There are concepts that have been tried many times over the course of the last century, always failed, and yet innovators don’t give up on them. No, I’m not talking about flying cars or miraculous hair growth formulas. It’s the intelligent home that grabbed the spotlight this time around, thanks to the recent Goolge I/O conference, and the Android@Home initiative.
If you haven’t seen a video from the conference yet, here’s a quick recap. A Google spokesperson takes the stage. Behind his back, there’s a poster with a family of disturbingly happy green robots. There is a brief talk about remote control of home appliances and lights. Then, stage spotlights are starting to flash as someone plays a game on an Android tablet.
Are you impressed yet?
Because there is one small problem – all of it is older than Jetsons, as old as first Sci-Fi stories from the turn of the century. If you think about it, it’s actually older than print, dating back to tales of invisible servants in magic castles. The intelligent, adaptive home has been envisioned for many decades now. As you can probably guess by the fact, that this morning you had to get dressed without the help of your assistant robot, it never quite happened, even though several generations were told it’s just around the bend.
Back to the future
Take a look at this 50’s video. It’s full of big dreams about intelligent appliances, computer control, and energy efficiency, that all strike a familiar chord. It was supposed to happen in a distant future of 1985, before many of us have been born. Oh, they also talk about half an hour space flight to Tokio. The sad reality is, in 2011 this sort of travel is even further away than before (unless you live near Tokio), as our super-sonic passenger vehicles rust away in the junkyards. But if you look at the kitchen computer from this vid, or at the fridge contents monitoring system, you get a strange feeling that you’ve seen that. Very recently in fact.
But let’s jump forward to 1985. In May, PopularScience magazine ran a story describing the ideal homes of the future. There’s a good quote that shows you how exactly they imagined them: “Appliances will also communicate with the home’s central computer. When clothes in the dryer are finished, you won’t hear a bell in the basement. Instead the computer will tell you via video monitors installed throughout the house. “The monitors can be used for entertainment, too. When you want to watch a videotape in the bedroom, the computer will turn on the VCR in the den and send you the movie”.
Here’s another snippet that hints at what should have been. Check out the smooth UI! Retrofuturism doesn’t get any better than that. Now, compare it to this, and tell me what changed? It’s hard to shake off a feeling that Android@Home tries to do basically the same things HomeMinder did a quarter century earlier, except that instead of choosing options on the TV, you will do that on your flashy tablet. And the brain of the system is not a brick that’s sitting somewhere in the living room.
In the same issue, PopularScience was also hyping the new format to rule them all – a glorious laser disc! The optical media came, took the market, and started to fade into obscurity, but I’m still waiting for a digitized robot voice to wake me up in the morning.
How to teach an old trick to a new dog
As you can see, the concept is old – and so tired I can’t help but wonder if it’s destined to fail again. But we have to keep in mind that many technologies took very long to filter down to mainstream. The mobile phone was proposed by Bell Labs way back in 1947, but it became a reality some thirty years later.
What about 3D photography, a feature associated with bleeding-edge compacts and DSLR-s? It’s so 1860! Do you remember the failure of Jaws 3D, and the short-lived 3D movie outburst in the 80’s? Did you know that 50’s were called a golden age of 3D motion pictures? Who would have thought it will take another half a century for this concept to catch on.
They say that if you don’t succeed at first, keep on trying, until you do (or until you get a restraint order). Google must know something about that (trying, not the restraint orders), and so they’re not that afraid to work on the concepts that floundered before.
After all, maybe the only thing we lacked so far was a common standard, a cheap controller, and a wide array of compatible appliances? The first and second are here now. With 400.000 new Android devices activated each day, Android@Home will have an established user base from day one. And the best thing is, there’s a good chance you already own a compatible controller, so we can scratch this one from the list as well. The third thing still remains a bit of a mystery. Yes, the LightingScience bulbs are nice, but it’s a long way from here to Google themed cookers, fridges or stereos.
Then, there is also the psychological barrier. The subconscious fear of high technology. Not everyone likes the idea of having a home full of “living” things, more intelligent than the owner.
A brave new world
But what will happen if Google pulls it off, and Android@Home proves to be more than just a publicity stunt? The possibilities are endless. Network of items allows for countless, complicated interactions. A simple example: you probably have a thermometer outside your window. It’s working day and night, collecting and displaying data. Most of this data is wasted, because you use the device only for two seconds every now and then. But what if the thermometer became a part of a network of intelligent appliances? Well, for example it could suggest to your alarm clock that you need to get up five minutes earlier today, because the night was freezing cold, and your car outside is probably frozen. In turn, the Alarm clock could send the new “wake up” hour to your coffee maker and heating system. Or it could simply answer to thermometer: “Sorry, pal. The master knows about the frost. Yesterday he watched the weather forecast and manually set time ten minutes earlier than usual”.
Imagine what would happen if you could connect two simple things – your Gmail account and your desk lamp, making your lamp flash briefly when you receive new mail. Or maybe let your music player warn you that a delivery man will be at your door in five minutes? Or turn off the damn power if your kids played on their console for too long?
And that’s small thinking, in terms of a single home. What if the devices could talk to each other across properties? The networked data of millions of thermometers could provide a user-generated weather map, much more detailed than what you get in the forecast. Positioning data of a million of cars could decongest the biggest cities, intelligently adjusting the traffic flow.
As with most cool technologies, probably the smartest implementations will come after the toolset is released to the broad public.
The Internet of things
That’s how, without even noticing, we went from intelligent home to intelligent globe. This is also an old concept, but perhaps a little less dated than housewife fantasies about Jetsonesque kitchen. The end result of a push towards adaptive surrounding and inter-device communication is called the Internet of Things. A web, that contains not only people, but also all items they own, with all the associated data.
This process is actually well underway. The number of devices that “talk” to each other on the Internet is increasing sharply: smartphones, tablets, geolocation devices, public webcams, traffic systems. There are also numerous non-human occupants of the web – bots, cloud deployed apps, automated services. Very soon, humans will become the minority group on the Internet. It will be mostly used by objects to communicate amongst themselves, and sometimes with their users.
As you can see, Android@Home has potential to change our lives – or to become yet another roadkill on the side of the highway leading into the future. What’s more likely? I don’t know, I’m not good at prophecies. I’m still waiting for my personal AI assistant to handle such mundane tasks.