One year on from a wave of global lockdowns, consumer tech companies around the world are beginning to reflect on how well they adapted to seismic changes in customer needs.
Many of them had to pivot their offering overnight to address heightened concerns and values around hygiene, health, home and wellness. However, in the process, some have rushed down the path of developing solutions which address short term opportunities, rather than longer term needs.
This has led to product launches which champion style over substance –failing to realize the potential in how new technologies can enhance, rather than undermine, how we will live in the near future.
Last year, we noted that technology for the home which fosters our sense of comfort, wellbeing and community was still lacking in many respects. With a totally different landscape one year on, brands are being presented with more opportunities and challenges to integrate meaning into technology than ever before. We've collected a few examples of these below, with suggestions for how brands and developers can chart the best course forward.
Can robots really provide meaningful companionship?
The Samsung Bot Handy
The coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency and weight to the other, often unseen, global pandemic: feelings of loneliness and isolation. Whilst many view tech as being part of the problem, the last 12 months have also seen an array of brands using AI and robotics to try and solve it – with varying degrees of success.
Samsung's Bot Handy, showcased at CES 2021, claims to provide a 'trusted partner to help with household chores' and can even pour you a glass of wine. But after we've all spent the best part of a year socially isolated, never more than an arm's reach away from a device, would our first choice of company really be a robot?
Similarly, UK robotics company Moley have launched a fully automated kitchen companion that creates personalized meals from scratch. It's a novel idea, but by outsourcing the seemingly mundane task of preparing daily meals, are we perhaps removing essential parts of the human and family experience?
The MOFLIN is an example of the cuddlier side of AI pets available today
On the other hand, we've also seen new examples of robots which provide essential care and companionship for when human contact is not possible. MOFLIN, an example of a growing category of AI pets, received a CES Best of Innovation this year. It combines tactile features that provide true comfort – texture, sound and movement – with an intelligent algorithm that learns from behavior. In this instance, robots are being used in place of human contact successfully to provide companionship and comfort, in an age where loneliness affects so many.
As the capabilities of robotics expand across all aspects of everyday life, their place in human culture and frames of meaning will diversify. As a result, it's critical that brands and developers properly interrogate which features will provide genuine benefit to human life and invest in solutions that dial up the human experience, not limit it. And while the pandemic has forced many physical experiences to go online, it's also made us realize that there are some interactions that just cannot, and perhaps should not, be digitalized so quickly.
How clean is too clean for our homes?
Toto's NEOREST NX toilet sterilizes the bowl using UV light once a day
The practices of sterilization, previously reserved for surgical and clinical environments, are increasingly being adopted in the home environment. The pandemic has increased consumers' awareness of hygiene and safety, with many brands responding with materials and technologies which elevate 'clean' to a new level. One place sterility in the home is being accentuated and more broadly accepted is in the expanding category of 'smart toilets'.
Toto's NEOREST NX toilet now incorporates Actilight, a feature which uses UV light reduce contaminants in the bowl once a day, relying on a combination of light, oxygen and water rather than harsh chemicals. In future products, Toto are looking to incorporate sensors into their toilets which collect data about usage and analyse deposits, informing health and diet recommendations through a connected app.
However, it seems to cross a line for some who view it as intrusive and unnecessary, with established concerns about big data and privacy driving rejection of the intimacy these 'smart' devices demand. Moreover, there is also a growing consumer understanding of the beneficial roles different microbes play. The colonies that live in our guts and on our skin have a huge positive impact on our physical health and mental wellbeing. Is 'sterile' too clean for our homes?
Product developers need to be wary of using technology for technology's sake and be careful to suggest the right applications for cutting edge solutions. Something more suitable for a hospital environment or diagnosis application needs careful consideration before it can find a lasting place in homes.
How can smart home devices intelligently support wellness?
Another intelligent toilet example, albeit with a less clinical approach, is Kohler's Numi 2.0, which advocates for an individualized experience in the bathroom. Although some might see the Amazon Alexa integration as a step too far, it does enable mood setting features which help create bespoke bathroom environments.
However, it's additional features which enable greater levels of hygiene - think touchless flushing – which have been especially well received in light of the pandemic and seem to strike the right balance between cleanliness and comfort.
The Kohler Stillness Bath
Aware that the pandemic has impacted our mental health as well as our physical health, Kohler also unveiled the Stillness bath. Based on the concept of Japanese forest bathing, the bath utilizes multiple features to provide a calming, spa-like experience in the home. CEO David Kohler described it as providing 'a point of relaxing and de-stressing in what's been a globally stressful year', empathizing the importance of wellness and cleaning rituals as an act of self-care, not purely a quest to disinfect oneself.
When it comes to our homes, it is crucial that the real need behind new smart tech is properly considered – how does this technology support or improve who we are at home? Does it protect our privacy and security when we're behind our front doors? Are the rituals that define family culture nurtured or abandoned in the name of progress?
Too many smart home 'solutions' wrongly prioritize data collection, speed and convenience, when slowing things down, adapting to real life contextual need and enhancing human interactions are often what we really want systems in our homes to do.
The full depth and meaning of the human experience of home must be far better understood if we are to unlock the kind of innovation that will resonate with people and endure change; products, services and systems that are not only bright, shiny and desirable but culturally and environmentally vital.
Despite the huge upheavals of the pandemic, brands need to strike a careful balance between addressing consumer's increased concern about hygiene and wellness, versus our essential need for a safe, calm and relaxing home environment that soothes, rather than heightens, feelings of fear, anxiety or isolation.
Simon is Chief Operating Officer at London-based design consultancy Recipe Design. With over 23 years experience as an award winning designer, strategist and business leader, Simon has a proven track record in delivering innovation programmes for brands worldwide. Simon’s approach puts people at the heart of the design planning process and is equally passionate about harnessing new insights and perspectives that can unlock business growth. www.recipe-design.com