The steady rise of the Smart Home, a sector projected to be worth £115.6 billion by 2024, has been fueled with the same consumer promise as the internet and social media: technology will give us a better quality of life and bring us closer to friends and family. But in reality, the current approach to Smart Homes, as seen at CES 2020, only risks adding to the disconnect that existing technology can already makes us feel, rather than remedying it.
CES indicates we're still a far way off seeing technology for the home that genuinely fosters our sense of comfort, wellbeing and community. If you look beyond the eye-catching gadgets and marketing bluster at the show, the focus is still on clever gadgets that offer individual experiences instead of intelligent technology that brings people closer together. The majority of products target early-adopters rather than broader society and communities and brands are still largely turning a blind eye to the issue of data privacy – a critical issue when it comes to how comfortable we feel in our homes.
As consumer fear and anxiety about how their data is being used increases, and their patience and trust in home-tech wanes, companies entering this arena need to be facilitating the creation of Smart Homes that genuinely enrich our home and emotional lives, or they risk eradicating our sense of 'home' altogether.
Systems that go beyond the individual
Look through the Smart Home product launches at CES and you'll struggle to find anything that looks beyond the individual experience. Instead, the majority keep us even more engaged with personal devices.
Samsung's Ballie companion robot
For example, Samsung's much-hyped 'life companion' robot Ballie might seem like a clever and helpful addition to the home but it ultimately keeps us locked into closed, individual-to-device communications instead of fostering real connections with others. At a time of a global mental health crisis and rising levels of stress, depression and anxiety, the focus of the Smart Home must be on products, services and systems that actually bring us together and add to the emotional fabric and connectivity of our lives.
Companies entering this arena need to be facilitating the creation of Smart Homes that genuinely enrich our home and emotional lives, or they risk eradicating our sense of 'home' altogether.
Brands need to create shared and collaborative experiences that encourage dialogue instead of stopping at one person's selection overriding another's or isolating us in the glow of an individual screen.
A more adaptive form of Smart
The one-size-fits-all approach to people, families and home-life that many Smart Home devices currently have is at odds with the realities of home-life today. Populations are aging, there is an increase in multi-generational homes, definitions of the 'family' are changing, and more people are living with their parents for longer.
Smart homes must be able to adapt to anyone at any time, and adapt contextually to what we need at different times of the day, week and year. People need to participate in the learning process of the algorithms that run our Smart Homes to create healthy and individualized feedback loops that re-humanize how tech behaves, instead of alienating us in our own homes.
Creating new benefits, not new anxieties
Brands that are getting smart systems right are looking beyond the instant gratification that new features deliver to build deeper emotional engagement. Companies must think carefully about how they develop new platforms, artefacts and interfaces that address a deeper need in all of us for feeling secure within our home without fostering new anxieties that come from overzealous data collection or fear-based marketing.
The "Bee" autonomous security drone by Sunflower Labs
For example, there were over 8,000 smart security cameras unveiled at CES 2020, including Bee: a residential "autonomous security drone" that detects motion and then autonomously flies to the activity and report on it. While securing our homes is a natural and primal instinct, this level of invasive surveillance and the focus on threats to our homes completely undermines our ability to truly relax at home.
At the other end of the security spectrum at CES we saw surveillance cameras bundled into other products like robot vacuums, water filtration systems and in the case of Home Hawk Floor, lamps.
Panasonic Home Hawk Floor
While these may be novel in design, this level of pervasive surveillance will never allow us to feel completely at ease in our own homes. Meanwhile, incorporating surveillance into products that are unrelated to home security also seems like a lazy way of building in relevance and 'smart appeal'. Instead, we need elegantly integrated smart systems and solutions that respond to our desire to keep our homes secure by discreetly addressing what can often be irrational or disproportionately perceived threat, or providing well-judged comfort to those living on their own.
Technology that nurtures existing rituals and creates new ones
The emotional and cultural fabric of our home-lives is rich in ritual, whether it's the new bonds created between students living together for the first time or old traditions passed down through generations of a family. To date, Smart Home products haven't done enough to support the enduring value of home rituals, overlooking a fundamental part of our definition of 'home'.
Kitchen Hub by GE
For example, smart ovens that beam new recipes to our kitchens via screens, such as the Kitchen Hub that GE launched at CES, might seem convenient but they completely eradicate the ritual of returning to unique collections of family recipes or recipes gathered from friends over time. Devices such as these bring an unnecessary level of tech into the kitchen, a place which is for many the heart of home life.
Technology should slow life down, not speed it up
Part of the added stress that seems inseparably connected with new technology is the idea that it should always enable to us to move and act faster; to be quicker to respond and be more time efficient. But this is our home we're talking about, not the office. It's where we unwind, relax and connect with loved ones. If anything, Smart Home technology needs to be encouraging us to slow down, not speed up, and to facilitate experiences and environments that allow us to connect to an emotionally rich and meaningful connection to our homes and loved ones, rather than be permanently plugged in to a 24/7 on-demand culture. Smart technology needs to account for both intense periods of task-based focus and urgency as well as slower-paced periods of the day when we're relaxing at home. Unfortunately, I don't think the answer lies in the Ten Second toothbrush, another headline-grabber of CES.
The Ten Second Toothbrush
These approaches represent a shift in meaning and values within smart home technology. As a result, tech companies need to start making more ethics-focused choices going forward and understand the variations of consumers who are opting in or out, rather than simply cutting off access to features and functionality. After all, it can't be right that one of the more impressive launches at CES in terms of value-based innovation was that of Impossible Pork. After all, home is a place where we switch off and where we want to be less conscious of what we are doing and why we're doing it. The challenge for brands is permeating these moments intelligently and meaningfully without downgrading what matters most to us in our homes while promising to do the very opposite. Let's hope we start to see this much-needed shift at CES 2021.