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Controlling A Smart Home Can Be As Easy As Tossing Keys In A Bowl

Memodo is a concept for controlling your home with small totems, like keys, toys, and coins.

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The smart home of the future will likely be controlled with your voice, which is why companies like Google and Amazon are putting so much effort into getting their ears into your living room. But voice control feels impersonal. It's disconnected from the physicality of the objects with which we have intimate connections in our day-to-day lives.

Memodo is a new take on how the smart home of the future could be controlled. Instead of using your voice to dim the lights and Netflix-and-chill, you place physical totems representing those actions down in a specific place. So, for example, throwing your keys into the key bowl when you get home could kick up the jams, or turn on the A/C.

The heart of Memodo is a reader-bowl. It looks low tech, but the inner walls of the bowl actually include three low-res, off-the-shelf computer cams, which can detect the shape and color of the objects placed inside it. These objects are called totems, and can be anything that fit in the bowl: keys, dice, coins, shells, small toys, and so on.

Totems don't do anything, though, unless Memodo is trained to recognize them. When you place a new totem in the bowl, Memodo goes into recording mode, detecting the next few actions and changes you make in your smart home. During this period, you can set you environment however you want—turn your phone to Do Not Disturb mode, dim the lights, raise the heat, fire up Spotify, and so on. After you do this two or three times, Memodo will remember what the totem means, and perform those actions next time you place it in the bowl.

So why are totems a better way of interacting with a smart home than voice control, or remote apps on your smartphone? "People are drawn to real things they can touch or feel," says Memodo creator Gábor Bálint, who proposed the project as part of his master's thesis at Moholy-Nagy University of Arts and Design in Hungary. "They will always feel more emotional attachment to physical representations of digital commands than to screens ... Totems allow for gesture-like, almost ritual interaction. You just take one and activate it."

Memodo was born of the understanding that when people come home, they don't really want to perform actions. They want to invoke states. "I call them 'home-states' for lack of a better expression," says Bálint. "You don't want to turn a light off, you want to go to sleep. Homes have a couple of these states that all come with a list of actions you need to do. Getting ready for work, or sitting down for dinner are all modern rituals that every home experiences. I wanted to take these 'states' and represent them in a tangible way."

Right now, Bálint says, every IoT device comes with its own smartphone app, because device makers are rushing to market as fast as possible without thinking deeply about how the devices are controlled. But that's a mistake. "A user shouldn't be drowning in a sea of apps to control their home," Bálint says. "Nobody wants that, not even IoT companies."

Memodo is just a concept for now. And to make it a real product, a lot more needs to be done. Tech isn't the problem. Memodo can easily be built with today's existing hardware, but it all comes down to what Bálint calls "the fundamental problem of IoT"—compatibility. "A lot of standardization needs to happen in order to be able to talk to everything in your home. I know a lot of people are working on that, and there are some very promising startups creating all kinds of smart hubs."

But there's no universal language for the IoT yet: a set of commonly agreed standards, like HTML or Wi-Fi, that allows all IoT devices to talk to one another. Until there is, Memodo will remain a tantalizing concept for a "parallel future" of the Internet of Things: one in which grandmothers put their grandchildren's birthstones in a bowl to call them on Skype, or kids use an Optimus Prime toy to turn on a Transformers cartoon.

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