1989’s Back To The Future II features a scene in which Jennifer is carried back to her house by police officers in the year 2015. Having scanned her thumb on the biometric keypad, one of the officers notes that she should have her house ‘programmed’ to light up upon her entry, for it’s dangerous to come back to a dark home. Like with so many other pieces of technology, Back To The Future’s vision of the home has proven oddly prophetic, with smart home technology rapidly proliferating and making its way into the mainstream.
The potential for the smart home is so immense that many commentators expect it to be the next smartphone battle. With a projected 75.44 billion connected devices in use globally by 2025 - compared with 20.35 billion this year - there is clearly enough scale in the Internet of Things to have major incumbents taking notice. The likes of Apple, Google, Samsung, and Amazon have been quick to secure a place in the market, all offering slightly different products around the idea of the smart home. It’s arguable, though, that Amazon’s Echo is the closest we currently have to a truly smart assistant, and there is a long way to go before the average Joe is controlling their toaster with their voice.
Control of the smart home is about more than automation and cognitive technology within the home, however. On a greater scale, it’s about the growth of digital assistants more widely, with all of the biggest tech companies piling resources into voice-controlled bots. Take Google’s Assistant as an example. Clearly, the tech giant sees its assistant as one for the future, and it’s backed by Google’s top level machine learning technology and its immense technological infrastructure. The growth of Assistant and the growth of Google Home are intimately dependent, but it’s the former that Google will go to great lengths to put everywhere it can, and in every device it can. Amazon’s Alexa currently has tools that Google is yet to introduce to Home but, as the big tech companies get serious about smart home competition, expect to see the rate of development gain pace.
Someone who clearly sees potential in the smart home as a mainstream concept is Android creator and tech demigod Andy Rubin. His current company, Essential, has created the first smart home-focused smartphone, the PH-1. Breaking into the very well established smartphone market will be no mean feat for the celebrated tech entrepreneur, but Essential hopes that by creating a platform for smart home technology it can carve out a space in the market. The company described its own plans to become ‘the open platform that will power the billions of phones, watches, light bulbs, and toaster ovens about to come online.’ According to TechCrunch, the company’s plan is two-fold - to embrace open-source as much as possible and to develop a virtual assistant capable of learning as it grows and challenging the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant.
For now, though, the smart home will continue its small steps to widespread adoption, and there are a handful of areas in which its impact will be felt more quickly than others. Energy companies, for example, are in many cases offering smart thermostats as part of their upgrade packages, and it’s through mainstream consumer products like these that the smart home will begin to take shape.
One of the areas in which the smart home will have a significant impact is accessibility. For many, voice control and automation are a way to bypass limited motor functions or visual impairment. The story of Todd Stabelfeldt is a good example of this - accidentally shot as a child, Todd is a complete quadriplegic with no movement below his shoulders.
Using Apple’s Home app along with the iPhone’s voice recognition software and Switch Control, Todd is able to control almost everything within his home. A simply command like ‘Hey Siri, I’m arriving home’ will deactivate the house’s security alarm, turn on the lights, and open the garage door. Todd can do everything from dimming the dining room lights to 20% to creating full automated sequences like his arrival home, all through voice and all through Siri. As the capabilities of the smart home develop and it becomes more intelligent as a technology, people with limited mobility like Todd will be afforded more and more independence. In the development of technology, those that could benefit most from it are rarely part of the conversation. For people such as Todd, though, these developments can be life changing.
Another promise of the smart home is both improved security and more convenient security. Two companies - Ring and Kuna - are offering smart solutions to home security that incorporate both AI and clever design to put homeowners at ease. Ring’s key product is a video doorbell that can alert a user to activity at their door and relay live, HD video to a smartphone so users can assess and talk to the visitor, choose to open the door, or sound an alarm from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Kuna offers outdoor lights with two-way intercom and HD cameras inbuilt to similar effect. Both can determine whether the movement is a person or something else, they can identify what the person was driving if they parked directly outside the property, and can recognize certain individuals through machine learning.
The development of the smart home is likely to be less of an explosion and more of a slow integration built through incremental updates and improvements. For the visually or physically impaired, the technology has the potential to change lives, offering an independence not previously possible. For other users, it will offer improved security, a more intuitive home, and just enough gimmicks to make the whole thing quite exciting.