Alex's Agenda

Saving smart homes from the gutter

By Alex Wood 15 September 2016
The short of it

Buyer beware.

This post is an abridged version of a talk given at Social Media Week London, as part of Hill & Knowlton’s Ignite Series “The Invisible Hand: Hidden Forces of Technology”.

It’s time to talk about Smart Homes. You know – the dream of connected devices in your home. People call it the future but I’m not so sure.

Most of us have heard of smart homes. They can be controlled from the comfort of your smartphone. It’s Web 3.0, whatever that means. Some call them “revolutionary”, a million times better than The Jetsons and the “Home of the Future”.

Cisco predicts there will be 50BN connected devices around by 2020. Which means this really is a trend we can’t afford to ignore.

So how are things looking today?

The Internet of Shit

We have “the internet of shit.”

If you haven’t heard of this cult Twitter account, you need to follow it now. Over 130,000 people already do and get the latest from the gutter of consumer electronics.

I love this parody account. Jokes aside – its a window into the upside down world of smart homes. Like this gem:

But there’s a serious side here too. What we’re dealing with is untested. Early stage. And sometimes, downright dangerous.

Here’s one example: earlier this year one “smart” home thermostat had a meltdown, heating people’s homes to 33°C without them knowing.

It might sound funny, but what we’re talking about here is the most precious asset we have – our homes.

Nothing’s safe

Nothing’s safe from the “connected revolution”. Even wine. Our precious, precious wine.

This product is real. Someone made an internet-connected wine bottle. Without asking anyone why.

You’re locked into buying special “internet friendly” wine direct from the manufacturer, only to find out the tasting notes you could have read on the back of a “normal” bottle.

When cats get hurt

And here’s where I get really mad- when cats get hurt. The internet loves cats, but cats don’t love smart homes.

So many of these ideas have a fundamental flaw – there’s no fallback. So when the world’s most popular internet-connected pet feeder has a server crash – your cat doesn’t get dinner. That’s not ok.

The good stuff

There’s two things that separate the gutter from the great in smart homes. One, genuinely solving a problem, and two not getting in the way.

One great example is made here in Britain. Cocoon is security system that’s perfect for renters who can’t install a burglar alarm. Instead of unreliable sensors – it listens to the ambient noise in your house and detects when somethings not right.

Amazon Echo, which launched this week in London also looks promising. It’s like Siri, but actually useful. And if it goes wrong, it won’t take your house down with it.

On a more positive note, I believe the hype – smart homes can and should be brilliant. But they need to be fit around our unpredictable lives and be more human.

My message to smart home device makers is:

Make what people need, not what you think they want.

So smart home devices in 2016. They’re a bit like the X Factor. There will always be shit singers, but every now and then are some GREAT ones.

Make sure you pick a winner.

For more unicorns, cats and cultural imperialism, read Alex’s Agenda.