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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Controlling My Family’s Smart Home Is Driving Us Mad

The promise of the smart home is fine control over an environment that adjusts automatically to meet our needs. From the moment it wakes us gently in the morning to helping us drift off to sleep at night, it works tirelessly to make us comfortable. Gadgets free us from domestic drudgery, remind us of our work commitments and appointments, and protect us from intruders. The smart home is supposed to make life easier.

But the reality falls woefully short of that vision. “Dad! The light isn’t turning on!” “Simon! Google won’t open the curtains again!” “How do I get YouTube on your TV?” “Which app is it for the garden lights again?” Invite smart bulbs, robot vacuums, smart speakers, and other wondrous devices into your house, and you will soon see the cracks. 

When things are running perfectly, you can catch a glimpse of comfort and convenience. But when issues crop up—which they frequently do—problem-solving falls on us. If you've ever lost a morning trying to set up a security camera; sacrificed an afternoon connecting your light panels to your new Wi-Fi mesh system; or torn your hair out over a robot vacuum that worked perfectly yesterday, but now turns uselessly in circles, then you know my pain.

A One-Ring Circus

Controls cause the most problems in my household. 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 meticulously arranged remote control, voice commands, and scheduling are gone. Smart switches can help, but they also may just add to the confusion. Even once you have everyone in your house coached, a visitor innocently flicking that switch renders your smart bulbs useless again.

Then there are the apps. So many apps. Every 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 tricky enough. But you must also install them for everyone else and train them, or accept your role as the gatekeeper of settings for the household.

You can always ask Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri, though. 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 does music in your bedroom. Oh, and when you ask, you can’t say, “Turn on my bedroom light." You must say, “Turn on Amy’s bedroom light."

Even when things do work, it can take a few seconds for your chosen assistant to turn the light off. I feel faintly ridiculous telling my wife not to touch the switch or close the curtains by hand as I repeat a voice command or tap away at 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 struggles. 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 smart-home standard, is due any minute now and will tackle some of these problems. It will simplify setup, enable you to use whichever smart assistant you prefer, and improve latency so that devices respond to commands more swiftly. 

But don’t get too excited. As Michele Turner, director of Google's Smart Home Ecosystem, told me recently, it will provide a robust and reliable foundation to build on, but the individual devices themselves still need a lot of work.

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We need innovative solutions to problems like how to keep your light switches turned on. We need smart assistants that are capable of weighing context and interpreting voice commands without wake words or precise syntax. And we need secure, privacy-conscious ways of enabling the smart home to track us so that it might fulfill its proactive promise and deliver what we want before we have to ask for it.

I see encouraging signs in gadgets like Flic’s programmable smart buttons and in Google Assistant’s new natural voice features. There is potential in Plume’s person-sensing mesh Wi-Fi system or the rollout of, as yet largely unused, ultra-wideband location tech into more devices. When that new foundation is complete, a steadily growing pile of great new gadgets is ready to layer on top.

And then the really clever stuff can happen. To be frank, I'm not that excited about automatically unlocked doors. But beyond turning lights on and off automatically as we approach or leave, the smart home promises smarter energy management and protecting my family from unusual activity. But the road is long, and we are still years away from a smart home worthy of the name. For now, I'd settle for not having to open the curtains for my wife or kids. 

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