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Is the 'home of the future' ideal passe?

June 29, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • Some experts have been pondering whether a "Jetsons"-style future is still on the horizon.
Some experts have been pondering whether a "Jetsons"-style… (Hanna-Barbera )

When will the mantra "home, sweet home" shift to "home, smart home"?

For decades from about the 1950s, many expected that it would happen in the 21st century. In fact, it was a preoccupation expressed in books, amusement park exhibits, TV shows and movies.

The question of whether our homes -- the place where we lay our heads and charge our gadgets -- will get to move the tassel and graduate to the distinction of being "smart" was put to a group of 1,000 experts, observers, and critics. And the result was an even split on whether the home will have a brain in addition to a heart.

The Pew Internet report, in conjunction with Elon University, found that 51% of survey participants agreed that by 2020, the connected household will have "become a model of efficiency, as people are able to manage consumption of resources (electricity, water, food, even bandwidth) in ways that place less of a burden on the environment while saving households money."

"Homes will get more efficient because it will cost more and more to waste energy – the devices will become simpler because no one likes being outsmarted by their thermostat," said David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, according to the release.

Not everyone is sold on this future view. The survey found that 46% agreed that, due to consumer trust issues and service complexities, "the home of 2020 looks about the same as the home of 2011 in terms of resource consumption and management."

"In nine years, smart systems will still be experimental and we’ll only see them existing in reality among a handful of elites," said Danah Boyd, senior researcher with Microsoft Research. "This will be aggravated by the socio-economic instability that began in 2008 and continues to plague Western communities.... (I still want my jetpack, by the way; I was promised a jetpack 50 years ago.)" 

Much of the future foreseen in the 1950s is now reality. While jetpacks haven't hovered into our present, there's a robot to vacuum our floors -- though its name is Roomba, not Rosie. We can make video calls, summon information on just about anything, and stream music and movies seemingly from the heavens using phones we carry in our pockets.

Heck, those same phones can start our car engines and unlock our front doors from afar. And although our homes are decidedly still terrestrial and not yet hanging in the sky, a lot of our data are in the cloud. And that's not considered all that radical.

The stuff around us is getting smarter and processing faster. But do you really want your fridge giving you face when you reach for the sweet potato pie instead of the sweet potato? Frankly, I'd rather not argue with my appliances about my lifestyle choices under my own roof. It seems I'm not alone in seeing the value in keeping home a bit more simple than smart.

"Nobody really wants a smart home," said product user experience evangelist Tracy Rolling of Nokia in the Pew news release. "...They like for their homes to be dumb."

Rolling also noted that, for the most part, today's smart devices aren't smart enough to communicate with one another. They all speak their own proprietary language.

A better question to ask than when it will happen is where this intelligent convergence will take place -- where do we really live?

The answer: Home is where the data lives, and the majority of our digital life is lived on our phones, those ever-present, nearly omnipotent pocket-sized personal computers we rely on more and more every day. 

"You have a super-powerful computer in your pocket," Bottle Rocket CEO Calvin Carter told The Times in talking about the possibility of the smart home. "Why do I need another one in the living room, in my TV and in the den? I don't. I have one with me all the time."

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