Greetings and happy December 29, iMore! The major winter holidays have mostly passed us by, and hopefully you've survived — and dare I hope, enjoyed — the family get-togethers, the excess food, and terrible party games.
Some of you are undoubtedly back at work today, while others are still enjoying the last fragments of a winter vacation. Me, I'm somewhere in-between. Clearly, I'm at work today — well, that, or robo-Serenity has gotten much better at writing columns in the last two weeks — but I'm doing so from my parents' new house, sitting on the couch in front of our Christmas tree.
It's a nice view — much comfier than my office back in Massachusetts. But staring at that tree today got me thinking. We're venturing ever closer to 2015, and 2014's technology has brought us ever closer to the ideal "home of the future". But are we there yet?
My folks recently moved, and have been using that as an excuse to update a lot of the technology in their lives. There's a new television in the living room, new wiring in the new house's walls, and, yes, new connected home accessories.
Some of these things — like the Smart TV and their new Nest — were items my folks had already picked out for their house. Others I introduced during pre-Christmas unpacking and furnishing. We couldn't find our old light timer while setting up the Christmas tree this year, so I had my dad pick up a WeMo switch instead.
My mother, at first very wary of the WeMo, has grown to love it, and takes ridiculous enjoyment from being able to snap the Christmas lights off and on from across the house. (Okay, I do too. Remote controlled anything is fun!)
But at what point does this connected home stuff become gadgetry at the expense of actual practicality? I like the Nest — being able to make the house warmer before I get out of bed is kind of spectacular, and it's nice not to have to crawl behind our 9 foot Christmas tree to turn those lights on or off.
I got to spend some time chatting with my former boss (and new Six Colors head honcho) Jason Snell yesterday — including a bit on my folks' new connected-home obsession. Jason's a smart guy — also one who's been living with a variety of iOS-controlled gadgets for awhile now — and he had a couple of very legitimate frustrations about the space as it is now.
For one, all these different manufacturers can't really talk to each other — at least, not currently. Apple's HomeKit in theory promises to solve a lot of these problems and connect the Internet of Physical Things together, but it hasn't happened yet. Until it does, we're controlling our smart home with one, five, ten, fifteen different apps. They may not be as hard to find as remotes for your television, but I'm still awfully looking forward to some sort of universal connector. (Perhaps the next-generation Apple TV could serve as such a hub; there's certainly plenty of groundwork there, given that it's a device that can be plugged in 24/7 with little power draw.)
There's also the convenience factor. Yes, I love being able to turn off the Christmas tree from afar or adjust the sound on the Sonos Playbar from the next room because it's too loud, but does Internet-connectivity really make sense for every appliance? General room lighting, for example: Is it really more convenient to find your iPhone, turn it on, find the app in question, find the button for lights, and tap it versus walking over to the light switch on the wall and turning it off?
The future connected home
Maybe this is where Siri and HomeKit come in. I could see a teensy combination voice-receiver/sensor in every room — a less expensive, less weird version of Amazon's Echo, perhaps — that let you adjust lights, cookware, your thermostat, the works by speaking a few catchphrases. Or maybe we'll soon already have it, and it will be worn on our wrists rather than in our room corners.
That said... given examples from The Jetsons, 30 Rock, and our own recent experience with "Hey Siri", I'm not sure it's really the best idea to let voice activation run wild. Perhaps if it's done very well — if Apple's engineers can figure out how to key differences between a catchphrase spoken in regular speech and one spoken directly to Siri. (And if the microphone can understand the difference between "microwave" and "make an egg".)
Until we see some sort of unification, the connected home ends up being more like a piecemeal gadgetry collection than a magic abode — there are bits that work well individually; there are bits that seem utterly half-baked; and then there are bits that don't make sense at all. (Smart trash cans? I get why they're helpful for cities, but in the home, it just seems like an excuse for a silly nag notification.)
Even though we're not there yet, however, we're closer than ever before. I think a lot about the last room in Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, a strange 1994-era time capsule of what life in the 2000s could look like. We've got a lot of that pseudo-futuristic technology in our lives already. VR headsets are on their way. Wirelessly sending video from one screen to another has been a thing for years. Smart lights are now in the spotlight. And yes, we even have our share of voice-activated goofups.
No, the reality may not quite be where we want it to be. But the dream of the connected home is bright, and I'm sure I'll see untold more teases and prototypes at CES next week — which just so happens to be held in the year 2015. 2015! It seems crazy we've come this far.