The Smart Home: After the Death of the App, what’s next?

(This article was also published on LinkedIn Pulse in March, 2016)

Product names often tell a lot about the failed aspirations of the technology and gadgets we surround ourselves with. In the 80s we tacked ‘2000’ onto names to suggest futuristic features. In the 90s we called things ‘Turbo’ even though there was no sign of anything vaguely resembling a turbine. In the 00s we were completely lost in the digital revolution so we just invented names starting with lowercase letters (i, u, n, etc.) hoping to borrow a bit of the glamour of the famous fruit company. This decade gave us the Smart Somethings: The Smart Fridge, the Smart Thermostat, the Smart Toaster and the Smart Toothbrush.

Every January, the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas lets us take the pulse of what’s cooking in the tech world. If you look beyond the barrage of me-too copies of whatever was hot last year it’s possible to spot the trends that will dominate the living rooms of the near future.

Wearables (fashion killed that one before it was born) and drones (not exactly living room material) aside, until last year most of the action was in app-connected appliances. It turns out that you can make an app for almost any electrical devices in and around the house, but it hasn’t resulted in the perfect Jetsons-style home yet. And most of these ‘innovations’ don’t quite live up to their promise of smartness in the first place.

But the next five years will bring something new and meaningful: we have finally entered the post-app era. So what killed the smartphone app for controlling the smart home? The Apsara did.

Every time we want to control something using an app, we go through the APSARA process: Access Phone, Search App, Run App. That’s quite a hoop to jump through if all you want to do is switch on the light in your living room or start a timer on your smart toothbrush. That is exactly why people stop doing it.

The psychology behind this is really simple: if the gratification you get out of something does not outweigh the perceived effort you have to put in, our computer says ‘NO’. The human mind is simple and predictable.

To try and overcome the Apsara, all mobile operating systems have introduced ‘widgets’; a half-hearted kludge that lets you offer some limited functionality without having to unlock the phone — but without giving access to all the richness that makes a smartphone such a compelling user interface platform in the first place.

The sad conclusion is that for everyday use cases in the smart home (and the smart office) the smartphone is simply not the optimal user interface. So what’s next? Let me show you three trends that sum up where we’re really heading.

1. Instant smartness for any room or space

Enter the Amazon Echo. Although Amazon are standing on the shoulders of giants, they deserve a lot of credit for getting this one so right. Technically, the Echo is a bluetooth speaker that understands voice commands and happens to hook into a bunch of other connected services that you may have in your home. Bluetooth speakers are particularly yawn-worthy these days, but calling the Echo a speaker would be doing it a big disservice. The speaker is just an excuse to permanently put a Siri-like virtual assistant in a room. Instead of talking into a phone, you can just give the Echo-equipped room instructions to change the light, make some relaxing Spotify recommendations and turn up the heater a notch.

By placing the Echo in a room, you instantly make the space itself smart. And because the interaction with this system is as natural as it gets, they can keep adding applications to it without making it more complex.

2. Simplified interaction for everyday tasks

If you want to spot UI trends, I advice to skip the next CES and spend the time browsing Kickstarter instead. When it comes to physical controls to master the internet of things, a lot of seemingly naive yet refreshingly sensible ideas are being pitched. One of my favorites is the Nuimo, an unobtrusive controller for home automation purposes. Its strength is in its simplicity: an elegantly flexible user interface that lets you quickly perform simple use cases on smart devices and services.

For advanced stuff you can still grab your phone, but for the basics this thing can finally compete with the simplicity of a light switch again. With the unlimited potential of home/office-IoT propositions it’s too easy to overthink the Kitchensink-dilemma (trying to find one grand solution that covers every feature and possibility). These guys (among a handful of others) have cracked it by looking at it from the human perspective: how can I keep my life simple?

3. Access to the brains of the Internet of Things

The third trend is a bit more abstract and invisible: it’s the elusive ‘rules engine’. The premise of the Internet of Things is that things start talking to other things, helping each other do things, so you don’t have to (how’s that for demystifying the biggest technological advancement of the decade?).

But because we’ve all seen the Terminator movies we want to have a bit of control over what all these things are doing. Switching on the light on the porch when I come home is one thing, obliterating humanity with nuclear missiles is another. So we have to set rules and guidelines for these connected devices and we then give them autonomy within the constraints of these rules. An example of such rules is: “Switch off the lights in my home when I leave, unless someone else is still home, and only when I’m more than 2 kilometers away. Oh, and please check whether I locked the door.”.

A rules engine is what makes a smart home smart; it’s the brains of the internet of things.

Lots of companies create ‘smart home hubs’; boxes that connect a variety of connected devices and services. But they tend to just be a solution to the technology side of the problem, without offering a user experience that actually helps making a home smart. A simple rules engine that is trying to fill this gap is IFTTT (If This Then That). It’s still a bit too clunky and unresponsive to be the brains of the home or office, however. So I predict that whomever truly cracks the design of a user friendly rules engine for the smart home will be in a good position to lead the market.

Summing it up

So there we are, three monumentally important things that are silently happening while we’re all still tapping app icons on our phones to check if the baby is asleep:
– instant smartness for our working and living spaces without technical hassle (and without requiring a phone)
– simple, natural interaction for everyday tasks
– a human way to program the brains of our smart spaces and smart offices

Author: Bram Bos

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