The Future Of Smart Things Is Dumb

Frog's ex-chief creative officer: There's a better way to embed intelligence in our lives than surrounding ourselves with needy gadgets.

Last weekend, I spent several hours updating the firmware for some lightbulbs in my home. Yes, I did a firmware update for lightbulbs. They’re smart lightbulbs, and I’ve programmed them to do a kind of sundown fade at the end of the evening, and that’s pretty cool. But still, they’re just lightbulbs.

That overhead speaks to one of the most vexing problems in technology today. Familiar objects are getting smarter. Consumers can now choose from an array of intelligent lightbulbs, appliances, watches, and jewelry that deliver the convenience of computing without the clunkiness of a computer. These devices begin to realize what the ultimate vision for computing should be: to embed it so thoroughly in our lives as to render it nearly undetectable. But how many small devices could I end up with around my home and office? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands, most likely. Thousands of small dedicated machines, each doing a few simple things to make life better. And here’s the rub: Each of these devices will need babysitting. Wi-Fi setup, account management, device settings, and ultimately the indulgence of every digital demand for detail. Are you kidding me?

To solve for this, we need to expand our concept of smart things by an order of magnitude: Our whole environment must become smart.

Our environment--the rooms within the homes, offices, and public spaces we occupy--should become a computer that surrounds us. We can equip rooms with the ability to see and hear us, and to project information back onto the natural surfaces of the room, tables, walls, and floors. This solution will not only reduce the overhead, it will usher in a better, more naturalistic style of interaction with computers.

Imagine sensors that provide computer sight and sound, much like the kind Microsoft Kinect for Xbox already uses, technology that can understand the room in terms of shapes, movement and gesture. This smart room will allow us to virtually assign "smartness" to a wide range of dumb objects there.

Take, for example, a typical wall-mounted lightswitch you can find in any home. A smart room would allow us to replace that old switch with a non-functioning prop of any design virtually anywhere in the room. This prop no longer needs to be wired--in fact, it doesn’t need to be a switch at all. It could be something as simple as a drawing, a picture, or a pantomimed gesture. The desired on/off function comes from the room itself--essentially watching, listening, and acting on our behalf.

Or say you want to change up the music at your dinner party. Those controls need no longer be fixed, wired, powered, or even electronic. Shuffle songs with a nearby salt shaker. Rotate your wine glass to lower the volume. Any traditional object can become a temporary means to govern any functionality you can imagine. The interface is always there, yet never there. In this manner we can become immensely creative about how we outfit our homes with control.

You might not appreciate the disappearing lightswitch aesthetic. But that’s the beauty of this vision. People are creatively empowered to do what works for them. To me, a classical lightswitch has a tangible beauty that also defines its purpose and operation. I might want to keep that in my smart home, even if it’s just a dumb prop for this new environment. (Behold: the smart dumb thing!) For you, that switch may be an anachronism worth getting rid of. Maybe your friend wants to use a bespoke steampunk switch that’s been assigned an on/off role in the environment. A smart room would allow any of that, even dynamically for each of its occupants.

In this way, the smart room solves for a practical problem; it takes us off the current path, in which consumers are being asked to adopt potentially thousands of new computers in their lives, because that complexity is not sustainable.

And in its greater aspiration, the Smart Room brings us into a healthier relationship with technology. It allows us to have our computers in our world, operating quietly and invisibly around us, so we don’t have to spend as much time with our heads buried in gadgets. Because the natural world we live in is--acknowledging some bit of irony--the next frontier for software user interface.

This is a wild new territory, and that’s saying something given the changes we have experienced over the last 20 years. It is the kind of paradigm-scrambling challenge that, like the smartphone, can profoundly rewrite the relationship between people and computers. Spending precious time tending and grooming our smart things just isn’t smart, and people won’t put up with it much longer. We need to move to the next generation where we take the computers out of computing and integrate these experiences into our natural world.

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17 Comments

  • Great stuff! The argo video reminds me of a similar video called "A day in glass" by Corning. It's interesting to think about how technology might change our everyday life in the future. When I worked at Cisco I remember John Chambers predicting everything being connected to a network. Interestingly that was 14 years ago. Why is it taking so long?

  • Mark Scott Lavin

    I'll never forget my first cell phone call. Working in San Francisco, I stepped out for lunch, headed to the modernist waterscape of TransAmerica Park and dialed. The conversation to activate was spiritual. I was... in a park... and ON THE PHONE! The possibilities were boggling. Fifteen years later, my phone inspires impatience. Not to say that the cell hasn't inspired wonders and revolutions, but paradoxically, it's made us more - and less - connected than ever before.

    Living in LA in 2007, I grokked that an invention that got people home at 20 mph would be a gigantic breakthrough. And around 1800, the Lakota abandoned guns for arrows because the guns scared the buffalo away.

    Must tech born of visionary dreams devolve into "necessary evils?" Maybe the way out is not in our machines, but in us. The saying goes, "a man's character is his destiny;" the machines just get us there faster. The machines are awesome fun. Let's keep them that way by remembering the character part too.

  • Mark Scott Lavin

    All that said, the creativity that this video imagines is pretty awe inspiring. Let's make sure it turns out that way :)

  • Somewhere in the next 10 years a new profession will emerge: Interior Technology Designer or Personal Technology Designer...someone who will help you customize all the smart dumb devices in your home.

  • The little girl draws a swirl. Does it turn on the air-con? If she puts that sun icon sticky note on her fridge, does it make it warmer? Would it turn on the lights in her parents room where mom is currently sleeping? What if I want to use the bottle to turn down the volume of the phone? Or the dim the lights? How fast will there be ads everywhere on my cooking board?

    Sounds like endless CHMOD and setup time in this future. Sadly not the way around. But one thing is sure: this kind of concept is a dream come true for advertisers that could turn any surface into an ad. Today, in the age of facebook, solitude kills more than obesity. What social diseases will the IoT bring? What is design serving? The market, investors...

    The elephant in the smart room: is there privacy in such home?

    I however see a noble intention and search for poetry in the video :) And we do need that!

  • William Henry Rice

    Elon Musk's recent recommendation of 'Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies ' by Nick Bostrum - and cautioning about our future relations with artificial intelligence - offer another perspective on a.i.

  • William Henry Rice

    Every person since we first wrapped ourselves in stuff to keep ourselves warmer, cooler, drier, moister - as close to a personal ideal relative to our own skin - has sought that state where our physical and psychological distress fades to nil - ideally without doing a thing.

    And every person who has ever used a tool has dreamed of the tool that magically knew what we wished of it - and did it. Mickey Mouse and that bewitched broom of 'Fantasia' offer a familiar archetype nearly a meme (an example complete with undesired effects).

    Ancient Irish myths tell of a great king retaining the throne because of a fully functional silver prosthetic hand - a seamless part of himself. The Celtic cyborg of three millennia ago. Wishful thinking.

    Our speculative lore is full of such tales - of inanimate augmentations - boats or bows or enchanted castles. Sam Gamgee's rope, given him by elves, untying when he was done.

    Or of Douglas Adams elevators that predict a desired floor.

  • klee15

    Not sure the smart room is any different from the smart things or IoT as you said well in your first paragraph, every smart object including the room does require updating the firmware or reboot (due to the virus or the electricity shortage or outage) or worst of all, need to change the battery (as the battery life is not eternal).

    As I mentioned in my FastCompany interview a while back, every new solution creates a new problem and just attaching a sensor or turning a familiar object into an intelligent object needs to be thought through. Not every object needs to be smart. Again, what problems are we trying to solve other than demonstrating the experimentation of sensor-based technology invention? The fact that we call the smart home as our future is presumptuous as there is still a problem with smart phones today which is the most powerful computing device we have today...

  • Thanks for the feedback. a smart room would hopefully have fewer machines to tend after just as the cloud means fewer, more centralized compute or storage resources. As well, it would conceivably allow me to interact with a computer without actually having to touch/hold/engage one. One could do many of the normal things they do, such as cooking, but with the added assistance of a computer. I'm not trying to convince those without computers to adopt them. Bully to those who choose to live more 'analog' lives. But for the rest of us, I'm hoping to inspire a future where we can enjoy computers without having to babysit them as much.

  • lynnearly

    Love seeing the Tivoli Radio when he's slicing the tomato. Best part of video.

  • True, a single, omnipotent and all-seeing electronic eye could replace a lot of these individual Things, but it doesn't solve the problem you initially stated in your thesis. This new brain will still require firmware and software updates. It will need to be trained to learn that the cute drawing your daughter put on the wall now means "light switch", or that rotating the water bottle means "lower the volume". Our heads will still be buried in gadgets, but at a much more complex level.

    Imagine also the chaos that would ensue if every person on the planet assigns different objects or interactions to the "light switch" function. In one house it is a wave of a hand, in another a cute wall drawing, still another the movement of a potted plant.

    In fact, all of these "smart things" are not really smart. Why can't your light bulbs know that a firmware update is available, and just update themselves when you are away, or at night? My cable box does that. The apps on my iPad do that.

  • it's a vision of the future and as such doesn't pretend to solve all of the issues. But I firmly believe that such a vision promises several benefits: first, far fewer machines to look after. Centralized computing resources is a simple and practical solution and reflects the current wave of cloud-based consolidation. Second, and far more interesting to me, is the notion of using the physical world as our interface. It will allow us to live better lives. As for the chaos mentioned: It's no stretch to imagine that computer vision-based controls associate the person to the affordance so that my hand wave acts the same as your wall touch. It takes no huge faith to imagine this working well at the rate technology is improving. Have faith. The end goal is a more humanistic relationship with computers.

  • (continued) What's lacking in the IoT world is an infrastructure with a common communication and data platform to enable true interoperability between devices. We might get there one day, but not yet.

  • I think the first question should be to ask "why...what is the need?". The narrative around "smart" things and cities seems to have completely forgotten people and what they actually need and started with lets make stuff smart. This is not smart. The connected fridge...an example still used 20yrs after it was a bad idea....is a classic example. We should not mistake connection for progress. You could make cars and roads "smart" or you could look at what need they meet and find a clever way to avoid sitting in metal boxes far too often.

  • Spidermandrew Peter Barker

    Couldn't agree more Hugh, this amazing new future we are hurtling towards with wearables and the internet of things seems to be being thrust upon us by a lot of people who have a vested interest in flogging new technology to customers.

    The fact that anybody thinks that 'Smart Lightbulbs' are a thing of value is proof positive that we are not looking at the pain points in our lives and solving them with tech. We are just using a shotgun approach and throwing tech at everything and hoping it sticks, and for me, pretty soon theres going to be a consumer backlash to all this over technification.