The smart home has been a mainstay of consumer electronics for the past few years, but the tone of awestruck breathlessness that surrounded it in its nascent days is changing, settling into a side-eyed skepticism as much of this technology has failed to prove its utility. This year, the introduction of voice-controlled interfaces into the smart home signaled another evolution of the industry—one still facing many hurdles.
“[Smart homes are] turning out to be very organic,” says software and experience designer Mark Rolston, founder of design consultancy Argodesign, which has been working in the smart home sphere since its genesis. Now that companies like Google and Amazon have made their virtual assistants compatible with third-party companies and products, smart home accessories are diversifying much faster. Voice assistants smooth the smart home’s user experience, too; instead of putting down thousands of dollars to connect your entire house at once using software like Control 4, voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are functioning as operating systems for the home, as the Wall Street Journal puts it. They allow you to buy new products at your own pace—an Echo one year, Hue lighting and a Nest thermostat the next, all controlled by the same voice assistant.
The overwhelming wave of voice-controlled smart home gadgets suggests they’re on the way to ubiquity. Yet voice control hasn’t “solved” the smart home. Most of these products are in their early stages, and lack some of the features that AI promises. It’s also unclear if many users actually want a voice-controlled home. As New York Times technology reporter Mike Isaac put it in a recent article, “I’m of the mind that nothing in my house should talk to me except humans and one day possibly my dog.”
I spoke with Rolston at the epicenter of smart home hype–the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas–to discuss some of the challenges that remain before the smart home becomes truly intelligent.
Voice assistants make it easier for the average person to control her connected devices, and, eventually, purchasing a connected camera, oven, or fridge could be as easy as making sure it’s compatible with the voice assistant of your choice. From an industry standpoint, it’s easier than ever for appliance manufacturers to make smart products merely by pairing up with these tech companies.
All that ease could come at a price, though. While market forces support tech companies playing nicely together at the moment, the market could change. “The challenge is it’s a lot of Scotch tape,” says Rolston. “It’s kind of a handshake agreement that these things work together.” The risk is that Google, for instance, could turn around and decide to be ultra-selective about what Nest is compatible with. “It wouldn’t be good for them in the end, but certainly short-term moves like that happen all the time,” says Rolston.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to ensure that the market congeniality will continue apace, besides hope that compatibility is as beneficial to tech companies as it is to the makers of home appliances and, ultimately, the users.
As voice assistants have become more common, they’ve also gotten friendlier and more conversational in tone—but what this adds as far as usefulness has its limits. As Mark Wilson noted in a recent Co.Design article, the future of voice assistants would actually benefit from being less conversational. That’s a sentiment Rolston reiterates in our conversation: making both the hardware design and the voice tone more humanistic over-promises, and only makes these systems seem more gimmicky. “Make it sound utilitarian,” Rolston says. “It can only do a few things, so it should sound like that.”
His advice? Program assistants to use fewer adjectives, words of affectation, and unnecessary niceties. “Have it say, ‘I hope you’re having a good day,’ rather than ask the question,” he says. Otherwise it can feel canned and insincere.
Many of the smart home accessories debuting at CES were voice-controlled through a central hub, like an Amazon Echo or the new Mattel Aristotle. Whirlpool’s new washers, dryers, refrigerators, and ovens, for example, are all controlled by making voice commands directed toward your Echo. Other smart appliances, however, have voice AI integrated directly into them–meaning that when you’re talking to your LG fridge, your nearby LG Hub could pick up your voice and answer or try to perform the task, too.
When a single room contains a whole fleet of voice-activated objects, how does the system know which one you’re talking to? That’s a major UX issue that designers and software engineers will need to solve–one of many such issues that dramatically impact how we as users perceive a technology’s value.
Rolston and Argodesign’s solution was to integrate computer vision into a room so the system can watch the user and pick up on her coordinates. That way, you could point at objects as you’re issuing the voice command. The software would recognize the ask and the body language, eliminating the need for you to address the object you’re speaking to.
That brings us to where Rolston thinks and hopes smart home technology is going. Rather than integrating voice recognition into specific objects, he would integrate it into the actual architecture of the house, such as in the recessed can lights in the ceiling. That would give an omnipresent sense that the whole room was participatory, rather than individual objects.”The Disney analogy is that there’s a talking clock, a talking candlestick,” he says. “I want us to move it up to another level. You’re talking to the unseen entity in the room. From that you have a greater envelope–you can say commands that aren’t necessarily about that thing, and assume it might know about that as well.”
So will we see voice-controlled smart homes making the leap from CES booths to ubiquity this year? Ultimately, Rolston is optimistic that the technology will continue to advance, despite these challenges. But it’s clear that there’s still a ways to go until all homes are smart, much less voice-controlled. As tech giants invest big in both paradigms over the next few years, we’ll likely see the growing pains play out on a massive scale.