The networked home is something of an emerging zeitgeist, offering today's consumers a domestic dreamworld in which every object in your house can be remotely controlled, synced together and activated according to preset patterns, from heating systems and coffee makers to alarms and personalised lighting.
At Pepcom last night, the various hubs and subsystems that would make this vision real were on display at a variety of tables scattered around the convention space; when you weren't left speechless by the sight of actors wandering around dressed like dwarves from The Wizard of Oz or simply mesmerised by surreal filmloops of unidentified people packing tomatoes into plastic bags on the HD screens of enormous new televisions — this was a real video and I watched it — you might have spied the routers, thermostats, alarm systems, motion sensors, door locks and more from companies such as Honeywell, Schlage, Nexia and Revolv.
They — and many other companies not attending Pepcom, such as Iris — are orchestrators of a new vision of the modern household. The home is perhaps now seen less as a warm and cozy space defined by the personalities of the people who live there and more as an immersive constellation of technical objects all communicating with one another about their real-time statuses and needs. We will live amongst familial systems of intelligent things, these companies proselytise, our houses now inhabited networks preprogrammed and responsive to our most impulsive needs.
Indeed, the notion that these devices are, in a sense, the future of the family has carried over even to the metaphors used by tech companies themselves; witness, for instance, the much-hyped Mother system of communicating sensors exhibited here at CES. "She knows everything without needing to ask," the company tells us, ignoring the somewhat sinister implications. Indeed, Mother offers "the meaning of life," we read, operating "at the head of a family of small connected sensors that blend into your daily life to make it serene, healthy and pleasurable."
Like much poorer versions of Tony Stark — who, beneath all the rockets and gusto, spends most of his time home alone in a windowless room, talking to machines — we seem destined to replace our loved ones with interactive surrogates, and the automated, networked home is an early glimpse of what this might look and feel like.
Honeywell was on hand, for example, to show off their voice-activated thermostat. To operate it, you'll simply preface whatever thermal command you want to unleash on your household with the magic words, "Hello, thermostat" — and voila, the machine is yours, raising or lowering temperature as needed. The system can learn your voice, as well, and thus respond to any idiosyncrasies in your accent or intonation, but either I wasn't phrasing my question clearly enough or the possibility that the system, Siri-like, would misunderstand or misinterpret user commands didn't seem to be a source of concern for the spokespeople I met. They were instead — entirely justifiably — more enthused with the accuracy of the displayed temperature, the fact that the thermostat is precise to within one degree of the actual thermal results. When I asked if something like a television show — where a character says, "Hello, thermostat" — could inadvertently turn on the device, the rep laughed and said that, well, yes, this would in fact affect the system.
I remember as a kid, for example, hearing stories that The Clapper would activate in people's houses, turning lights on and off, when two rhythmic claps, for whatever reason, popped up in a TV show or even in a piece of music, and it's not at all hard to imagine a world where, given widespread enough use of the Honeywell thermostat, people might deliberately prank the system by telling hello, thermostat jokes on TV. The idea of people hacking your automated home through a kind of media-enabled power of suggestion — ghostly voice commands from outside the home causing the heat to go up and up and up — is by no means far-fetched.
Next up, I stopped by the Nexia/Schlage table to learn more about their coordinated system of objects, something Gizmodo has explored before. There were some incredibly interesting possibilities here, ones that are shared with the Revolv system (with which I spent almost no time at all, and so simply mention here to acknowledge their presence at the trade show).
There were two particularly interesting takeaways from the Nexia/Schlage system. The first was simply its rethinking of the front door lock: rather than use a physical key, you instead enter a numeric code like a PIN on a digital keypad. What this also allows, however, is multiple PINs for different people — parents, kids, even housecleaners — with the result that you will be able to know who is coming and going, and to track when they do so. What this will do to teenagers sneaking out of the house at night is nothing less than a tragedy, I have to say, although it's obviously not up to me to say how you should raise your kids. All I know is that my entire life would be different — for good or for bad, who knows — if I had not been able to leave the house undetected as a teenager.
Additionally, this means you can program allowable windows of time for certain codes to work — in other words, the code 1-2-3-4 might only work from 9am to noon on Tuesdays, say, and that's thus the code that you assign to your housecleaner. Effectively, this just takes secure door systems from the world of business and applies it to the home, with the possible result of over-fortifying and invasively tracking family members' use of domestic space.
However, what I was much more captivated by in the Nexia/Schlage guy's discussion of this was how you can use the overall Nexia system to program internal lighting programs specific to different users of the space. Like saving driver's seat settings in a car, you can save and trigger certain lighting patterns in the house (he used the example of his three-year-old daughter needing specific lights at night).
This is an existing technology, of course, and won't be news to anyone, but the architectural implications here seem pretty awesome. You could, for example, illuminate certain objects — works of art, say, or particular knick-knacks and souvenirs — that would otherwise be impossible to see without that specific lighting regime turned on. You want to look at your prized vase collection or a bunch of little paintings, but you don't want anyone else to see them? You can program blind spots and zones of invisibility into your home using these personalised settings.
Taken to its extreme, you could thus assign a secure code to different internal lighting patterns and effectively use light to redesign the interior of a building in near-infinite ways, allowing people to see certain objects or, with the help of internal glass windows and one-way mirrors, hiding entire rooms from view until someone with the correct code comes along to activate that specific lighting system.
Like some strange series of initiations — a secret society of chiaroscuro-obsessed electricians — you could even work your way up to the ultimate lighting code for the interior of a building, thus only truly seeing the interior the way the architect or owner once imagined it, hiding rooms and objects in plain sight until you have earned your illuminative access. Or your grandfather dies and you inherit nothing but a lighting code, and everyone ridicules you... till you go back into his house alone one night, type in the code, and miraculously reveal the existence of several small rooms behind frosted glass, now lit from within and revealing your true inheritance.
In any case, the idea that you can customise a house so thoroughly that one building could, in effect, have multiple interiors available to different people at different times is easily one of the most interesting promises of home automation.
Creatively misusing these networked systems to explore the most radical implications of home design in an age of networked objects will thus be as much about enabling certain lifestyles as it will be about a kind of soft power version of architectural design, giving architects and homeowners a surprisingly deep level of control over the experience of a space, from how it is illuminated to its room temperature, background sounds, and humidity.