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.