In a recent blog I wrote about technology changes over the next three to five years: “You will hardly recognize your house. It will be more like living within a semi-autonomous video game.”
We are starting to the see the first stages of this metamorphosis. Companies like Comcast are providing or promising to treat your phone, both land line and cell, computers, tablets and TVs as interchangeable entities. You can receive a landline call while at the beach on your tablet, make a call from your TV, and watch a movie on your phone. They offer the ability to turn on lights and monitor your house with color video all from your cell phone.
But this is just the tip of a huge iceberg. Your house will become a single artificial intelligence entity that communicates with people through natural language and gestures. It will automatically integrate new “appliances” much like a Windows computer automatically recognizes and uses a new USB or Bluetooth device. Your house will recognize you by your voice and your face, and will know where you and everybody else is in the house, and will make reasonable guesses about what you are doing or about to do.
- Wake up in the middle of the night for a trip to the kitchen or bathroom. The house will notice that, and turn on low-level lighting in front of you to make that a safe trip, and then turn them off as you head back to bed.
- Open the door to the basement stairs and the house will turn on the stairway lights and the lights in the basement as you move in different directions, and turning them off behind you. No more fumbling for a light switch with your hands full, or realizing that you left all the lights on down there for the past two days.
- Tell the house to turn on the shower. The house will set the temperature and water force to suit you, and turn on the bathroom fan. The fan will automatically turn off when the humidity in the bathroom has come back down to normal.
- Fall down in the bathroom and the house will ask you if you are OK. Unless you say something positive, it will wake or alert others in the house or automatically call 911 and provide information like “56 year old male has fallen in the second floor bathroom.” And unlock the front door so the EMTs can get in without breaking down your door.
- Your house will have audio speakers in every room, and will provide the appropriate music, audio books, TV sound, phone calls as requested by the people in each room.
- When you say “good night” the house will automatically lock all exterior doors, warning you if one is open or if a ground floor window is open, then turn off lights and other equipment behind you as you wander to the bedroom, start the dishwasher, set the exterior lights appropriately (including turning off that one decorative flood light that shines in your bedroom window), and set the temperature to your overnight preference. If you also say “wake me up at 7” it will set the coffee pot to come on and bring up (or down) the temperature to your early morning preference by 7, then go through the routine necessary to wake you up by 7. No more alarm clocks. Lights will come on, if necessary, in front of you as you move to the kitchen, where the TV or radio or streaming will be on your designated morning station as you walk in, and the volume will change as you make noise getting breakfast.
- When you are sleeping, eating, conversing with other people or otherwise seemingly “busy”, the house will answer your phone calls, both calls to your landline if you still have one or cell phones. If the caller can get past the house gatekeeper, the house will tell you, waking you if the house feels it is that important. Otherwise, the house will take a message and tell you about them in the morning. In any case, your Smart House will answer the phone, any phone for anybody in the house, know which room of the house that person is in, and announce who is calling for whom. You can accept it as “speaker phone,” private connection, or just brush the call off – in which case the house will take a message. Note that while people are in your Smart House, it will be the house that first connects with phone calls and controls what phone will actually ring, or not.
- The house will also monitor emails while you are otherwise busy, alerting you only on those rare occasions when the house believes it is important. The house will also monitor news and give you a brief overview in the morning, just like the President of the US gets every morning.
- The house will remind you of favorite TV shows, or ones you might like. (In our family, that would be a problem.) It will even tell you that an episode you missed is being rebroadcast tonight, or tell you when it has automatically recorded it.
- This distinction between a landline and cell phone will entirely disappear. It will simply be two physical ways to reach the same set of communication devices that neither the caller nor receiver will even be aware of. If you are home and near a wired phone, the house will ring it. If not, it will ring your cell phone. Of course if you are in your car, it will just tell the car to handle it.
- “Click” with a gesture or word about a phone number or URL on a TV screen, and the house will call the number or bring up the URL. “Send a tweet to this show that this is great!” will be understood by the house. Of course, you could be watching the show on your phone.
- Appliances will have no manual controls. They will simply become part of the house. You can replace your old microwave with a new one, but you will interface with it in exactly the same way, through the house. From anywhere, using anything. No more resetting all of the clocks on microwaves, DVDs, alarm clocks, etc. for daylight savings time or after a power failure. Many devices already do this, but we still have about a dozen that have to be manually adjusted.
- Your washing machine and dryer will likely be a single connected unit that will move clothes from the “make wet” to “make dry” to “here, go fold these” piles. (I talk about the folding part later.) It will scan the bar codes on the clothes and look up the manufacturers best practices for washing and drying temperatures and time, and will automatically dispense the right amount of the right chemicals (e.g., soap and static free sheets).
- Your refrigerator will check items as you remove them and return them to the refrigerator by scanning the bar codes and weighing the item. It will weigh the item by actually just weighing each shelf and noting the change as something comes or goes. It will keep an inventory and a grocery list of your normal items. That list will be sent to your grocery store and that stuff will be delivered to your home. You go to the store for the fun stuff. There, the cart will scan what you place into it. Check out is simply pushing the cart out the door – your appropriate coupons are automatically accepted and your favorite credit/debit card is charged.
- Light switches will probably just disappear. But, for that antique look, you will be able to just stick one to the wall anywhere you want it and easily move it when you want. The light switch is nothing more than an input point for the house that will do whatever you tell the house to do when that switch is turned on.
- House wiring will be a lot simpler. All it takes is to provide wires from the breaker box to the outlets or built-in fixtures. No wires to switch locations, no complex wiring to enable multiple switches to control the same device or outlet. No communications cabling for phone or TV – that will all be wireless. No special wiring for doorbells or thermostats.
- Have special holiday lighting? Just tell the house and it will turn it on at dusk and off at 11PM, or later when you are having a house party.
- One of the exhibits at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965 was an underground house. One of its features was “windows” that looked out on live scenes through the use of closed circuit cameras. Like the view from Point Loma in San Diego but live in Kansas City? No problem, just point your “window” at the right live camera.
- The house will monitor for fire, smoke, carbon monoxide, unidentified and uninvited “guests” and notify the appropriate authorities plus alerting anyone in the house.
- The house will automatically let you in, and open the garage door if you are driving your car.
- When you are watching TV on whatever gadget you choose, the house will ensure that no lights are providing a glare on the screen. Even if multiple people are watching the same big screen.
- Windows will automatically darken to keep sun out on a hot day but still provide diffused daylight. Of course you can just ask for a clear view when you want one.
- Your car will be part of this home network, no matter where you take it. But you will be able to disconnect your car from your network when you take it to the shop or leave it with a valet.
- When you rent a car, you will be able to connect it to your house network.
- The Smart House will let you live “alone” through assistive activities. If someone has vision problems, the house will watch that the person is not heading for the stairs or about to walk into something. The house can restrict where someone can go, preventing an elderly person from opening the door to the basement or a person with sever memory issues from leaving the house at all. For individuals designated as hearing impaired, the house will speak louder. Emergency signals will be both loud audio and visual, probably powerful strobe lights. For people who can only communicate with sign language, the house will “talk” to them through a visual screen, which could be a TV, tablet or smart phone. Expect to see assistive robots able to help someone into or out of bed or even get dressed, like some currently being developed by the Japanese and others. Expect these robots to handle the clothes folding task, and at least getting the clothes to the right room if not the right drawer or closet. These robots will be directed by your Smart House.
- It will be interesting to see how criminals react to a Smart House. They will have to figure out how to get in and out while they are under constant surveillance, and do their nefarious deed knowing that the house has already called the police. Since everything is stored in the Cloud, even burning the house down will not stop the police from determining exactly what they did and when. On the other hand, the next time the police ask you, “Where were you on the night of July 29 last year?” you will be able to prove that you were home alone.
These same capabilities will be extended by companies throughout their facilities, including employee home offices, and by educational institutions campus wide. In our current environment, it is critical that even public school students be allowed to have cell phones with them. But the school building could monitor calls to or from those phones and only let important calls actually “ring.”
This is not science fiction. Everything here is technically doable today, driven by the Cloud. As the capabilities actually move to commercial quantities, prices will probably be comparable to what they are today. Electronics are a lot less expensive to build than dials and knobs. I am so looking forward to the day when I don’t need C-3PO to understand the bings and beeps and clicks coming from the appliances in the kitchen and laundry room.
The last word:
Some of these ideas are from a 1942 short story by Robert A Heinlein called “Waldo.” Yep, this is the origin of the term “waldo” for a hand-like mechanism controlled through electronic, hydraulic or mechanical linkages by a human operator. The machine end of a waldo could be much larger or much smaller than a human hand. The first waldos were built by the Central Research Laboratories Company under contract with the Argonne National Laboratory to manipulate highly radioactive materials in a sealed chamber. Waldos have gone on to thousands of different uses in many fields, including the newer much less intrusive medical surgeries.
Keep your sense of humor.