Understanding the Connected Home: Framing the Debate

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.

As connectivity is increasingly seeping into our homes, we need to ask ourselves: What’s a smart home? What is it today and what’s the vision for a potential tomorrow? In which ways will the connected home manifest itself?

Low-hanging fruit: Automation & Personalization

Currently, two fields get most attention in the smart home debate: Automation and personalization.

Automation includes things like learning thermostats and remote-controlling locks and lights.

Personalization includes bringing your personal preferences to the space, like through pre-set mood lighting, or bringing your own media and playlists.

It seems to me that both are very much low-hanging fruit. The comparatively easy availability of these fields, plus the fact that they are well-established mental models that require basically no change on the users’ side make these the basic go-to scenarios. They are also, I think, somewhat boring and just an interstitial step.

But an interstitial step to where? That’s hard to predict, and figuring that out is part of this whole excercise.

There aren’t many connected homes

Over the last few months, I’ve made a point of asking a lot of people which connected objects they have in their houses (not counting smartphones, tablets, laptops). It wasn’t many. Even in this almost ludicrously biased-towards-early-adopters group I talked to you hardly find any connectedness: Some game consoles and smart TVs, yes. Some NEST thermostats, a Philips Hue lightbulb here and there, sure. But that was about it. (In our home, there are some bluetooth speakers and we had a set of Alex’s lovely Good Night Lamp before we brought them to Casa Jasmina as house warming gifts. That’s just about it.)

The reasons are simple, and even this group of early adopters – many of who design connected products and services for a living – everybody has been blunt about it: The current offerings offer (mostly) fairly marginal value, or aren’t compatible with either other technical platforms or (more interestingly) social norms.

If I had to summarize the overall response in one sentence, I’d go with: “I just don’t need it.”

And that’s very interesting. Because everybody agrees there’s a huge market in connecting the home, and most would simultaneously agree that as a user the things offered don’t make a whole lot of sense at least to the wider public.

The home is first and foremost a safe space. A place of retreat and relaxation. A space that must never be challenging, but supportive. If we add any complexity or complication to the home, we chip away at its core functionality.

How will the connected home start?

In a recent conversation a software developer friend asked where I see the smart home going, where I was standing on the issue: It’s hard to tell.

One the one hand I’m convinced that connectivity will definitively seep in to our homes, like it does everywhere else. On the other hand I find the current manifestations somewhere along the spectrum between “somewhat boring” and “super creepy”.

So the way I’m approaching this whole field is with as much of a beginner’s mind as I can: Trying to figure out what the questions are that we need to ask; what the real issues are.

As for adaption of connectivity inside our homes, I have no doubt that it will happen. Not out of some techno-deterministic world view, but because we learned over the last couple of decades that connectivity & data add value to all parts of our lives if done right.

I assume that the ways this will happen will seem odd for a while, and that it will happen not along the lines of well-established metaphors like automation or personalization: These will likely seem as quirky and ridiculous in hindsight as the futuristic computerized kitchen did in the 1950s (both in terms of gender roles and the technological aspects):

Rather, the smart will manifest in ways both banal and novel, and the vector will (hopefully, and most likely) be smarts that are “on the user”, in whichever way. If I had to guess, I’d say they will be probably fairly low-tech, bottom up interventions that just make things a little easier, more interesting, more useful: A connected home should help us be more human, more ourselves.


As of today, I work under the assumption that it will take another 10 years or so for most homes to cross some kind of “connectedness threshold” – with the notable exception (and I’m painting in broad strokes here) of Asia’s mega cities, where often large-scale network infrastructure is dropped right into the new buildings to a much higher degree than in many Western cities, where retro-fitting is a bigger thing.

The way we will get used to the technologies, and where we will thus also develop the social norms around these kind of new interactions, is most likely through the vectors of retail spaces, office buildings, and hotels: Interstitial, transactional contexts where we engage much more openly with infrastructure due to the temporary nature of the interaction. Places where we are more accepting of privacy-diminishing interactions if they either come with a net gain or if they seem, frankly, simply unavoidable. Then, over time, these things will find their ways into our homes.

Negotiating data engagements

Whenever we enter or leave a connected environment, some type of data engagement will take place. Whether it is opt-in or opt-out or something more granular, whether it is an all-or-nothing, binary choice like a EULA, or something negotiated between humans or software agents: We need to find ways to make this type of interaction and exchange understandable, human- and machine-readable, and negotiable.

It seems better to discuss today how to get this right, or at least how to ask the right questions that will arise tomorrow.

Vectors for further inquiry

Automation and personalization are just two possible vectors through which connectedness enters the connected home. I’d like to throw into the mix some other aspects – other vectors for further inquiry if you will. All of these aspects might have an impact on the way we live with our connected homes and vice versa:

So let’s not forget about health, privacy, data ownership, citizenship, EULAs and consumer rights, data mobility, smart city, connected car, mobility, engagement with the urban fabric and with connected vehicles, layered services, identity, gender, research, analytics, insurance, accessibility, wellness, emotional states, context-based services, algorithms and AI, societal value, IP, openness, interoperability, robustness. To name just a few.

Update (11 Aug 2015): I highly recommend Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s thoughts about Casa Jasmina and the home of the future.

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