There has been a lot of anguish in the smart home world about how long the concept is taking to come to fruition, how poorly everything works, how hard it is to set up and how devices don't talk to each other.
But perhaps there's a deeper, more fundamental problem: that it doesn’t yet do anything all that useful.
A telling example is the new Brain of Things Smart Home. It’s interesting because it's being built into rental housing in Silicon Valley, California, just south of San Francisco.
It’s the brainchild of Ashutosh Saxena, a research fellow at Stanford University who complains about how much attention is being paid to self-driving cars, noting that “People spend 5.5 percent of their lives in cars. We spend 68.7 percent of our time in our homes.” (He doesn’t tell us how much of that time we spend awake, but no matter.)
He equipped these apartments with 20 motion sensors and connected lighting, appliances, heating and air conditioning.
With a Brain of Things smart home, you experience modern, effortless living. The curtains open automatically; they learn to wake you up with natural sunlight. The lights know when to turn on, and even set colors that match your mood. The front door unlocks as you come home, and the home alerts you if there is unexpected activity while you're away. Residents feel safe, and can control their home using a smartphone as well as their voice.
There is a robot vacuum and even a smart connected feeding system for Rosie the dog. Speaking to MIT Technology Review, Saxena notes:
“The house knows the context, whether [its occupants] were watching a movie or sleeping or whatever. As they are walking around the house, our house follows how they are acting, and it can know a lot.”
So a resident can operate the apartment in the normal way by flicking a switch, or via a smartphone, but the ultimate goal is to have the apartment learn the user's preferences and do it all automatically. It all seems like a good idea.
And then you watch the cheesy video above and begin to wonder. Because there's nothing special about motion-activated light switches, lots of coffee machines have timers (and you still have to set them up the night before) automatic blinds have been around forever and so have Roomba vacuums. And really, Rosie the dog should not be left home alone all day and fed by robots. Furthermore the robotic apartment just aids and abets the creepy boyfriend who ignores the woman's romantic interests and invites people over to a party without telling her.
The tenants of these smart apartments are supposed to pay an extra $125 a month for the privilege of having all this tech, but it's hard to imagine that anyone would, because really, there's nothing that it does that's really special. But it’s early in the game, as another researcher in the field notes:
“Home automation is only going to get more useful as more advanced sensing technologies come out of the laboratory and into the home,” says Kamin Whitehouse, an associate professor at the University of Virginia.
However Whitehouse thinks there will be significant benefits for the elderly and the disabled, for whom getting up to flick a light switch or to close the blinds can be a struggle. All those sensing technologies will be useful in tracking them and ensuring their safety as well.
Back in the Brain of Things apartment, Saxena claims that people flick the lights on and off an average of 100 times a day, and they will recognize the benefits of this. “One day people will think it very stupid they had to get up to turn on the lights.”
Perhaps he’s right, but really, for most people it’s not that hard.