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The smart home, a place where the latest devices integrate seamlessly to improve security, convenience, sleep, productivity, entertainment and relaxation while being more energy efficient. That’s the dream being sold by some of the biggest technology companies in the world. The reality, however, appears to be somewhat opposite.
The majority of do-it-yourself smart home installations are rife with integration problems that cause severe inconvenience, time wasting and stress. The usability promised by controlling all devices with a central “control panel” has failed to deliver with many owners just using the smart speakers as voice-controlled stereos or for asking the about the weather rather than to control the heating or turn on the lights. Unless all these devices can be controlled centrally, then the smart home represents overcomplicating the space that we want to be most comfortable.
At their latest own-brand hardware launch event, Google made a point of acknowledging the concerns they’ve heard from a large majority of users who say they’re feeling overwhelmed by too much technology. “We want to make sure you’re in control of your digital well-being,” they stated while simultaneously showing off a range of new technology it no doubt wants that large majority to buy.
“The company’s presenters attempted to sketch a vision of gadget-enabled domestic bliss but the effect was rather closer to described clutter-bordering-on-chaos, with existing connected devices being blamed (by Google) for causing homeowners’ device usability and control headaches — which thus necessitated another new type of ‘hub’ device which was now being unveiled, slated and priced to fix problems of the smart home’s own making,” said Natasha Lomas, senior reporter at TechCrunch, after the event.
Alongside the Pixel Slate tablet and Pixel 3 Smartphone with wireless charger, the Home Hub was unveiled at the event earlier this month. The device, available for $149, is essentially a touchscreen mounted on a speaker that promises to act as the intelligent control panel for our homes, using voice and touchscreen commands. Despite the stated intelligence, AI was primarily discussed in reference to their new photo selection software, which will use facial recognition to show photos of the most significant people in your life whenever the Home Hub is in standby mode.
“If the best example it can find to talk up is AI auto-picking which photos to display on a digital photo frame — at the same time as asking consumers to shell out $150 for a discrete control hub to manually manage all this IoT — that seems, well, underwhelming to say the least. If not downright contradictory,” wrote Lomas in an article titled ‘Google’s smart home sell looks cluttered and incoherent.’
Google is not alone in the home hub market but none have succeeded in creating a usable device that seamlessly connects with an ecosystem of other smart home devices. Amazon has probably come closest but its rapidly growing range of Echo products suggest that they are still trying to find the answer to what a control panel should look like.
At least the speaker on Google’s Home Hub faces forward unlike Amazon’s recent hub, the Echo Show 2. Niether company, meanwhile, has given any satisfactory answers to the problem of cyber security within the highly connected homes they are proposing.
Alongside music and weather forecasts, the smart home is essentially offerring consumers vulnerability to various forms of cyber attack, increased stress due to integration issues, the cost of hiring a professional to solve problems, and the fear that any of these problems could start with every new update.
Only technology enthusiasts are likely to put up with all that for very long but that’s not a small group. Techies and other early adopters are essential to iron out design creases and drive down the cost of production for any technology. That starts the money ball of regular upgrades for any successful technological frontier, as long as the technology is accepted.
So is the smart home doomed for failure, will society’s addiction to technology prevail, or will the sector find a way to uncomplicate control of the smart home ecosystem and create an offering that actually makes people’s lives better? Personally, I tend towards the latter, primarily because it is hard to see a part of our lives that will not be infiltrated by smart technology, let alone a key environment like the home, these massive, startup eating corporations will have to find the answer through innovation.
With the home, smart technology has found a market where the users are the owners and the buyers. They are, therefore, far more invested in the decision than those adopting smart devices for cities, grids, or large commercial buildings. More akin to the personel consumer electronics market in fact. At home, there is no technician on the payroll or freedom to go somewhere else to escape these inconveniences, even enthusiastic early-adopters have families that will soon help them lose patience.
The smart home offers a different challenge to the sector, not just one of connectivity but one that needs to understand the nuances of the residential environment, such as the value of security and wellbeing. The home is where the heart is and the heart makes decisions differently.