Yesterday we did our first Connected Home event with the University of Westminster, focusing on understanding the connected home consumer.
Georgina Voss presented on the HomeSense project, an effort aimed at putting technology into the hands of consumers without prescribing solutions or pre-supposing problems. The idea is to let homes work with experts to identify specific problems they would like to solve, given the technology. Each home was given some basic and relatively easy to use technology – including sensors and open source hardware. The project was sponsored by EDF and some of the work will be displayed at the MOMA, New York.
The need to rethink technology from the perspective of social context has been argued before. This book edited by Richard Harper has a number of excellent essays. But the HomeSense project brings it all to life. The way a home with a family including children will use technology will differ fundamentally than that which is shared by flatmates. Their work styles, problem solving and issues will vary. And so will their technology and solutions. Of course culture, local issues and the physical infrastructure play a part as well. You can’t make holes in the walls of rented homes. People in Switzerland are more concerned about their noise levels disturbing the neighbours. People in London want to know whether there are cycles available in the nearby Borris-bike stands.
Of course, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is the ability of the people and their level of expertise. This was not a constraint for Bryan Sharp. Bryan was building a new home and decided he wanted to make it a smart and connected one. The key was, he had the ability and knowledge to put it together. In Bryan’s home, there are 3 key layers. There is infrastructure – with Cat6 cabling around the house and termination points in each room, with a communications cabinet where the servers can be found. There are all the gadgets and connected devices, which do the clever things. But there is also a level of programmability – where Bryan has been able to make things do what he wants them to do.
As a result, in Bryan’s home, the music can be controlled by zones, but guests can be listening to their music from their own iPod piped into the guest room. All lights can be controlled from the iPad by the side of the bed. Lights go on at a dimmed level after midnight. While watching TV, if Bryan receives a call and has to step into the kitchen, the TV in the kitchen will start to play the show, but on low volume. Bryan can even use his iPad to start running a bath, 2 floors up, and decide what temperature he wants the bath at. And no, Bryan is not a science fiction invention or a billionaire. He has done all of this at a relatively manageable budget.
Critically, Bryan is aware that the technology needs to work as reliably as the traditional light switches. This has been factored into the design and choices of technology. And also, that at the end of the day, the technology should increase and not lower the house price.
Rufus Greenway does this for others, for a living. His company, Sound Environment limited, is a specialist custom installation company for home technology (Audio-visual distribution/cinema’s/ Door entry/ CCTV/ Data distribution /IT support/ Lighting and HVAC control, and all sub systems installed in connected homes). Among other things Rufus was keen to point out that the energy management issue is a ticking time bomb. As energy prices have consistently risen faster than inflation and continue to do so, the energy cost will become a major consideration for people.
This was a point our panellists agreed on – people need to see real cost savings. Not too many consumers are all that concerned about saving the planet, when it comes to actually buying something. It was also a common refrain, that as consumers we like to play with any technology we are given and the chances are, of course, that we will break it. So the connected home technologies need to be more tamper proof and better supported than they probably are, at this point.
My personal bugbears remain in this area – why aren’t simple things like extension boxes and cords better designed for the living room? Must we rip up the floors and walls if we don’t want the proverbial snake-pit in our living rooms? And why are all the TV connections still behind the TV if they’re supposed to be wall mounted devices?
And who is going to make it all work together, if we have neither the ability of Bryan nor the resources to use Rufus’s company?
Meanwhile more and more services will be delivered straight into the home – 47 million smart meters will be rolled out (2 per home) across the UK, over the next 5-7 years. And the overwhelming case for telehealth or connected healthcare is becoming obvious to everybody. A large percentage of TVs sold today are “connectable” i.e. to the internet, directly, and companies like Samsung have even set up their own content portals. Whether we think of it as a connected home or not, we will definitely be consuming a whole lot more connected services soon. As consumers, can we get smarter about it? Or do we risk being left behind by our devices and our homes?