Close your eyes and think about the future. Where do we live? What does it look like? What do we do there?
Maybe you’re living in the Jetsons’ house with your housekeeping-robot and flying car. Or maybe like Tony Stark, you have a Jarvis-esque personal assistant and a Holotable just for fun. The closer you look, the more you might realize that we are living in the future and these things we’ve dreamed about are more of a reality than ever before.
As a young millennial, I can’t claim to have seen a lot. What I can claim, as can many millennials who also grew up in the digital era, is how rapidly my childhood and young adulthood changed with the explosion of technology. As a child, technology was something reserved for after dinner, or something cool my dad would show me when came home from work. Now, and perhaps sadly, it’s hard to go a full meal without checking my phone, or an entire day without opening my laptop. Roombas roam around our homes cleaning up after us, self-driving cars are already on the road, personal assistants like Siri and Alexa organize our lives, and virtual reality allows us to interact with fictional objects in 3D space.
Now that we’re here, what lies ahead? What will our lives look like? How has our reliance on technology changed our expectations of the world we live in? What does our coexistence look like moving forward? Like many people, I’m particularly intrigued and excited by the move of technology into the home. Homes are apt to become not just a space we live in, but reactive spaces that change as quickly as we do.
Today, working in innovation consulting, my colleagues and I are faced daily with tough questions about the future of technology in the home. Here are some of the things we’re thinking about as we evaluate the right (and wrong) ways to approach human/tech coexistence:
“Internet of Things” (IoT) are smart devices that use sensors and networks to enable them to communicate with their owner and each other. In 2015, the Smart Homes industry topped $5 billion and is growing rapidly with the expectation to reach $7.4 billion by 2020. While the bulk of IoT sales currently are in security devices, there is immense possibility for growth as the installation of IoT devices becomes becomes less and less invasive. Five years ago, if you wanted to have a dimming light system you had to rework the electronics in the room. Today, with Philips Hue, all you need to do is screw in a new lightbulb and you have not only a light dimmer, but also timed lighting, cellphone control, and even color changing options. By eliminating the barriers of installment, Philips Hue is just one example of how Internet of Things is becoming more and more accessible.
As Internet of Things become more commonplace, the interactions and potential they unlock become more and more intricate. For example, imagine you sit down to watch a movie on your computer. Recognizing this, your apartment dims the lights and closes the blinds for the perfect viewing environment. Then, your smartwatch registers that your body is below prime temperature, and proceeds to close the windows and reset your thermostat. Small examples of these seamless interactions are already appearing in the home. Nest, for example, uses sensors for its Home/Away Assist feature, recognizing when you aren’t in the home and adjusting the thermostat accordingly. While this may not be a completely responsive and immersive solution, with the technology that has been developed in recent years, it isn’t unrealistic that these major and complex interactions are close on the horizon.
While all of these ideas are in themselves cool, it is the individual pieces working together that makes a “Smart Home” instead of just a “Smart Object.” Moving forward, innovators should focus on how IoT items come together to create comprehensive, immersive experiences, versus focusing on a singular function or piece of technology. How can new technology enhance what is already out there? How can existing technology be updated to interact with those entering the market? The adaptive home will truly become a reality when these items work in tandem.
As technology helps create more reactive homes, designers are also focusing on creating more physically transformable spaces. The dream of living in sprawling mansions with many rooms for entertaining, lounging, sleeping, cooking, exercising, etc. starkly contrasts with many millennials’ urban aspirations. Additionally, technology is no longer tethered to a specific area. We don’t have our phone in our kitchen, our TV in our living room, and our computer in our office. Instead, we now bring our technology wherever we go, changing the dynamics of the way we interact with the rooms in our home.
In reaction to our new expectations, designers are beginning focus on flexibility in the home, creating rooms that can shift with the moment. Your bedroom may become your living room, then your kitchen and, if you’re feeling ambitious, your gym. In fact, there was a reported increase in interest in open-space layouts in more than 60 percent of design firms. Deborah Staunt, a London-based architect at DSDHA design firm, who is credited with coining the phrase “flexible plan,” described this new type of home design as having a “kind of inherent adaptability over time.” In some cases, these new floorplans may lack labels entirely when they are drawn up. Consumer interest in these sort of multipurpose design is following suit. Just look up “tiny homes” on Pinterest.
There’s an opportunity here for innovators to think creatively about how this physical transformation can be tied into the Internet of Things. Using sensors and networks, can we find ways to change the physical space we live in, creating reactions that are more complex and interactive? For example, what if your smartwatch notices that you have been sitting for too long and prompts your desk to safely become a standing desk for you to work at? Aside from intelligently transforming spaces, it is the job of innovative minds to take a fresh look at this interaction and craft not only the design of the physical objects but the emotional experiences associated with and created in their use.
Augmented and virtual reality is on the horizon, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a more common entertainment mode. PokemonGo is one of the first glimpses into what mass adoption of augmented reality gaming could look like and Google VR is a new attempt to make VR more accessible to consumers. As this technology becomes more common to the masses, it will quickly find its place in home entertainment. Even further, virtual and augmented reality has the potential to shift the way we communicate, learn, work, and interact beyond just gaming. With this shift, how do we design a space that is flexible and reactive to these technologies? It may mean that open floor plans will become even more important. As spaces can be filled in with augmented reality creations, furniture may serve as the stage for our fantasies or the barriers around our experience.
The Void, for example, is the first theme park focused on creating a thrilling space for gamers to immerse themselves in augmented reality by creating “virtual worlds built over physical environments.” Similar to the layout of a laser tag facility, the park uses simple walls and pillars to direct users. Then, in virtual reality, the walls come alive becoming more embellished and intricate than the simple walls that face the gamer in reality, using the space to heighten the augmented experience. Outside of this theme park, our homes could become a similar stage for our augmented reality experiences. It is likely that both the physical reactivity of the designed home and the digital reactivity of the Internet of Things will play a role in this, creating spaces that adapt to this environment and enhance the experience, creating a home that partners with us to make our experiences more personal and immersive.
As we build a home that is becoming more and more attuned to who we are, the balance of interaction and reaction needs to be defined and considered. Do we want Siri and Alexa to know everything about us? Do we want them to plan our lives for us? Do we want our homes to know everything about us? Or do we want some element of control? Virtual Reality, Internet of Things, and transformable spaces are all assisting in making our lives more simple and streamlined, eliminating frictions that may have hindered us before. As we move into more reactive environments, it is important that we consider the level of interaction and reaction to maintain and which frictions we choose to resolve.