Smart living, not smart devices Part III: Shedding light on the future

After reviewing the state of the smart home market and the technology gaps, let’s imagine what it will take for smart home solutions to become mainstream.

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Devices capture and calculate a nearly unfathomable amount of data — but how to store, use, and share it through insights while creating customer desired interactions — that’s where we need to get smart

Solve real problems

Most of us are not looking for new devices, but for ways to simplify our lives or at the least, engage us. A device is significant only if it actually demonstrates value to us: entertains, educates, engages, is more convenient, or makes us safer. Using voice commands to control a device instead of pushing buttons may be cool, but it will not make much difference in the long run. As long as users still have to pay attention to all the detail of an activity, or possibly even handle additional detail required by the (smart!) devices, they will become indifferent. A little example: let’s say I have a microwave and I want to use it to defrost some frozen soup. I might have to mark it small or large and indicate what food type I am asking to the oven to defrost. It’s no wonder that many users will walk up and hit the +30 second button 2, 4, 6 times and just be done with it.

While there are multiple paths to a solution here, (I can push the buttons or I could talk to the oven or the oven could detect what’s in it, et al), none goes all the way. Devices should solve problems that we know we have and do so in ways we understand. Smarter living is not about what is possible, but about what is useful and valuable.

True innovation in smarter living focuses on an objective and leaves the details to the smart living solution. IoT devices can provide value in several ways:

  • they can simplify our lives by taking over operational details of achieving an objective;

  • they can watch out for problems that we can’t continually watch out for, giving us peace of mind;

  • and they can anticipate what we need and automatically tend to those needs.

In fact, what we’re really looking for is a butler who knows what we need, when we need it, and how we’d like it done.

Let’s imagine some examples

Smart entertainment knows what people in the household like to watch, individually or together. It tunes in or records shows, depending on where people are, and on their schedule for other activities. It can suggest or even subscribe to favorite content. It can select music depending on who’s in the room and the mood it senses. It can observe what we like and learn from our selections without having to be “programmed” explicitly. It’s about what people feel in the mood to see or listen to at the time.

A home convenience service may help to shut down the house in the evening. It checks all the doors and windows and turns off the lights. It adjusts the heating and air conditioning based on the preferences of the people in the home and where they are. It sets the monitors for the external alarms. And it sets the wake-up music and lighting for the morning based on the preferences and the calendars of the people in the home.

An extended home security solution not only monitors doors and windows, but also listens for unusual sounds and turns the lights on and off to give the impression that somebody is at home. It monitors the outdoors and records people approaching the home. If it’s the mail man delivering a package, it will send a text. It can use face recognition to determine who’s coming to visit and let people into the house depending on rules the home owner sets. For instance, the plumber could receive access only for the immediate job at hand.

Smart kitchen appliances might be able to suggest a recipe based on the ingredients at hand and the preferences of the people present, adapt it to the dietary needs of the family, implement it on the range, and cook it to perfection every time. Based on history and the calendar and activities of the people in the home, they can manage shopping lists and indicate the time to start cooking. They can warn of food about to expire to help reduce waste.

For peace of mind and reduced insurance rates, a comprehensive safety system monitors for moisture and shuts down the water in case of a break. It monitors the windows and closes them when rain approaches. It monitors the air for smoke, and if there is smoke with someone cooking in the kitchen it turns on the exhaust rather than the smoke alarm.

A smart environmental management system not only sets the temperature according to the people in the house, and where they are. It operates the blinds to maximize the use of sunlight in winter, and to reduce heat load from the sun in the summer. It manages the air quality through ventilation either by operating windows or through the home ventilation systems. It optimizes the use of available energy, depending on all sources including possibly local solar cells.

In each case, smart living addresses specific life situations rather than focusing on the devices. It’s not about how smart the house is, or how smart the devices are, but about what they do for us. And in each case, the actions are highly attuned to the specific situation.


True smart living solutions are very personal. We all have our own views of what we’d like to watch and when we’d like to watch it, what peace of mind means for us, and which of our chores we’d like most to be taken care of. Smart living solutions have to adapt to our situations, habits and rituals, not just once, but continually — life changes. Thus, smart living actions must consider their context: every action occurs with a specific goal, at a specific time, place, and situation, with specific people involved. In addition to a broad range of sensor inputs, many external aspects flow into the context relevant to an action: who’s there, our history, our schedules, our health, the weather, the price of energy, the time of year, among many others. In many cases, the relevant context is highly personal, as well as fluid, changing as user needs change over time.

User interface

In the ideal case, smart living technologies just “work,” when and how they’re desired. The technology itself is invisible. For mass appeal, solutions cannot require “programming” that is too complex; that’s a deal breaker for many consumers. Instead, the solutions should simply observe what we do and incrementally take over, learning as they go. Human input is the start, but the system must learn, adapt, automate, and anticipate. The continuing focus on simplifying the user interfaces of smart phone apps illustrates the importance of ease of use for consumer acceptance. As smart living comes to cover an ever-broader spectrum of highly personal functions, intuitive and self-adapting user interfaces are key for consumer acceptance. In any case, the user interface must be specific to a task, not to the device.

As most automation will be imperfect, the solutions need a natural, intuitive way for people to override undesirable or unexpected actions. For instance, if lighting automation acts in unexpected ways, consumers should just have to operate a light switch, and this should not disable the automation going forward. For a truly satisfactory consumer experience, the solution’s actions have to be intuitive, reliable and transparent, without being creepy by springing surprises. Consumers have to feel that they are in charge, without increasing their cognitive load.

Physical actions

Most Internet services, including many uses of smart speakers, are confined to the digital domain. That is, they provide digital information, or they support transactions on digital data that by their very nature can be reversed if there is a problem. Many smart living services involve physical actions. These actions require higher safety and security standards than digital transactions. Often, they cannot be reversed easily, and the physical damage from misuse can be substantial. For instance, a hacked electronic front door can used to burglarize an apartment, a malfunctioning remotely operated garage door can hurt people. Therefore, IoT devices in the home demand much higher hardware and software quality than is currently accepted for most mobile apps. Fail-safe operation is a must. This is particularly important if smart living solutions are expected to relieve consumers of the need to continuously supervise all operations.

Consequently, physical actions must comply with more stringent requirements than simple digital transactions.

  • Authorization: Who is allowed to enable what actions?

  • Responsibility & liability: Who has the responsibility for actions: the home owner, the software provider, or the service provider? This problem becomes even more complicated when multiple devices or services are involved in an action.

  • Reliability: Can we rely on the action? Will the solution still work when parts of the ecosystem, for instance the Internet connection, fail?

  • Timeliness & certainty: Did the actions happen at the right time? Is there a record?

Transparency and reliability

Many smart living solutions and services are in the early stages of their development. As with all innovation, they have to evolve to adapt to consumers’ needs and preferences. Transparency and reliability of the solutions are important for their acceptance. Solutions must work in ways consumers expect, and they have to work all the time. If they need checking to see whether they did the job, not much has been accomplished. In particular when physical actions are involved, being right most of the time is not good enough. And if devices surprise consumers by acting creepily, unpredictably or unexplainably, they will be abandoned.


The high degree of personalization and tracking of people’s actions raises privacy and security concerns far beyond the concerns of the digital internet and social media. The large number of sensors and the continuous connectivity required can render the smart home a glass house. The voracious appetite of Internet service companies for consumer data, and the never-ending stories of break-ins in their data centers with loss of consumer data creates a substantial obstacle to smart living solutions for many consumers. A recent book suggests that this problem can be truly solved only through improved laws and regulations. The emerging public discussion about privacy of social media services can possibly serve as impetus to address smart living solutions as well.


The agenda outlined in this installment is very ambitious, and in many ways exceeds today’s capabilities. The final installment in this series will look at the technology advances needed to make this vision a reality.


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