Smart home technology has moved rapidly from inventors’ bench to gentlemen’s pad, and now it’s heading upstairs to the family home.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently put a video online to show the theoretical possibilities of the artificially intelligent gadgetry he has installed in his Palo Alto family home. We hear Morgan Freeman, specially recorded as the ‘voice’ of the automated home, telling Mr Z as he wakes up that it is Saturday, so he has “only five meetings today”.
Zuckerberg requests a fresh T-shirt, which is duly fired from a specially made air-cannon in the wardrobe. We then follow the master of the smart home into the nursery, where the disembodied Freeman voice is teaching Mandarin to Zuckerberg’s daughter Maxima.
In the kitchen, the busy Freeman avatar has switched on the toaster and tells his master he is preparing a video conference, at the same time as recognizing Zuckerberg’s parents, Karen and Ed, at the front door and automatically letting them in.
It’s representative of the changing face of technology in the home. For decades, the assumption has been that smart tech belongs in the world’s man caves and bachelor pads. The British illustrator William Heath Robinson was lampooning crazily complicated machines for doing jobs around the house 100 years ago. Later, the children’s book character Professor Branestawm was forever building supposedly labor-saving devices, which never saw service outside his lab or ‘inventory’.
Women, however, in both fiction and real life, have rarely been seen as overly excited by home automation. The American home automation expert Crestron states that—until recently, at least—only a very small proportion of its customers have been women.
Yet the founder of Facebook is not the only alpha-male gadget-lover to have taken futuristic home automation projects out of the testosterone-fuelled depths of the den and gone on to automate almost every aspect of the family home.
Bill Gates has been automating all aspects of his home since the early 1990s. By 20 years ago, each room had a touch pad to control lighting, music and temperature. Visitors were offered an electronic identity to inform the house of who and where they were and to use the information to try to meet their needs, from lighting to music, temperature and even the artwork on display.
In north London, a family home’s motion-sensored mood-lit supercar garage backs onto the 25-meter swimming pool, with only a pane of feature glass for a threshold, so the grownups can admire their car collection while enjoying a family swim. The family-friendly tech continues into the rest of the house too, with fingertip control systems installed by Smartcomm throughout, from entertainment, climate control and blinds, to multi-room surround sound, security systems and even a Crestron fireplace in the main bedroom.
In south Manchester, UK, local property developer David Giovanni took it a step even further, when he built what is possibly the most technologically advanced home in the world, installed by Ultamation and Intuitive Homes.
The star turn of David’s basement is a circular glass enclosure inside which, spotlighted on a slowly revolving turntable, stands his sports car. This, he explains, is not only somewhat spectacular; it means he never has to reverse out of his ‘garage’ because the car can always be positioned so it can be driven out front first.
Magnetic flux sensors on the driveway prepare the turntable when the car is driven in and check if it is David or someone else behind the wheel to ensure the temperature inside the room is comfortable for the individual entering, and that appropriate, pre-selected music is playing.
Also in the Giovanni man cave is a climate-controlled, leather-floored wine cellar housing 470 bottles of his favorite wines, a bar where bottles are displayed with subtle backlighting and a TV disguised as a mirror. In the glamorously appointed bathroom there’s an audio feed of the bar’s entertainment system to avoid David’s friends having to miss a moment of a sports fixture or movie they are watching. The air throughout the basement is pumped in from the outside by a domestic version of the air-conditioning systems used by Las Vegas gaming rooms.
The automation in the Giovanni home does not end as you move upstairs. Throughout the house, systems control lighting and heating, blinds and curtains, extensive camera security, 28 entertainment zones—each with a pair of ceiling-mounted Bowers & Wilkins speakers—a home theater and five separate TV systems to serve different parts of the house. Elsewhere, there are two gyms, one filled with upper-body machines, one with lower, many of the machines internet-connected.
For David’s children there’s a drop-down TV by the 39-foot indoor/outdoor pool, the children’s bedroom curtains automatically open at 10 am to prevent oversleeping in the holidays and their treehouse has power, lighting and high-speed internet.
Now he is pondering additions to the system. He may go for smart garden irrigation, a height-variable pool floor, or a bath that can be programmed remotely to the perfect depth, aroma and temperature.
While early adopters may have been super-CEOs and movie stars, futuristic home technology is becoming increasingly accessible. Apple HomeKit, Amazon Echo and Google Home are some of the platforms bringing voice control to the center of the home, while Philips Hue has popularized smart lighting, which can be controlled from anywhere. That’s not to mention the brands adding sophistication and convenience to home necessities, such as Nest and Hive, which allow heating to be controlled remotely.
With hi-tech gadgets innovating above and beyond the bachelor’s basement, the female share of the customer base is on the up. “What we see typically is the guy taking charge of the first installation, and the wife or girlfriend not being that interested. But when they move and have a second system built, she will get really involved and have specific requests for stuff she would find useful,” explains John Clancy, a Vice President of Crestron.
It was noticeable too that when Zuckerberg put a request on Facebook for further ideas for his smart home, a good proportion of the 18,000 suggestions came from women.
As things stand, the trend towards home automation falls some way short of a march of the robots. But its spread from the inventors’ bench and the man cave to the family house is well apace.