The promise of the smart home is a fine control of an environment that will automatically adjust to meet our needs. From the moment he gently wakes us up in the morning until he helps us drift off to sleep at night, he works hard to make us feel comfortable. Gadgets free us from drudgery at home, remind us of our work commitments and appointments, and protect us from intruders. The smart home is designed to make life easier.
But the reality falls short of that vision. “Dad! The light isn’t on!” “Simon! Google won’t open the curtains again!” “How can I get on YouTube for television?” “What’s the app for the garden lights again?” Invite smart bulbs, robot vacuums, smart speakers, and other cool devices into your home, and you’ll soon see the cracks.
When things are running perfectly, you can glimpse comfort and convenience. But when issues arise – which they often do – it’s up to us to solve problems. If you’ve ever wasted a morning trying to set up a security camera; an evening sacrifice connecting your light panels to your new Wi-Fi mesh system; or tear your hair out over a vacuum robot that worked perfectly yesterday, but now spins uselessly in circles, then you know my pain.
One Ring Circus
Controls cause the biggest problems in my family. Take smart lighting, for example. For it to work, you have to remind everyone in your family to leave the old switches alone. Fail, and your carefully configured remote control, voice commands and scheduling are gone. Smart switches can help, but they can also add to the confusion. Even when you’ve got everyone in your coaching house, an innocently flicking visitor makes your smart light bulb switch useless again.
Then there are the apps. So many apps. Each device has its own app. The more smart home gadgets you add, the more cluttered your phone becomes. Keeping track of which app controls which device is hard enough. But you must also install them for everyone else and train them, or accept your role as the gatekeeper of the arrangements for the family.
However, you can always ask Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri. Right? Well, actually, the security cameras work with Google, but you have to use Siri for the doorbell. Google Assistant plays music on the dining room speaker, but Alexa makes music in your bedroom. Oh, and when you ask, you can’t say, “Turn on my bedroom light.” You have to say, “Turn on Amy’s bedroom light.”
Even when things work, it can take a few seconds for your chosen assistant to turn off the light. I feel a bit ridiculous telling my wife not to touch the switch or close the curtains manually while I’m repeating a voice command or tapping on my phone screen. “Is this more convenient?” she asks with a bemused look.
I can barely keep this stuff straight. Little wonder the rest of my family is struggling. Sometimes I feel like I’m asking Hal to open the pod bay doors. As Google Assistant keeps telling me, “Something has gone wrong.”
A Brighter Future
Mercifully, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Matter, the new standard for smart homes, is due any minute now and will tackle some of these problems. It will simplify setup, enable you to use whatever smart assistant you prefer, and improve latency so devices respond to your commands faster.
But don’t get too excited. As Michele Turner, director of Google’s Smart Home Ecosystem, told me recently, it will provide a solid and reliable foundation to build on, but the individual devices themselves still need a lot of work.