Why “smart” homes may not be the best idea.

The July edition of Dwell Magazine deals with intelligent home automation – the quest to make our homes more “efficient” by making them smarter. Of course this is somewhat of a crock. It would be easier to make our homes more efficient by building them properly (specifically North America for the purposes of this conversation) . There is no benefit in trying to add technology to fix what is essentially a building problem. Take for example insulation. Smart thermostats are attempting to improve the climate of a house by better understanding how people live in the house. But less air-conditioning/heating would be needed in the summer/winter if the walls/roof were better insulated.

So what’s wrong with the “Internet of Things”, and the rush to fill our homes with technology? Firstly as I’ve mentioned before, we really don’t need it. We don’t need toasters with touch-screen interfaces, and washing machines that tell us when a red sock has been left in the white washing.

For example the Philips Hue lightbulb seems like a really cool idea. Control lights from a mobile app and change the hue of the light to any colour you wish – customizable to 16 million colours. But it isn’t exactly cheap – C$200 for the starter set with three bulbs, and the “bridge” that’s hooked into your wi-fi. You can basically turn these lights into a light show. The question is how often is this important? At christmas maybe? One of the problems with the original Hue, was the number of steps involved in turning on a light.

  1. Find your phone.
  2. Enter your password.
  3. Find the screen with the Hue app.
  4. Tap on the Hue app.
  5. Flick the “smart” switch.

Way too much effort compared to a simple light switch. They have since introduced the Hue Tap, a device to replicate the physical experience of the light switch. Uploading the control of everyday devices to your smartphone does nothing except increase your cognitive load. Need to lock your house, run an app; turn the lights on, run an app; make coffee? run an app. Tasks that we transparently performed before, now require more effort.

Smart technology doesn’t always work as planned. The Nest Protect smoke detector originally had a feature called “Wave”. This wave-to-silence feature in the first model ended up being a disaster, accidentally silencing the device during activation. Nest automatically disabled the feature. The Honeywell Lyric, smart thermostat is so smart it doesn’t have a a web interface, so you can’t change the temperature remotely; or manually program the thermostat to heat and cool on a schedule. Is that really smart? The Lyric also relies on the geo-fencing using a smartphone app to engage its proximity detector. When you leave it sets the system into “away” mode to save energy; crossing back into the selected “zone” restores the heating/cooling mode. But what if not everyone in the house has a cellphone?

Obviously these devices will evolve and get better. But ask yourself – do you really need it?



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