Thursday, July 14, 2011

Who Really Wants a Digital Home?

Let me start by saying I'm not a technophobe. I work in video surveillance, I write code in multiple languages, I cross-compile C++ code, I browse various open source projects in my spare time, I like python's structured use of white space, etc. I'm a nerd, and an unabashed one at that.

But let me be the first to say: I do not want a "digital home." Yep, that's right. I don't want a digital home.  

Let me back up and put some context behind this. In maybe 2005ish, I was asked to head up to Seattle to interface our surveillance product with the products of a home automation/digital home company. Their office was in a drab commercial area of Seattle that presumably fed off the table scraps of larger tech companies in the area; it was one of the dirtiest offices I'd ever seen. Their key product was a little wall-mounted device with an LCD touch screen that would control lighting, HVAC, audio, etc., and they wanted me to make it work with our surveillance system.

I was given a tour by a stocky fellow with a thick eastern European (?) accent who oversaw their engineering. He proudly demonstrated the usage of the wall-mounted device. The whole demo went something like so:

HIM: "So, if you want to turn on the lights, you just do this..."

(turns towards the device, stares directly at it, flicks through a menu or two, hits a button, and a bunch of lights come on)

ME: "Huh....neat."

HIM: "If you want music, you can do this..."

(turns back towards the device, stares directly at it, punching keys, and after some completely boggling transitions through menus we hear music)

Me: "hrrrm..."

HIM: "If you want to control HVAC..."

(turns back towards the device, stares at device, browses unintelligible menus...) get the idea.

While I was watching this, it occurred to me how completely wrong this product was on so many basic levels.  I imagined myself installing this system in my home, trying to explain it to my wife, having her be frustrated learning how to use it, having her be irritated that turning on the lights was suddenly a pain in the ass, me doing tech support when it's busted so my wife can turn on lights, her making me put the wall switch back, and so on.  It's a cool idea...if you're a nerd.

For the rest of the non-nerd world?  Here's how they want to turn on the lights:

...the simplicity is stunning.  The reliability?  Undeniable.  The lack of training required?  Breathtaking.  The familiarity of the interface, the ability to "feel" around a corner and flip on a light (instead of having to stare at a tiny screen on the wall), the speed at which you can turn on the lights, the lovely tactile response of a solid mechanical switch?  All very refined.

I think much of this nuance is often lost on my fellow techies--after all, we don't fear new technology.  To the contrary, we often bask in it, marveling at the possibilities it may bring.  But the truth of the matter is these companies are attempting to replace technology that has been used and refined over the last 100 years.  When my wife wants to turn on a light, she doesn't want to deal with weird technology or navigate menus or stare at a tiny screen on the wall--she wants to turn on the lights.  When a guest is using my restroom, I don't want to explain how to turn on the light by the toilet.  Lord knows I don't want to do IT work at my own home--as it is, I hate servicing people's computers.  Replacing a light switch with a touch screen sounds like a great idea, but in reality it's as misguided and ridiculous as replacing the steering wheel of a car with an iPhone app.

All of this comes full circle to the idea of a "digital home."  What does that even mean, a digital home?  Does it mean replacing technology willy-nilly with stuff we think is cool, or actually attempting to improve the ergonomics, efficiency and useability of our homes?

Companies hawking these products invariably see their role as purveyors of a better solution to "antiquated" technology that's been in use for the last few decades.  But until their products complement--not replace--the ergonomics and efficiency of our home in a reliable manner, they'll ultimately fail to have significant market traction.  This is why the term "digital home" itself is hopelessly misguided; the term itself really implies something nobody wants.  We're pretty happy with our fuddy-duddy analog homes, thank you very much.

I believe companies that truly leave their mark in this market won't replace conventional technology and interfaces like the light switch.  They'll be known for complementing the technology with smart solutions that solve problems people actually have.  For example,
  • Can we find ways of remotely controlling lighting?
  • Can we find ways to turn off lights when they're not necessary, thus saving energy?
  • Can we find ways to reduce the amount of copper wiring a home needs, thus driving down construction costs?  Or make it easier to arbitrarily add outlets and lighting to a home or business without tearing down walls or hiring electricians?
  • Can we find ways to delight people, such as automatically turning on porch or back lights when they come home, or automatically turning lights on and off as we go room to room?  Or letting me turn out lights I forgot while I was on vacation?  Or turn out lights from my iPhone because I'm in bed and I want want to pass through the house one last time?
The key difference is: the goal is to compliment our homes--not replace them with silly digital interfaces.