Promised the smart home is fine control over an environment that automatically adapts to our needs. From the moment it wakes us gently in the morning to help us fall asleep at night, it works tirelessly to make us comfortable. Gadgets free us from housework, remind us of our work commitments and appointments, and protect us from uninvited guests. The smart home should make life easier.
But unfortunately, reality does not come to that vision. “Father! The light does not turn on!” “Simon! Google will not open the curtains again!” “How do I get YouTube on your TV? ” “What app is it for garden lights again?” Invite smart bulbs, robotic vacuum cleaners, smart speakers and other wonderful devices into your house and you will soon see the cracks.
When things run perfectly, you can get a glimpse of comfort and convenience. But when problems arise – which they often do – the problem solving falls on us. If you’ve ever lost a morning by trying to set up a security camera; sacrificed an afternoon of connecting your light panels to your new Wi-Fi mesh system; or tore your hair out over a robotic vacuum cleaner that worked perfectly yesterday but now turns useless in circles so you know my pain.
A circus with one ring
Controls cause most problems in my household. Take, for example, smart lighting. For that to work, you need to remind everyone in your family to leave the old contacts alone. Fail, and your carefully arranged remote control, voice commands, and scheduling are gone. Smart contacts can help, but they can also just increase the confusion. Even after training everyone in your house, a visitor who innocently presses the switch renders your smart bulbs useless again.
Then there are apps. So many apps. Each device has its own app. The more smart home gadgets you add, the more cluttered your phone becomes. It’s hard enough to keep track of which app controls which device. But you must also install them for everyone else and train them, or accept your role as gatekeeper of household settings.
However, you can always ask Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri. Right? Well, actually the security cameras work with Google, but you need Siri for the doorbell. Google Assistant plays music on the speaker in the dining room, but Alexa makes music in your bedroom. Oh, and when you ask, you can not say, “Turn on my bedroom light.” You have to say, “Turn on Amy’s bedroom light.”
Even when things are working out, it may take a few seconds for your chosen assistant to turn off the light. I feel faintly ridiculous to tell my wife not to touch the switch or close the curtains by hand while repeating a voice command or pressing away on my phone screen. “Is this more convenient?” she asks with a confused look.
I can hardly keep this up straight. No wonder the rest of my family is struggling. Sometimes I feel like I’m asking Hal to open the pod bay doors. While Google Assistant keeps telling me, “Something went wrong.”
A brighter future
Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Matter, the new smart-home standard, is ready at any time now and will solve some of these problems. It will simplify setup, allow you to use the smart assistant you prefer, and improve latency so that devices respond more quickly to commands.
But do not get too excited. As Michele Turner, director of Google’s Smart Home Ecosystem, told me recently, building on it will provide a robust and reliable foundation, but the individual devices themselves still need a lot of work.