Understanding the Connected Home: Ground Rules

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Understanding the Connected Home is an ongoing series that explores the questions, challenges and opportunities around increasingly connected homes. (Show all posts on this blog.). Update: As of Sept 2015, we turned it into a larger research project and book at theconnectedhome.org.

Five years from now the moment we enter a home might require some decisions from us: It might be a transition into a connected space, and it might not be obvious how connected it is, and in which ways. Yet, these are essential things to know to make an informed decision.

Consider some of the following scenes. (Please note that many of examples used here might be framed rather more extreme than we might encounter in real life, in order to provoke some thoughts and jog our creativity.)

  • The moment we approach the door we might be scanned, visually via camera, or maybe for data transmissions: Do we get a say in this? Or will it be as commonplace as a ringer with a CCTV camera as we’ve been using them for years?
  • Once you step inside, will the smart home welcome us, or examine us more heavyhandedly through a set of scans, say maybe by probing our vital signs, our digital ID or our data-transmitting devices? Will it be firewalled against virus-infections our phones might have that we are not even aware of?
  • Will a voice personally greet us inside, or will the home not be aware of who we are? Will be be able to have the home greet us in a way we personally prefer, even if it’s not our own home but a friend’s?

These are just some simple examples of a first encounter with a connected space: What way is there to communicate what will happen? How can the house manage expectations? And can we opt out or is this a click-OK-end-the-end-of-the-EULA type situation?

Now zoom in, from this isometric outside view that considers the home as one unit, viewed from some distance. We’re now in a friend’s living room: How does the room convey to us what’s going on, how do we convey to the room what we expect of it?

Zoom in even further and consider individual things: The vase on the table, the ebook on the sofa table, the lamp in the shelf, the digital picture frame on the wall. Which of these things are hooked up to a network? Which ones sense and collect data, which ones create or send data? Which ones are happy to just do their thing passively (maybe the vase measures carbon monoxide levels), which ones expect our interactions (maybe the picture frame offers us to share some of our own preferred images on it)?

How would any of these things be communicated? As things stand today, we usually invite smart objects into our lives only after a certain amount of deliberation, simply because they are the exception rather than the rule: If we buy a Nest thermostat, we more or less know what we are doing. Increasingly, as connectivity retreats more into the background, the fabric of our lives, we will see more subtle ways of interactions. It is very likely that we will not recognize any particular connected device simply because there will be so many more; they will just be around, maybe with little or no consideration.

A blunt approach would be labeling: A set of icons that indicate what is collecting data, what is transmitting data, what is analyzing data. What reacts, what just does its thing without requiring our oversights. Which spaces in the apartment are “dead zones” of perfect privacy.

icons “Does this thing listen or watch? Does it share data to the cloud?” Some possible connected device engagement icons. Source: Noun Project (eye by Thomas Le Bas, ear by Søren Michelsen, cloud by Aaron K. Kim).

Labeling does not, of course, scale in the least. It is inelegant, entirely undesirable and takes too much active consideration to be practical in day to day life. It is not, in other words, legible enough to serve its purpose: Just like a legal contract offers all relevant information but isn’t really, truly “human-readable”, this wouldn’t quite do the trick.

Maybe a direct machine-to-machine approach might be more powerful: We set our personal preferences (pur own ground rules) that are saved in a device we always have on ourselves (phones, fitness tracker…) and the home transmits its own ground rules. Algorithmically, both negotiate what’s going to happen based on ground rules that we have established as social norms. This is certainly interesting. But it also is a highly technical solution, which brings its own set of complications. If, for example, a person chooses not to have/use the device or app that transmits their personal ID and preferences, the system might not recognize them. The person might, for all practical purposes, not exist as far as the house is concerned, much like the Nest thermostat doesn’t necessarily play well with multi-person households in which not everyone uses the Nest app.

We need to develop a vocabulary for these kind of interactions

Currently, these are all just questions: A kind of stream of consciousness that sounds banal at best and creepy at worst. None of these scenarious sound desirable. Before we can focus on the opportunities that a connected home can offer – for ways a smart home can help us be more human, more ourselves – we might need to evolve a vocabulary for all the many types of interactions we will be increasingly facing. Otherwise our questions and answers are bound not to fit the challenges we want to consider.

To understand and communicate the ground rules for the connected home, we need to find the words to describe them.

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