What’s missing in the smart home is the smarts

The hotel had thought of everything. A recent $25 million upgrade meant that no technology was overlooked. Twin iPads framed the sumptuous bed, another iPad was proudly installed on the living room wall, a wireless sound system, a 60-inch connected LED TV, even a smartphone with a custom-built app to be the  TV remote control and internal phone. My introduction to the smart home of the future.

But little to none of it worked. Turning on a light took seven key taps and a four-second wait, changing the temperature crashed the tablet. Every time. The TV bypassed broadcast technology allowing me to stream any global TV channel, with massive buffering delays and awful resolution. The smartphone to call the front desk had poor reception. Worst of all, the bedside iPads, even on their black home screen, emitted enough ambient light to make sleeping impossible. This may have been a sophisticated home, but it sure wasn’t smart.

My recent week at CES showed how so many technology companies are going about everything wrong. They are pushing out the hardware that companies want to make, what they discover in the lab, what can be made – not what people want.  It’s 4K TVs, 3D TVs, curved TVs, drones, 3D printers, connected umbrellas, fridges with massive screens that display the contents while you’re traveling home on the bus. A myriad of products that show no signs of ever being raised in a focus group.

What do customers want?

A huge amount of effort is being poured into highly impressive engineering, but there’s a total lack of thinking when it comes to product design or understanding customers.  The latest $100,000 TVs still have remote controls (the only part of the TV you touch) that look and feel cheap. We still have on-screen menus that look like they were designed in the eighties and menu interfaces of Kafkaesque taxonomy.

I often think that the best design needs constraints, that innovation comes from necessity. Now, it’s as if hardware makers have too much money to have to think. It’s mechanisms like Kickstarter and IndieGogo which fund ideas that people want and create the empathetic and creative products that will take over our hearts, wallets and homes. I note that the brands and products people really love or admire: Tesla, Apple, Amazon, even Microsoft, have no physical base at CES, It’s as if a booth is the price you pay for a unremarkable product.

The Interim of Things

I don’t think we’re seeing the Internet of Things yet; we’re in the Interim of Things.  We’re still at a time where things don’t quite work and don’t quite join up. Hardware and software are still developed like music lyrics and music – separately but together. Right now, it’s like the early stages of a planet – we have small ecosystems forming connections within their groups, but few signs of it all joining up.

The inputs of voice from Amazon, the protocols of Android or Apple, the outputs like speakers, lights and thermostats are all theoretically interlinked but the consumer experience is still poor.

3 steps to making the smart home really smart
  • Step one is really about understanding people. Let’s see how people live their lives and make solutions to problems. Can’t find what we want to watch on TV? Make a better search system. Struggling to make systems that work with natural interfaces? Find voice recognition software or gestural devices like Leap Motion and get them to work. Let’s ideate around use cases, turning off the heating when we’re out of the home unexpectedly, preheating the home earlier during an unexpected cold spell. Let’s think front doors that allow us to open them as we approach, smart ways to get the keys to cleaners, lighting systems based on moods that sync with TV content, prepared scenarios that make lighting, curtains, heating and music all work together.
  • Step two is about systems that work. If the Automatic app in my car can show me personal information that’s exceptionally useful, why does my Nest, which could deliver rich personal data, show me a dashboard with frustratingly little information? My Amazon Echo doesn’t work with my Zuli plugs and doesn’t really like my Sonos sound system, so each of these elements live alone, with their own separate apps. Each app needs updating each month and logs me out frequently. And every so often the whole thing just doesn’t work at all. Robustness is essential
  • Step three is better screens. We all have glossy new TVs that are internet-connected. Between my Amazon Echo, smart TV and mobile phone, I want to be able to get a real-time dashboard on what’s happening. I want easy control, beautiful data, and the easy creation of scenarios.
The potential is there

My frustration and negativity come from the huge potential that is being overlooked. The smart home and Internet of Things are being undermined by the fifth consecutive years of connected fridges that have no reason to exist, by smart forks and clever chop sticks. Even the Apple watch has struggled because it’s just not useful enough to warrant charging every day.

What we need is for the smart home to be better than the dumb home. We need lights to turn on and off without delays, for things to be faster, easier, simpler. We’re not there. The key test for the smart home is whether it’s making our lives easier – unless the smart solution is better, we’ll stick with the simple things that already work.

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6 Comments

  1. Mitchell Duncan on

    Acronymophobia – fear of acronyms.

    CES – You have assumed that casual readers of you article know what it means. Not all of the world lives in America !

    • The novelties of Smart Things annoys me tremendously. This is the Internet of Things, in a world that is connected, why can’t we think connected?! Why do we focus on novelties like turning your coffee maker on with your smart phone, when you get up from you smart mattress – instead of finding value gaps and tackling those. E.g. imagine a world where deliveries and real estate agents could use Smart Locks to help their business? But it’s the big brands who have launched their IOT products who are failing to tackle it, we should steer them in the right direction…

      I’m there with you on Acronymphobia, Mitchell. Especially if’s about the last iteration of YOLO. CES is a little bit of a brand name though and on a techforum, the writer could expect that most people know the World’s biggest technology conference. Also one Google search would help you, no reason to be snooty.

  2. Having tried various ‘smart’ devices I’ve come to the conclusion they’re drinking the ‘fail fast’ kool aid. That’s all fine but firstly they forgot the fast bit, and secondly consumers aren’t as forgiving as the management gurus. Neither is there any form of platform or OS that unite them all. I know Apple is having a go with its HomeKit but the glacial uptake and launch of compatible devices would say to me that manufacturers are still hoping their Betamax will be the standard. But whether it’s fintech or IoT the fundamental message and disruption here is not the content but, as Tom points out, the old fashioned process of finding out what customers want and giving it to them. Why do so many companies find this an unnecessary step ? Why do so many executives prefer investing in solutions first and worrying about the problem later ?

  3. Well said, good read. Was about time to rant about the bad design and unusable flood of products we have to cope with. The vendors try to keep up with modern evolution and throw in some necessities to provide app’s for a mobile to connect to their products. Functionality and reason come later. But there are some better trends, mostly not noticed due to the tremendous amount of things connecting with some internet app. A hotel might need someone to advice how to get things working and should not spend all the budget for gadgets alone. Internet speed, filtering, prioritizing traffic, firewalls, voip systems and other services might need more attention to provide performance. As with all new inventions, you should wait till its working or stay close to the vendor to receive updates and bug fixes.

  4. Totally agree. I think the spectrum goes between useful and “techie for the sake of being techie”. We seem to be stuck at “techie for the sake of being techie”.

  5. This article highlights the perennial problems of mission creep, silo thinking and lack of direction. Well done TG.
    It may be a generation thing but I strongly believe we’re in a period where prioritisation is being overlooked. The priority in this case being to establish a clear vision and set the foundation; the infrastructure from which relevant things can be developed.
    I only need my devices to work in a hotel, I do not need to use someone else’s tablet. I only need a wall thermostat, comfortable bed, above all I need a competitively priced, clean functional room. Connectivity can be solved outside, not a major inconvenience.
    So looking across the Internet of Things and the Connected-Car my thoughts are don’t lose sight of your customers’ needs and differentiate by things which are relevant to customers, not what is possible from the laboratory.
    Products introduced need to be relevant, reliable, add value and bring benefits to our lives , we do not need products which exist only to satisfy a techy’s personal ego.

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