CES 2016: The smartest home is not a solo endeavor

CES 2016: The smartest home is not a solo endeavor

In four days of briefings, demos and general nosiness, a general model for "smart" living has emerged. 

  • Step one: Get a smart phone
  • Step two: Get some device which is really a sensor in pretty packaging
  • Step three: The data is sent from the device to the cloud
  • Step four: Download a smartphone app that takes all the data from the device maker/service provider's cloud and repackages it in a user-friendly way
  • Step five: Get nagged by your phone when your sensor data triggers an if-then statement of some sort

Step five is where the so-called smart home fails or flies. 

I was watching a demo for a baby product aimed at tracking the baby's activities — if it was wet, if it was asleep or awake, etc. — and the sensor (which clipped to the diaper) would send data about the baby's doings to the cloud and from there, to an adult user's smartphone app.

A baby frequently has two parents. Sometimes, there's also a regular caregiver or a weekly babysitter. Would more than one person be able to receive this data and act on it? In the case of this product, which shall go nameless, no. 

The baby wearable was not the only instance of a smart-home or smart-life technology working solely on "a one device, one smartphone, one user" model. While a one-on-one-on-one model works for smart health, it's not realistic or reasonable for smart homes.

In most American homes, both childcare and chores are shared among partners. If only one partner's responsible for handling the flow of data generated by smart-home sensors that tell you when your baby needs changed, when you're out of milk, when a window is open or when someone's used too much water in their morning shower, then that person is forced to deal with handling the data. Either they do what needs to be done to stop the if-then data alert (buy the milk, pick up the baby, close the window) or they have to ask someone else to do it — which is also work. More importantly, it's entirely avoidable work.

It should not be that hard to build an smart-home service that actually considers the idea that more than one responsible adult can take an interest in a household's goings-on and respond where appropriate. An ideal smart-home service would push out the action-item alert — hey, there's no milk — and then the alert would go away when the person who's going to handle the to-do item takes ownership of it. Ideally, the person who's not acting on the get-the-milk chore would get a second alert notifying them who's handling the milk situation.

I met with three companies that seem to get this idea. Mivatek, which makes smart-home security systems, recognizes that many households actually have more than one person who takes an interest in whether or not the place is being broken into; their $14.95-per-month service lets an accountholder add several users to a household account. GreenPeak, which develops household monitoring solutions meant to track people's comings and going, recognized that if you're worried enough to monitor your elderly mother's perambulations or your child's arrival home from school, you are probably related to or partnered with other people who do too.

And Knock, a software startup that literally launched its service 48 hours ago, is providing a "dashboard" that does two things: it lets you consolidate all your smart-home and wearable apps in one place so you don't have to keep launching and managing multiple apps; and it lets you add people to the dashboard so you're not the only one managing the sound system, the lights, the smart locks on the door, or the get-the-milk reminders from your smart fridge. Even if the original apps can't fathom the idea that in a household, more than one person can change a baby or buy a carton of milk, Knock helps families step around that limitation.

The smart home is not an easy sell: I heard people sniffing about not wanting to replace their appliances. Several vendors muttered about how confusing it is for consumers right now, because it's not evident how easy or difficult it is for any systems to work together. And so many of these items seem predicated on the notion that consumers all live in standalone dwellings that they own; I didn't see any demos that addressed renters, apartment dwellers or people with particularly zealous HOAs.

But all of those things can be addressed with careful sales pitches and demos. The one thing that will sink the smart home? The promise that it will actually cause someone more work.

Until the standard model for these smart home offerings recognizes the changing way families function, and the constellation of people who orbit in and out of a family's weekly routine, then people will look at these offerings and decide that they'd rather their home remain a dumb collaboration among everyone than smart and solely their responsibility. 

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