Manufacturers promised we would just tell our houses to raise the heat or order milk. Instead, we have 27 remotes, three keypads, eight portable devices and about 50 instruction manuals Modern homes are bursting at the seams with complex security, home entertainment, lighting and energy management systems, but all of it exists in isolation and almost none of it is user friendly.
“Right now, all we are doing is designing homes with more and more technology in them that nobody is using,” said Lyn Bartram, associate professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts + Technology, and one of the pioneers of West House, an ambitious sustainable-home experiment in Vancouver. “We can’t just add it on and expect people to use it. It has to act the way we live our lives.”
To illustrate, Bartram points to the programmable thermostat, once billed as “the answer to helping people manage their heating.” But these overly complex and difficult-to-use devices were only ever employed by one-third of homeowners. Bartram believes the programmable thermostat failed to live up to its promise because its designers overlooked one key aspect of human nature: “that most of us don’t live according to very rigid schedules.”
Part technology showcase, R&D test bed and living lab, West House is a modern family home geared for maximum energy efficiency. Its Adaptive Living Interface System seeks to integrate energy consciousness and smooth device control into the daily routines of residents through touchscreens embedded around the house.
“People are used to doing things like hitting light switches and turning on the security system,” Bartram said. So, the researchers sought to “build a love of those smarts” into their home. One outstanding feature of West House is its “energy saver mode.” When leaving the house, for example, residents can choose to click a Web page, touch a key on their smartphone or hit an old-fashioned light switch to power down the entire domicile.
“My question is not: can you talk to your house? But: when it is it appropriate to do so?” In some cases, she said, “it may be very natural…to use voice to talk to your home.” But at other times, a cellphone may be a more convenient and appropriate way to communicate, “like when you’re heading home and you want the lights and heat to come on.”
Matching the hype
Lawrence Surtees, research vice-president of communications at IDC Canada, recalls being “trotted out” in the mid-1990s to see a new smart-home subdivision in Ottawa. “They told us how wonderful it would be that your fridge would tell you when it’s out of milk. Well guess what? We’re still just talking about that stuff almost two decades later.”
Surtees points to LG’s range of smart fridges as emblematic of the benefits of smart technology not living up to its costs. Are consumers really raising their quality of life by entering data into their fridge, just so it can tell them when they’re out of juice? Surtees doesn’t believe the whole smart home concept will ever live up to its hype until that fridge “is connected to Sobey’s and the truck shows up when I run out.”
Eric Smith, chief technology officer of Control4, a smart-home technology provider, is working to “make the homeowner more of a conductor as opposed to just a user.” Its HC-250 central control module, for example, acts as the “brains” of your house. It doesn’t talk, but it can communicate in other ways, like sending you a text to notify you when your kids are home from school, or when there’s a leak in your basement.
“While some may expect particular aspects of the smart home to be more advanced, it’s important to recognize all of the moving pieces and their need to work seamlessly together.” The good news, he said, is that new mobile management applications are now making it particularly “simple and inexpensive to control and manage your home, and the devices and appliances within it from anywhere at any time.”
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