The initial promise of home IoT is that it will make our life easier. The picture painted by the industry is one of having scores of smart devices in the home that all act in harmony to make daily life easier. I’m a huge fan of Star Trek and I look at their future with automatic doors and lights, background music, holodecks, and food replicators and I get it – and I want it.
But the IoT devices on the market today are still a long way away from that Star Trek future. The reality of the situation is that this is an industry that so far only caters to geeks and hobbyists. Today the technology involves buying some sort of central console and then connecting all of your devices to the hub. That alone looks like a lot of work. There are also no standards in the industry and each of the many hubs is proprietary, so you have to worry if a new device you buy will even work with the hub you selected.
Samsung has taken perhaps the first step to pull this all together. They bought a startup called SmartThings that has developed a hub that is controlled entirely by smartphone. Samsung is then developing their whole suite of products to work with this hub.
But I don’t think even the Samsung solution is going to make much of a difference. Just consider smart lights as an example. My house easily has fifty light bulbs, maybe more. Upgrading them all to smart lights sounds extravagantly expensive. And then I am imagining trying to use the smartphone to control my lights. In the time I could fish through a menu and find the right lights to adjust I could have just changed them manually and gone on to do what I was doing. The smartphone idea certainly provides a central way to control everything, but has it really made life easier than today? Unless this works a whole lot easier than I imagine it, what I’ve done is to create a new chore for myself whenever I want to do something simple like dim a light. Unless I’m bedridden, the manual way still requires less effort than a smartphone.
And that is the big catch right now for the industry. They are coming out with devices that do all sorts of neat things, but they have not made life easier. Consider energy management. Programmable thermostats have been around for years and it’s been relatively easy to lower the heat while you sleep or to tone back the air conditioning when you are away at work. The newer smart thermostats go a step farther and help you understand your electric usage in detail so that you can save even more money than with a programmable thermostat. But in doing so they have not made life easier, they have instead created a new monthly chore, which is to interpret the data coming out of the energy monitoring system and then make changes in the way you use electricity. My electric bill is pretty affordable, and so I might be doing all of this new effort to save $20–40 dollars per month. That is certainly a good thing, and it’s probably the right social thing to do, but it is not compelling enough for me to add a new task into my already busy life.
I am guessing that home IoT isn’t going to really go very far until the whole system is smart, like in Star Trek. When I can sit in a room and say, “Dim lights” and it happens, then we are starting to get somewhere. When I can tell my house to play a certain piece of music and then have that music follow me around from room to room, then we are getting somewhere. That sounds like something that almost everybody is going to want, assuming it’s affordable, and assuming it doesn’t take too much effort to set it up and to make work.
That day will come. It’s going to require both better language interfaces that always understand me (something that is improving rapidly) as well as a computer assistant that is smart enough to know what I want and to be able to turn my wishes into real world events. And that is going to take smarter and more powerful computers, something that is also coming soon.
But until then I can’t make a case for home IoT in my own home. I’ve considered a smart security system and video monitoring, and that is likely to be the first thing I might buy. But most of the other things on the market seem to be more work than the satisfaction they will produce. Until that equation flips I am not yet sold, and I don’t think I am unusual in this.