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The Future Of Smart Things Is Dumb

Alex File

Article snipped from CoDesign, written by Mark Rolston


Last weekend, I spent several hours updating the firmware for some lightbulbs in my home. Yes, I did a firmware update for lightbulbs. They’re smart lightbulbs, and I’ve programmed them to do a kind of sundown fade at the end of the evening, and that’s pretty cool. But still,they’re just lightbulbs.

That overhead speaks to one of the most vexing problems in technology today. Familiar objects are getting smarter. Consumers can now choose from an array of intelligent lightbulbs, appliances, watches, and jewelry that deliver the convenience of computing without the clunkiness of a computer. These devices begin to realize what the ultimate vision for computing should be: to embed it so thoroughly in our lives as to render it nearly undetectable. But how many small devices could I end up with around my home and office? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands, most likely. Thousands of small dedicated machines, each doing a few simple things to make life better. And here’s the rub: Each of these devices will need babysitting. Wi-Fi setup, account management, device settings, and ultimately the indulgence of every digital demand for detail. Are you kidding me?

To solve for this, we need to expand our concept of smart things by an order of magnitude: Our whole environment must become smart.

Our environment—the rooms within the homes, offices, and public spaces we occupy—should become a computer that surrounds us. We can equip rooms with the ability to see and hear us, and to project information back onto the natural surfaces of the room, tables, walls, and floors. This solution will not only reduce the overhead, it will usher in a better, more naturalistic style of interaction with computers.

Imagine sensors that provide computer sight and sound, much like the kind Microsoft Kinect for Xbox already uses, technology that can understand the room in terms of shapes, movement and gesture. This smart room will allow us to virtually assign "smartness" to a wide range of dumb objects there.

Take, for example, a typical wall-mounted lightswitch you can find in any home. A smart room would allow us to replace that old switch with a non-functioning prop of any design virtually anywhere in the room. This prop no longer needs to be wired—in fact, it doesn’t need to be a switch at all. It could be something as simple as a drawing, a picture, or a pantomimed gesture. The desired on/off function comes from the room itself—essentially watching, listening, and acting on our behalf.

Or say you want to change up the music at your dinner party. Those controls need no longer be fixed, wired, powered, or even electronic. Shuffle songs with a nearby salt shaker. Rotate your wine glass to lower the volume. Any traditional object can become a temporary means to govern any functionality you can imagine. The interface is always there, yet never there. In this manner we can become immensely creative about how we outfit our homes with control. 

You might not appreciate the disappearing lightswitch aesthetic. But that’s the beauty of this vision. People are creatively empowered to do what works for them. To me, a classical lightswitch has a tangible beauty that also defines its purpose and operation. I might want to keep that in my smart home, even if it’s just a dumb prop for this new environment. (Behold: the smart dumb thing!) For you, that switch may be an anachronism worth getting rid of. Maybe your friend wants to use a bespoke steampunk switch that’s been assigned an on/off role in the environment. A smart room would allow any of that, even dynamically for each of its occupants.

In this way, the smart room solves for a practical problem; it takes us off the current path, in which consumers are being asked to adopt potentially thousands of new computers in their lives, because that complexity is not sustainable.

And in its greater aspiration, the Smart Room brings us into a healthier relationship with technology. It allows us to have our computers in our world, operating quietly and invisibly around us, so we don’t have to spend as much time with our heads buried in gadgets. Because the natural world we live in is—acknowledging some bit of irony—the next frontier for software user interface.

This is a wild new territory, and that’s saying something given the changes we have experienced over the last 20 years. It is the kind of paradigm-scrambling challenge that, like the smartphone, can profoundly rewrite the relationship between people and computers. Spending precious time tending and grooming our smart things just isn’t smart, and people won’t put up with it much longer. We need to move to the next generation where we take the computers out of computing and integrate these experiences into our natural world.