Rethinking ‘Smart: Home Electronics After The Pandemic

Written By: Anna Savina, Afshin Mehin

Illustrations by: Cynthia Tran Vo

Earlier this year, WOKE was a part of CES, the biggest consumer electronics show in the U.S. We introduced a new product that we had worked on — a humble garbage disposal unit for Sepura Home. We collaborated with them to design a new type of garburator that could securely store compostable food matter until people are ready to dispose of it or put it in the garden plot. We were really proud of the result, but some people at the show commented on the fact that it wasn’t “smart” enough because it wasn’t as connected as other devices.

Back in January, we brushed this criticism off, but the pandemic and the pressures to stay home made us think about this story more and more. How do we define what ‘smart’ means during and after the pandemic? Does smart equal better? And how we can make products for the home relevant to our new reality? Here is our exploration of how we can design home devices for the post-pandemic world.  

A Dream Of Smart Homes

Though it seems like the idea of ‘smart homes’ is fairly new, the idea of devices that have improved our quality of life have been around for decades. The majority of home appliances that we use today (think of dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, food processors, etc.) were popularized in the first half of the 20th century and caught on because of how they were able to free up people’s time. Despite the fact that they were not “smart” by today’s standards, they still made a big impact on people’s lives and got people thinking about what was next for technology in that field. 

Both inventors and sci-fi authors started imagining automated homes — spaces that use advanced technology to make people free of chores. After WWII, this dream started coming to life. In 1966, the ECHO IV, or Electronic Computing Home Operator, was built. It was able to turn the stereo system on and off, set an alarm, and control’s home temperature.

In the 80s, the idea of a smart home gained more traction as the National Association of Home Builders created a special interest group called “Smart House” to advocate for this new technology and popularize it with designers and architects. 

In the 90s, as computers started to get connected to the Internet, the concept of smart started to seem more attainable than ever. Fast-growing tech companies like Microsoft started thinking about the way devices can be connected, and in 1999, Kevin Ashton coined the term ‘Internet of Things.’ For him, the progress in this field is closely associated with new ‘sensing’ technologies. ‘In the twentieth century, computers were brains without senses […] There is many billion times more information in the world than people could possibly type in through a keyboard or scan with a barcode.’

The Microsoft infomercial from the 90s shows a lot of technologies that would become widely available in the 2010s (for example, touch ID and face recognition). Moreover, the main value proposition stayed the same: smart homes promised too ‘change and improve our lives.’

Everything Connected: The IOT( Internet of Things) Boom Of The 2010s 

In 2010, the promises of the 90s became a reality. That year, Nest introduced its first smart thermostat. It was the first product in a long line of home innovations that became staples of the modern home, from Amazon Echo to Philips Hue.  

This new generation of devices turned a lot of visions of the 90s into reality, but they still lacked a lot of features needed for a truly seamless experience. ‘Smart home systems often have gaps in their functionality, leading to disjointed experiences and at times causing users to abandon them altogether’, writes Veronika Ji, Senior Strategist at frog. ( frog design?)

Without an industry standard or a shared platform, it was hard to create a sense of control over the user’s home. ‘I believe the next generation of smart home will also need to be truly context-aware, which means understanding a user’s situation (e.g., whether the user is home alone or with others) and being able to make intelligent interaction decisions accordingly,’ adds Veronika. 

Privacy and safety are other important concerns that became more prominent in the 2010s. Many companies’ data collection practices lacked transparency. In 2015, Samsung got a lot of criticism for a passage in Samsung Smart TV privacy policy that warned users to avoid discussing sensitive topics near the device. As smart home devices become more common, their users’ awareness of potential drawbacks and privacy issues also grew.    

Innovation Post-2020: What Makes a Product Smart

Here at WOKE, we believe that it’s time to redefine what ‘smart’ means in the context of home devices, and, more broadly, consumer electronics. It looks like the overall trajectory is changing. A lot of features of the smart home devices from the past were designed to enable busy working lifestyle — your smart home was there, waiting for you to come back from work. It greeted you with turning on the lights and setting the right temperature. Post-COVID, as we are spending more time at home, our priorities change. Our home is our whole world, and we need new devices to accommodate our new lifestyle. 

For us, ‘smart’ is about innovation, usability, and efficiency. The pandemic and the climate crisis are demonstrating that the world doesn’t need more gadgets for us to play with. We need sustainable devices for our home to quantify and understand our environment and use our resources wisely. 

When we think about what ‘smart’ means in 2020, there are several aspects of that term that we want to focus on and highlight: 

In one of the episodes of Mr. Robot, a TV show that ran between 2015 and 2019, one of the characters was attacked by hackers. Her smart home suddenly started ‘acting out’: the temperature dropped, the water in the shower turned boiling hot, and the phones started ringing. The owner has to flee the house, allowing hackers to enter it. 

Though the technologies shown in the episode weren’t available at the time, Mr. Robot illustrated a common fear associated with smart homes. Smart home devices gather data about people and environments, and the episode showed how the home was able to use this data against the owner. 

What we hope to see in the future is more transparency around the ways data is being collected and how it’s used. Otherwise, we risk encountering these fictional scenarios in real life where we don’t know if the smart home is really acting in your best interest or prioritizing the interests of the companies trying to sell their goods and services.

Creating more immersive experiences. The pandemic showed that although a lot of smart home devices are connected to the internet, they don’t present us with opportunities to feel immersed in certain experiences. 

Mirror is one of the good examples that represent devices that are focused on providing this type of experience and entertainment rather than bare utility. This startup selling full-length mirrors that can also act as an interactive home gym was bought by Lululemon for $500 million this June. Unlike VR-headsets, these devices don’t allow their users to lose connection with their physical reality, but they represent an experience that we have previously had outside of our home in a pretty believable way. 

In the future, we may see more immersive experiences and entertainment. Not just for workouts, but for watching sports, interacting with your friends, attending events, etc. As broadband speeds are getting higher, it will be easier to stream better quality videos and give people access to events and happenings that only existed in real life before. 

Using new materials and building for sustainability. When creating smart home devices, it’s important for designers to focus on sustainable materials and production techniques. We need to design the ‘end of life’ experience and avoid planned obsolescence. Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen examples of where this hasn’t been a priority. In 2016, when Nest acquired Revolv, a company building smart home hubs, they permanently disabled the platform, rendering the Revolv smart hubs as essentially useless. 

A more inspiring example is with the smart watch Pebble. Despite the fact that it’s not a home device, its story gives us an insight into how the future of smart home electronics could look like. Released in 2013 and discontinued in 2016, Pebble got a devoted fan base that kept the platform alive years after it’s shutdown. This kind of scenario is far from perfect, but it does shows how truly useful products can and should survive  beyond the teams that created them.   

Home Devices In The Post-Pandemic World 

We believe that COVID is helping us redefine our expectations for home comfort and efficiency. It’s a chance for designers and builders to create the next generation of devices that solve the challenges of the past. Whether you are designing utilitarian products that make people’s life easier amidst the pandemic, protect them, or entertain them, it’s a chance to build devices that are more sustainable, autonomous, and safe than what they were before. This indeed feels like what smart really is.

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