Making the Smart House a Home

As this is my first post, I wanted to introduce myself.  The one thing you should know is that I’m one of those “tech” guys. I love trying new stuff and always have throughout my life, from the first generation Newton in 1993 to, more recently, drones and the Nest Thermostat.  Like many of us tech-folks, I grew up looking to Sci-Fi movies for a squinty glimpse of the future. The Jetsons TV show especially made me smile – living in a smart house high in the sky, flying cars, and Rosie the Robot rolling around to meet my every need.  

But what made the Jetsons’ home so charming was not the technology, but rather the joy the family shared during their misadventures – a joy that came from their personal connections and confidence. In their future, technology was both hit and miss.  Sometimes it was so awful it made us laugh. I can’t count how many times George was accidentally folded into his smart bed.

In Silicon Valley’s hot pursuit to rollout more and more smart home products, I worry that we are just making more ill behaved folding beds, festooned with sensors and AI, that promise convenience but just frustrate us.  Many smart home products over the past 5 years have become so irritating, that they are thrown into drawers and abandoned. They don’t even pass some of the most basic principles. Here are a few fundamental guidelines that we as an industry must start following if we ever hope to positively integrate into people’s lives:

  • Be Familiar: No one wants to learn a new way to cook, change the temperature, open a door or adjust the lights. Technology products must leverage familiar user paradigms.
  • Be Invisible:  Very few people want a home full of technology gadgets.  New empowering technologies must be integrated seamlessly and invisibly into our homes or into other products we already use.  
  • Be Quiet: Products can’t keep notifying and updating us all of the time.  These little pings are slowly and systematically making us all crazy!
  • Respect Privacy:  If we can’t trust that our homes are a bastion of privacy, then we can’t truly feel at ease.  Products must not siphon off or share user data without explicit consent and clarity around how exactly that information is being used.  
  • Fail In Endearing Ways: When devices make mistakes or fail (and all products do at some point), they must fail gracefully.  New products can and will make mistakes, but if that failure is endearing, we will smile, not throw them away. For example, if my lighting system can anticipate where I’m going and proactively illuminate my path at night, it is pure magic. And if the technology makes an error and occasionally lights the wrong path, that mistake can be endearing. On the other hand, it the system turns my lights off while I’m reading because it thinks the room is unoccupied, it is totally unacceptable.  My rule is that a product is worth taking to market only if it’s possible failures can be perceived as endearing

But those are simply the baseline.  They do not enable a promise of better living.  To direct technology to help create homes (not houses), we must go beyond these basic considerations.  We embrace what a happy healthy home truly is. There are two areas we must fully focus on:

    • Providing a safe place from which to explore.  I remember as a young psychology student that the most secure children came from homes where they always felt safe – both physically and emotionally.  Technology will increasingly guard both our physical and emotional wellbeing. Of course we will all get to enjoy security systems that don’t just “scream” when an intruder opens a door, but will grow to learn when it is actually an intruder versus just a family member.  These systems will learn about our personal health and silently but continuously look for anomalies. Think heart rates, respiration, activity level, quality of sleep and yes, changes in social interactions. These will need to work invisibly and appropriately engage us.
    • Strengthening human relationships.  Real social interactions are the the most important indicators of happiness and are the single best predictor of health and even longevity. Technology can be used to pull people together by creating special moments in time.  Imagine a family home where, at dinner time, the room’s lighting transitions from a brightly illuminated “cooking and studying” scene to a calmer, dimly illuminated “family dinner” time that emphasized the dinner table, turns on soft music and disabled WiFi for 45 minutes. In a very simple and subtle way, our homes work to refocus our attention and to adjust our mood.

Today, six in ten Americans agree that Smart Homes will change our lives significantly within the next few years. That future can be overwhelming, or it can be empowering.  For me, home should be a place where we barbecue with friends and family, watch movies and clean dishes with our kids. It’s also a place where my daughter is still responsible for feeding the cat. Yes, in my ideal future, we’ll all still have chores to do, because for me it helps give purpose. Home can go beyond a WiFi connected world to a place that is deeply personal – a place where technology actually helps to create that sense of belonging where we can better connect with others.

I’ve touched on a lot of topics. In upcoming posts, I’ll dig more deeply into a few!


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