When his children have been watching TV for too long, an automated system notifies Chris and gives him the option of turning off the screen remotely or sending his kids a message.
“I’ll send a message to say ‘what you are you doing? You’ve been sitting around for too long,'” Chris, who lives in Queensland with his family of four, says.
When data gathered from local weather stations indicate that rain will strike the eastern side of the house in exactly five minutes, the system tells him what windows on that side are open.
If he’s not home and an intruder visits, a hidden smart speaker erupts with an aggressive barking noise.
“That’s some of the cool stuff,” Chris says.
Technology that automates or remotely controls various household functions, from lighting to security, appears to be going mainstream, helped by a pandemic that has seen us spending more time at home, and more money on comforts like air fryers and smart speakers.
But do these gizmos make life any better?
Are “smart homes” the way of the future, or just the latest marketing gimmick?
Everything can be ‘smart’, including the kitchen sink
Chris’s house is an extreme example, but locks, lights and doorbells that can be controlled through a phone and programmed to perform tasks automatically are becoming commonplace.
According to some, these are the leading edge of a dramatic change in our homes’ relationship with technology.
This year’s influential Consumer Electronics Show (CES) tech expo in Las Vegas saw a rush to capitalise on the trend: big brands launched a range of connected devices, from taps controlled by voice commands to video-streaming dog doors that open at a pet’s approach.
Other products included:
- Lots and lots of cheap security cameras
- A light bulb that can track your sleep, heart rate and other biometric measurements using radar
- A light bulb that can diffuse essential oils
- A tiny device that uses air pressure, noise and motion sensors to detect intruders
- A front door that integrates power, lights, sensors, a video doorbell and a smart lock (so it looks like a normal door)
- A new smart home standard (“Matter”) designed to make connected home devices work together.
The market research company Telsyte predicts the average Australian household will add more than 10 connected devices by 2025.
If current demand is any guide, most of these new devices will be smart power outlets, speakers and light bulbs, as well as video doorbells, remote-activated locks, and surveillance cameras.
But this is just the start, according to the smart home industry, which is pushing a new concept: “contextual awareness”.
This is where the home environment adapts to the desires and routines of its inhabitants: alarm clocks read the owner’s schedule and set themselves accordingly, health sensors detect signs of illness and automatically order medicine, software dims lights and plays music according to a person’s habits — or even their apparent mood.
Meet the DIY home automators
Some Australians, like Chris, are already experimenting with this idea.
On the Facebook group “Home Automation Australia” (HAA), he and 9,000 other members share knowledge and trade jargon-heavy questions referencing obscure products and protocols.
Created in 2017, HAA tripled its members over six months last year, according to one of the group’s admins, Brent Wesley.
Many members work in IT and most are men aged 25-54.
“Most people seem to be joining for much the same reasons: they are saving energy, improving securing, and adding convenience,” Brent says.
Pool pumps can automatically turn on during the middle of the day, when a rooftop solar array is producing excess energy. Security cameras can be trained to distinguish between a nosy dog and an intruder. Light switches can be activated by voice command. Blinds can rise with the Sun. TVs can spring to life when a person flops on a couch.
“A lot of people are driven towards it by curiosity,” Brent says.
“When they realise what’s possible, it becomes an all-consuming thing.”
Another member of the group, Matthew, shared an 11-page list of his home’s automations, including a “goodnight routine” that notifies “if teeth aren’t brushed” and a video of a sunrise that increases in brightness on the bedroom television 30 minutes before the morning alarm.
“I have probably one of the most automated homes worldwide,” says Matthew, who is a moderator of the r/homeautomation subreddit (with 1.4 million members).
A fourth member, Elias, hooked up his lights to respond to voice commands issued to smart speakers peppered about the house.
“I say, ‘Hey Google, turn on master bedroom lights’, and it picks it up whether you’re in the toilet or the corridor,” he says.
“I hardly use light switches anymore.”
You can automate it, but what’s the point?
If a house that’s aware of your presence and can turn out the lights sounds either hellish or pointless, you’re not alone.
In 2020, Monash University researchers conducted interviews with households in Victoria and NSW to gauge their thoughts on these “industry visions” for how most people will live.
Some were initially excited by the high-tech possibilities, but most ultimately decided this “shiny future” didn’t fit with their life, according to Kari Dahlgren, a research fellow and one of the authors of a report on the findings.
“The research was trying to understand what flashy technologies people will accept into the home,” she says.
People preferred to retain manual control, even when it cost time or money.
Many households disliked the idea of giving energy retailers the ability to remotely switch off customers’ heating or cooling when power prices approached a daily peak, in order to reduce household energy costs.
Early adopters have a different relationship with technology than “everyday people”, which may explain why industry visions of a high-tech future are sometimes unpopular, Dr Dahlgren says.
Dreams of the labour-saving “smart home” go back to the 1957 “Monsanto House of the Future” made entirely of plastic and featuring an “ultrasonic dishwasher” and a sink with adjustable height.
“People’s everyday lives and priorities aren’t being taken into account in the design and marketing of those technologies,” Dr Dahlgren says.
Today’s automated homes may not be a sign of what’s to come, but a short-lived folly, like a sink with adjustable height.
Questions around security and generally being ‘creepy’
Even some “early adopters” on the Facebook HAA group are sceptical of the claim our homes will be packed with connected devices.
“There are so many gimmicky products,” Michael from Melbourne says.
“I’ve got a smart fridge and the only time I log into the app is when there’s been a power outage and I’m not at home.
Then there’s the security issues. David, a HAA member who’s automated his Brisbane home, says he worries about strangers having access to the data generated by his family.
“If the data leaks, does it give people the ability to predict when I won’t be home?”
The video doorbell maker Ring, acquired by Amazon in 2018, has partnerships with at least 1,800 US police departments that can request camera footage from Ring doorbells.
Its millions of doorbells amount to a private surveillance network that’s subject to very little oversight.
There are also questions around privacy within the family when members can use devices to effectively spy on one another.
“Is it right for me to see my family turn the air-conditioning on and ring them up and say, ‘Why are you doing that?'”
Some say there’s nothing wrong with this. Chris from Queensland argues that a bit of electronic surveillance of the family, such as remotely monitoring the amount of time his children watch TV, is convenient for working parents who can’t always be there in person.
“It is and it isn’t intrusive,” Chris says.
“There is that oversensitive ‘Big Brother watching’ issue. Access to the system is limited to me and my wife.
“But convenience outweighs the surveillance side.”
And is it worth the money? Chris estimates he’s spent tens of thousands of dollars on his “hodgepodge” of automations.
“It’s nice to have rather than something offering real value. If I didn’t have it I could live without it, absolutely,” he says.
“But we haven’t really entered the realm of proper home automation yet.”