I am the Smart Home

In 2014, in the context of the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice, Rem Koolhaas talked to Tony Fadell, who invented the “Nest” room thermostat and whom Koolhaas says was the “first official visitor from Silicon Valley to attend an architecture biennial”, about architecture in the digital age. Fadell’s company Nest Labs had set out to fundamentally rethink the use and benefits of facility technology and was bought out in early 2015 for a sensational 3.2 billion dollars not by some maker of Smart Home technologies, but by Google. The news grabbed the media headlines not just owing to the astronomic price tag, but also because of the implications the acquisition by the Internet giant had. As Koolhaas put it: “Every architectural element we know is about to associate itself with digital technology. Normally architectural elements are mute and deaf. They cannot hear and cannot speak. In the case of Nest it’s essential that you talk to them. They develop a relationship between the digital element and the owner. Each element will be profoundly influenced by its association with the digital world. It’s a given to which we the architectural community has not given any thought.”

Start-ups that always boast the same product ideas

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (CES), the world’s largest trade fair of its kind, technologies for smart homes have hitherto led a fringe existence. That all changed in 2016: With products by Google, Apple, Samsung and Amazon, the Smart Home has now become part of the technological mainstream and once again an industry finds itself facing outside rivals: “The companies that rule mobile are taking over the smart home, too”, declared trade journal “The Verge”. To date it was above all individual products that caught the eye, albeit (for all the attention the multibillion Google invest brought with it) not all home owners will agree that there are benefits to self-learning thermostats, smoke detectors or surveillance cameras.

Control and management of the heating based on presence and absence should be installed on the smartphones of all family members, otherwise there’ll be cold feet. Photo © Tado

In Germany, a large number of smaller companies are muscling their way into the Smart Home segment. For example, Munich start-up Tado develops high-tech heat regulators that teach themselves to adapt to the users’ behavioral patterns. It’s a simple concept: Users benefit from savings as the heating only goes on when you are at home or heading home. The data is collected by GPS. From the digital door lock by Nuki, that you can get with a digital video system for your front door, too, through remote-controlled blinds courtesy of DigitalStrom and pots and pans from Belkin to movable room dividers: As Koolhaas suggested, there are almost no elements of the home that cannot, at least theoretically, already be controlled by Smartphone. Today, there are any number of different service providers and products vying to be successful in this new market. Which makes it obvious what is lacking: Who links up these isolated islands? What standard will win the day? Control by gesture or by language, sensors that are worn, are part of the Smartphone or the room? Transmission standards such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or infrared? Could buying one thing today already potentially leave you in a technical cul-de-sac?

Is the key a thing of the past? Danish architect Bjarke Ingels from BIG Architects is an investor in the electronic smart lock provider Nuki. Photo © Nuki

Israeli company Eyesight seeks to offer a possible solution in the guise of its “SingleCue” learning gesture controls. The system is intended to combine control of all appliances in the Smart Home and thus banish remote controls to a drawer forever. This is also the tack taken by Berlin start-up Yetu. Using an open system, it seeks to represent absolutely all existing controls and enable them to interact. Rostock-based start-up Naon relies on networking appliances in an eco-system that above all connects air quality, heating and lighting.

From product to ecosystem

The future of the Smart Home will also be shaped by initiatives driven by the multinationals that are launching platforms cutting across products and makers. As part of Google’s “Works with Nest” strategic alliances are being forged with manufacturers of the appliances in order to field a broad product portfolio with a uniform standard. The partners already include LG and Philips, not to mention Mercedes-Benz and Logitech. This increasing system monopolization can be viewed critically, but its advantage is that it enables the swift integration of numerous potential applications and products. Many companies now regard the market for appliances, and this may be decisive as regards long-term growth, as a means to an end. And that end goes by the name of eco-system.

Left: On the way to becoming a personal assistant: temperature, timer, appointments. All kinds of information can be requested and provided. But it is rather awkward to take with you. Photo © Amazon Echo. Right: To your liking? The central user panel by Naon manages the room climate and thus increases residents’ wellbeing. Photo © Naon

Apple’s “Homekit”, Samsung’s “SmartThings” and Amazon’s “Alexa” are also all currently setting up homogeneous client portals. The trend is comparable to that among the IT and mobility players. This means both good news and bad news for the customers. The good news first: The market will develop swiftly, new products and services will become available as solutions for the Smart Home of tomorrow, and they’ll be easy to use. Moreover, the phase of uncertainty has been and gone, as product compatibility is guaranteed, meaning they can be successfully integrated into everyday life in the long run. And the bad news? The eco-systems are increasingly mutually exclusive so it may be hard to switch. And they all involve collecting private data, from which the companies then seek to profit.

New control and user concepts

Developing platforms and products is the one aspect. The other is controls for the systems, which constitutes a completely different field. The exception will be Smartphones or tablet PCs as relevant control systems, as researcher and designer Valentin Heun explains. Most interfaces are primarily of a visual nature. At present this really makes sense as the products we interact with are almost exclusively outfitted with screens or Touchscreens. So what happens if the Internet of Things increasingly understands our language or touch-free gestures and this renders screens superfluous? Anyone who has used gestures to switch channel (be it with Amazon “Echo”, a loudspeaker that listens, executes commands and checks data on the Internet, or with Microsoft’s “Kinect”) has already encountered the idea. The focus is primarily on getting away from screens. The key: efficient input functions that are activated by touch, language or brainwave. The slogan here is “Zero UI”, and the intention is to combine all these opportunities in a single system that enables controls with visual input. For Christoph Kehl, head of the Man-Machine-Transgression project run by the German Parliamentary Office of Technology Assessment, we are fast heading into a borderline area of man-machine interfaces. “People should always control machines, and not the other way round,” is therefore his credo – and he goes on to point to the diffuse interface that is being redefined by an increasing number of medical and military applications.

Real value added often only emerges when suppliers work together: Digitalstrom and Microsoft Kinect. Photo © Digitalstrom

Humans as the interface

Will computers become part of us and will we become interfaces as a consequence? Austin Carr commented in this regard in the magazine Fast Company: “As promising as voice technology is as a means of controlling the home, it’s only a stepping stone. The real achievement, industry insiders say, will be when Siri or Alexa can learn your patterns well enough to automate these tasks altogether.“ A current example of this is the “Soli” project, an input device that does not require touch as it can grasp the user’s gestures in the air. With “Soli”, Google has developed a chip that enables input through wearables without the device having to be touched.

Of course, in this way surfaces can themselves become the interface. The company Bare Conductivemanufactures printable interfaces, which provide a new form of man-machine interaction: The electric ink can be printed onto materials using various printing or drawing techniques, making it possible to produce both interfaces and musical instruments. Is it possible to use these kinds of interactive materials to create all-round input devices that in future simply need to be outfitted with the right software? The Smartphone would then merely be a storage or playback device, while interaction would be straight across the table or using your sleeve. These developments are striking, as when clothing or surfaces can themselves interact with appliances, our entire surroundings could function as an interface.

Alongside augmented reality applications via data goggles – e.g., Microsoft’s “Megavision” (meta 2), which enables you to project digital worlds and thus a second level of information into your own living room – the market for gesture applications looks set to grow further. Muv Interactive’s idea goes by the name of “Bird” and can best be described as a mechanical finger puppet: Simply slipped over the user’s finger, the “Bird” lets you control your Smart Home by gestures. In the auto industry, gestures are already being used to drive Infotainment, activate the sun roof or the interior lights. The machine predefines the gestures, meaning the user has to adapt to the technology. A body whose free gestures in space are recognized by a machine is still a pie in the sky, as gesture researcher Julius Hassemer explains in interview.

Meta 2 was only launched on the market very recently, but is already overshadowing all previous applications. Photo © Metavision

We need spatial experts

Will current trends in fact change our interiors and living environments in the long term? Experiences with appliances are still at the experimental stage. What happens in a car if the gesture is not recognized or gets misunderstood? Is it really worthwhile to control your heating by Smartphone when you are not at home? And what happens to all the private data? These issues are relevant and will define the future path taken in advancing the Smart Home.

We are at the beginning of a chapter in the transformation towards digital society. This also changes the design of our interiors in terms of comfort, energy, security and light. Here, systems, interfaces and sensors will have a massive influence on our built environment. Intelligent applications will then no longer ask whether they are dealing with a lighting system or security features. Domains will blend, support and rely on each other. It is hard to gauge today whether and how the architecture and design of our habitations will change. These product worlds seem too new, too inexperienced, in part too playful to be real – especially those introduced by many of the new players from Silicon Valley. The only certainty at present seems to be that architecture is heading for another wave of technologization that will not always center on human requirements.

Two of three products by Nest. The security camera and the thermostat, which evidently control each other. Photo © Nest

Architects have not revealed their hand yet. Rarely are there points of contact between the tech world and architectural offices. Only once did Bjarke Ingels’ office BIG report that it was participating in London-based start-up Friday, which develops digital locks and locking systems. Otherwise there is almost unanimous silence or rejection. Or, as Rem Koolhaas put it in conversation with Fadell: “There is a fundamental reluctance on my part to see architecture turned into products. To the relentless commercialization of architectural elements and ultimately the degree to which you give away elements of yourself.“ Given a positive spin, architecture is thus the last bastion in the way of the technological digitalization of our living spaces. We need structural experts who address the spatial and anthropogenic implications of a (distant) future in which systems and implants intended to support humans start getting used for household appliance communications. Let’s look forward to a time when technology is so advanced that it no longer has to seem like technology but can resemble naturally structured living spaces.

Stefan Carsten, futurist and urban geographer, combines the themes of the future, the city and mobility in his work. He regards the future as both a perspective and a method in order to explore and evaluate current urban, mobility and lifeworld issues. This includes strategies and tactics as well as innovations and transformations for viable cities, space, organization and people of tomorrow.

Ludwig Engel works as a futurist and urbanist on questions dealing with long-term strategy, the future city and urban utopias. He studied economics, communication sciences, and cultural history in Berlin, Frankfurt/Oder and Shanghai. From 2005-2011 he worked at the Daimler AG think tank for future studies and strategic long-term planning. After various teaching assignments in the fields of strategic foresight, futurology, urban planning and urban futures, he currently teaches at University of Fine Arts Berlin (Strategic Foresight and Futurology) and Technical University Berlin (Architecture Design Innovation Program).

Voice over switch. Philips Hue is controlled via the Apple Homekit. Photo © Philips
The company Bare Conductive manufactures printable interfaces, which provide a new form of man-machine interaction. Photo © Bare Conductive