The stupid intelligent house

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 18. dec 2008

Tell us about the house of the future! I get that request a lot. Then I will engage in a narrative about IT, fascinating refrigerators, new intelligent screens connected to ovens and stoves and other technological advances such as control systems for pork roasts etc. Our expectations to the blessings of modern technology are great.

A few years ago a new house named Villa Vision was built in the western part of the Greater Copenhagen area. This was supposed to be the house of the future with all the modern gadgets installed in it. That was the first time we heard of intelligent refrigerators and in the kitchen there was a special fixture where you by entering a three-digit code could enter the exact temperature of the water that each member of the household wanted. There were many other engineering dreams in the house – but not much practical sense.

Imagine having cookie dough all over your hands while trying to enter a personal code to wash your hands! That is not easy. The same applies for the refrigerator, which has been further developed lately. You just scan your groceries when you put them in your refrigerator and again when you use the groceries. The refrigerator will then order new groceries at the supermarket when the supply is used up.

But it is too late to order milk when the last carton is already gone, and it is difficult to scan the butcher’s steaks or chops when they arrive at the home in ordinary grease paper, not even to mention the vegetables from the market, the organic country duck or the hand sliced Italian specialty cheese.

The engineer’s dream is a nightmare

The intelligent house is an engineer’s dream, which turns into a nightmare in a family’s reality. Technical experts are not very good at identifying people’s everyday needs. They are simply spend too much time at work and too little at home in the kitchen, the washing room and the living room. There is too little user oriented innovation in the inventions.

The intelligent house is also the dream of a control system that will control everything from the light in the teenage room to the watering of the strawberry bed automatically and by remote control. However, the effort in terms of time to get the things to work – like i.e. scanning your groceries instead of having them put away in a hurry – is usually far greater than the gain. Add to this that control systems are often so complicated that it is difficult to get them to work right. The first multi-media centres that were supposed to unite sound, video, hard disk recordings of movies and the family’s photo album, where father would show photos and video to speechless neighbours and family with the same confidence as when operating the Weber barbeque, has also turned into a nightmare that way surpasses the old slide shows. It just doesn’t work!

Nothing will come of the intelligent house. We cannot live in it. Instead we need intelligence in the development of new products for our homes. We need modern photo archives that do not require Microsoft XP or Vista and a diploma in computer sciences to operate. Something that is smarter than the easily accessibility and chronological order of a photo album. Maybe we just need that somebody offers to organise our photos and add some text, print a book with everything in it and make a copy for the flat screen, that can be played via the remote control.

We need clever solutions. We do not need to think of intelligent homes, but we need to think intelligently as people. That will create better products for our homes. The technology does not necessarily have to be new – it just needs to work. A Danish greengrocer (Årstiderne) does not only deliver greens to the doorstep, but the greens come with a number of recipes. Modern people need help to prepare old fashioned greens. A fish retailer ( delivers fish and specialties to people’s doorsteps every week according to the same model. Their website is loaded with inspiration for using their products. A link from the website to the kitchen is enough for a new technological solution. We need information about the food in the kitchen. So a screen will be placed in the kitchen so that you can read the recipe. The recipe being read out loud at a normal working pace could also be a break-through. That way your hands will be free to do the work.

This is where situationalism comes in. It is the actual situations in the home that we need to rethink and develop products and services for. What does the family do Friday night in the living room? They enjoy each others company, drink coffee or a glass of wine after dinner; often there is candy and a good family movie or an entertainment show on TV. What does the family need in this situation? Healthy candy would be nice – but it has to be there at seven and not the day before. A selection of movies ready to be downloaded – for instance the newest movies for children. The temptation must be right there on the spot, otherwise it will just be the usual purchase of DVD’s in the supermarket and which half of the family has already watched before Friday night. Did I forget to say that there needs to be room for a break to go to the bathroom, and that such interruptions are of course filled by a small five-minute entertainment spots and not by commercials?

Most people perceive innovation as getting a really good idea and carrying it into effect. But only few studies have been made of innovation and none that conclude this. The best study made is by Goldenberg, Lehmann and Mazursky in a working paper from MSI (note 1). Through the studies of 200 innovative products they arrive at the following characteristics of successful innovations:

  • The products were moderately new for the market
  • The products were based on tested and known technology
  • The products helped save money, met customer needs and supported existing behaviour

The result shows that innovation is not using new ideas out of the blue. If innovative processes are to result in successful products it is important that they respond to the reality in the market, the distribution channels and among the buyers of the products. The most important reality in relation to our home is what we actually do in our home. Technological solutions for non-existing problems are much too frequent. Let us take a tour of our home and look at the possibilities.

The kitchen and intelligent products

We need recipes when we cook and shop for groceries. There are enough cookbooks in our homes, but not many interactive cookbooks, where we can enter which produce we wish to use. There is one called DK-kogebogen (the DK Cookbook), which could be improved if you were able to use it via the mobile phone. A simple consumer oriented addition of sending a shopping list via text message would improve the usability immensely. Then you could have your husband or children do the shopping while you pick up the little one from kindergarten. An addition could also be inspiration for spicing things up – how to make a traditional dish more exiting! An information screen that can be used to improve the guest menu – spices, how to make a sauce, which wine goes with a certain dish.

Most Danish kitchens have a dishwasher. But look at the working process in a kitchen, where dishes are first put on the table, then made dirty and subsequently placed in the dishwasher. When it is done, things are put back in cabinets and drawers. Buy two dishwashers and remove one work routine. You take the clean dishes from one dishwasher and place the dirty dishes in the other – and bam, you have saved the work of putting the dishes away.

Well-arranged refrigerators are far more in demand than refrigerators with screens and scanners. Most refrigerators are used for eating during the day – breakfast for everyone, food after school and a snack and something to drink when we come home from work. A refrigerator should be able to shift its contents around in accordance with the time of day and be ready with the things in front which is used the most at that particular time of day. The refrigerator that adapts to the situation, that puts out the leftovers from dinner at around 11 p.m. (or possibly hides them at that time), has milk, cheese, jam and fruit ready at 7 a.m. and the healthy snack when the children come home from school. That would be far more useful than zero-zones. If we could also get a refrigerator with light that would brighten up everywhere a lot would have been gained.

An oven that could be turned on by sending a text message is not so bad, but actually what we need is an oven that can cook a chicken in half an hour instead of one hour. They exist but are mostly used in industrial kitchens. By analysing Danish families in kitchens, the time factor would show. What about the expensive cooker hoods that every man loves to brag about? There is a need for products that are clever – that simply start when you need them and turn off when there is no more need for ventilation. Sensors can feel if there is steam in the air. Why has that not been developed yet? Because engineers do not understand housewives and – housefathers.

The working process in a Danish home

A Danish home has many functions that is best controlled by the person in the family who has the overall perspective. That on the other hand means that the other family members may loose perspective – often in their own lives. The 10-year old son may not know when he has to go to soccer practice, because mother usually tells him when to go. The 14-year old daughter forgets to say that she will not be home for dinner, and the planning of the laundry before the vacation trip is lacking because mother (or once in a while father) is taking a course and is not able to remote control the washing machine. We need a planning tool that easily and readily show all functions in the family and remembers appointments of the individual family members, for instance by text messages to their mobile phones. A reminder to inform the family of when you will be home, a school timetable, leisure time activities and other appointments; a reminder that is sent to all relevant persons and the possibility of seeing things from a distance – i.e. the internet. An outline on the big screen in the home for all family members and easy communication via text messages on the mobile phones. That is far more useful than seeing all the videos of aunt Emma on father’s big hard disk flat screen.

Ideas developed from observation are actually worth much more. There is a need for a small program for the computer, which after an hour’s use of computer games, internet or other activity sends a message to the user to go into the garden, go to the football field or go for a walk. It would be good if ideas for activities were posted at the same time, maybe a quick link to a friend, who is also sitting in front of the computer. The latter may easily be done by MSN already today. If the request is not followed you can – at your own discretion – play a small reminder from your mother, initiate automating closing of the computer or maybe even ban the user for a week.

The bath room and technology

The great bath room dreams are already being lived and realised through the many renovations. The beautiful rooms are being created now. But the Danish middle class cannot afford the personal massage therapist, the dressing expert or the chaperone. Only the rich can afford that and they are also starting to want to be free from people around them. There is a need for technological help right there. The digital dressing expert, the figure-coach via webcam, the mental coach or maybe the best of all – a webcam-connection with your girlfriend, and in a few years also from man to man when the development of the body fixation among young men follows them further on in their lives.

Provisions for everyday life

Today, there are many suppliers of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and fish that deliver directly to our home and it is possible to create a technological solution to the many needs of provisions a normal family requires. We rarely change the brand of these products and the interest in the product is relatively low: toilet paper, dishwashing liquid and tabs, cleaning agents, the usual colonial products, certain cereals and a number of other products that we just need. The purchase process is tedious and boring. But without detergent there are no clean clothes. In short they are not nice to run out of. It should be possible to order fixed delivery via the internet, establish an agent who registers the normal consumption taking into account the seasons and then calculates the supply to each individual home. It must of course be possible to change your delivery a few days before it is actually delivered and to order individual products from time to time. If supplied along with the other boxes the logistics costs are small and any surplus will not spoil like vegetables or meat.

The practical part

We need robots to do the practical work in our homes. But they should not be built into the house. The technological development moves way to fast to be part of a building that is only changed at intervals and must stand for over a hundred years. We have washing machines and dishwashers. A real breakthrough would be automatic cleaning of bathrooms and kitchens. A push on a button and the process starts. It may prove to be the end of the all purpose family room if such system is developed. It will most likely require tightly closed doors.

The vacuum cleaner must be able to think. It actually requires mental activity to vacuum and that you recognise the difference between a chocolate wrapper and a pair of underwear on the floor of the boy’s room. We also need a machine that can do the garden and distinguish between flowers and weeds, so real high technology is not banned in the home. But it must operate as the occupants would do. The robot vacuum cleaner and the automatic lawn mower do not work that way yet.

RFID – little tags on products – have not yet become the great success that they were acclaimed to be. But how about a washing machine where an alarm goes off when clothes that are not of the same type are put in the same load. An RFID-reader on the opening of the washing machine could prove to be a good user oriented innovation for the future home. Then men would no longer mix the white with the dark colours. A small robot that irons or sorts the clothes and brings it to the occupants’ of the house is also a solution to a time consuming task. It is far more practical to use RFID on things that we cannot easily sort such as clothes, instead of using them on foods, as we are presently not in doubt about the difference between a cucumber and a chicken.

The living room and the all purpose family room

The living room is evolving into a home cinema or may be disappearing alltogether. The problem with the living room is that it was created for recreation and social interaction. But those two areas have in respect of time been on the decrease in the past 15 years. At the same time social interaction has moved into the al-purpose family room around the dining table. If the living room is to be revived apart from being a cinema it must be adaptable to different situations. We can use technology in the living room, if it transfers the room into something else in minutes. The furniture must be flexible and contain a control system that can set up a cinema, Friday night cosiness or coffee with the friends by the push of a button. A built-in function that can clear the floor and make room for big displays such as dance shows, children’s play etc. would make the usability of the quite big areas of our living rooms much better.

Consumption and energy

Many visions of the future home focus on controlling the energy consumption and other areas of consumption in the home. The engineers’ way of thinking once again shows its face. They are the types of persons that you can wake up at night and ask them what last month’s water consumption was and get an answer right away. Other mortals need monitoring in order to prevent unpleasant surprises and help to control or reduce our consumption. It is really useful to be able to send a text message to the heating system in the summer house or the holiday cottage a day or two before you arrive during the time of year in which that is necessary. It is also nice to be able to turn down the heat – for instance when you are on vacation and you forgot to do so before you left. The main switch to the home’s electricity supply is probably not a good idea if you turn off the freezer and the recirculation pump in the process. But consumption alarms would be useful for people, i.e. we use too much water, the power consumption in the outhouse or the garage is too high, this room consumes 30% of the entire power consumption in the house, in this bathroom the shower is used 1:45 minutes. It seems like the Big Brother society, but the idea is to give us some knowledge of what modern people otherwise only guess at.

Finally, advice on better ways to use our resources could save a lot, but in reality savings are merely a poor substitute for real advice. It is okay to use energy if something reasonable comes out of it.

Innovation requires sympathy

All examples show that you get nowhere if you do not seriously study how people live in their homes. One of the leading men behind Villa Vision, Ivar Molkte, realised in 2007 that the ideas behind Villa Vision were wrong. The focus should be on human nature instead and therefore he has worked on developing a house with organic shapes.

But that is not enough. A house that twists and bends is bound for failure, if you cannot answer the simple question of what benefit it will have for families in their home. Add to this that the demand for houses that are round or have oblique angles is very limited - even today.

But to develop solutions that are based on the identification of needs that have not been expressed is the way to go. Innovation in homes must make everyday life easier, like the innovations we have previously received: Water in the house, hot water, refrigerators, washing machines, dishwashers, coffee makers, central vacuum cleaners, etc. To this long list can be added all the things we do not need, but already have. The essential part of the technological development in the home is whether it adds something that is useful to us and helps us in our everyday lives. That requires sympathy and understanding of modern family life.

Note 1: Carl Frankling, Why innovations fail, Spiro Press, London 2003

Published here, 2008

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