.
For the rest of the world, the non-enthusiasts, the smart home is a pretty disappointing buzzword. If you’re not interested in remote controlled thermostats and power outlets, there’s not much in it for you. Even if remote controlled power outlets are what you live for, getting them set up might prove to be more work than it’s worth. Most products are seriously lacking in one or more of the following categories:
Setup and Maintenance
Smart products will inevitably require some form of setup, especially if you’re connecting them to a protected Wi-Fi network. The most common way of accomplishing this is by pairing the device to your smart phone via Bluetooth and a special, product-specific app. This allows you to connect the device to your network and get everything set up. The product shouldn’t require much maintenance after this, but if there’s a power outage, connectivity issues, or you make changes to your Wi-Fi network, you may have to configure the product locally via Bluetooth again. If the product is in your home this isn’t a big deal. But, if you’re monitoring a thermostat at your cottage in another county that keeps disconnecting, maintenance issues can be a real problem.
Some products do this well, while others don’t even make it past the setup. No joke, I own several pieces of hardware that I couldn’t get working at all. In one case the accompanying app wasn’t supported on my iPhone 4, which meant I couldn’t set it up, let alone use it. This one was a gift without a gift receipt, so I decided to hold onto it until upgrading to a newer phone. Guess what happened when I got an iPhone 5s and tried again? The setup simply failed and the developers stopped supporting it months prior. Frustrating.
Smart products can become exponentially smarter when they talk to each other. Imagine an HVAC system that knows when rooms get used and only heats/cools them when necessary. Imagine background music and ambient lighting throughout your home that knows what kind of mood you’re in and changes accordingly. Imagine telling your kitchen what you want for dinner, and moments later getting a list sent to your phone of what ingredients you already have and a shopping list for what you’re missing.
The possibilities are endless.
Sure, you can accomplish some of this with existing products, but they’re far from user friendly. Connecting disparate products means creating custom integrations that are off limits for the average consumer. Some companies, such as Nest and Samsung, are investing in product “ecosystems” that play nicely together, but even then you’re stuck with whatever products they offer. This is by no means a bad thing since the alternative is zero integration, but we’d love to see even more interoperability between brands.
There’s also the task of defining “rules” for these integrations, but that’s a topic for another day.
Sometimes it’s just easier to flip a physical light switch than pull out your phone, launch an app, and flip a virtual switch. Unless remote control is solving a real problem, like adjusting your cottage’s thermostat from 200 miles away, I hesitate to call it smart. Smart products should solve a problem, automate a process, anticipate a need, or make your life measurably easier or more enjoyable. For the easily entertained, like myself, most smart products make my life more enjoyable. Few of them, though, make it easier. I’m extremely interested in the latter.
The tech world is famous for producing great products wrapped in ugly black plastic. That’s fine when your tech is hidden in the entertainment center, but once you hang it on the wall next to your framed art, the black plastic just isn’t good enough. Companies like Apple and Tesla have proven that technology can be beautiful. As technology becomes more prevalent in our daily lives, good design will only become more important. Or, even better, it will seamlessly integrate into our surroundings and we won’t even notice it.
Smart Home of Tomorrow
We believe modern smart home products should embody all four of the qualities listed above: effortless setup, whole-home integration, anticipating our needs and design that would make Charles and Ray Eames proud. The barrier to entry will fall and every home will slowly get smarter. Novelty products will give way to more functional devices that save us time and money. Your home will understand what you’re doing, help you do it better and improve on itself over time. Your home will learn from other homes. The home is becoming more than shelter or a place to raise a family.
Please, join us in exploring the future of the Modern Smart Home.