The Real Motivation behind Home Automation

The Real Motivation behind Home Automation

When it comes to my home automation set up there are a few reactions I get. Most people enthusiastically engage and ask questions, showing genuine interest. Others politely—and rather awkwardly—ignore the fact that my table lamp turned itself on for no apparent reason. Once the initial hurdle of introducing people to home automation is overcome though, I always get the same reaction.

So… you can control your lamps with your phone? That’s cool.

While that is true, it is not the motivation behind home automation. It is easy to show off a smart home by turning on a table lamp using a phone, though that is by no means the reason for adding smart devices into the household in the first place.

Some Questions

Every time we introduce new technology into our everyday life it is important to think about the benefit of adding that new piece of technology. This usually boils down to the following questions:

  1. Is it saving time?
  2. Is it improving my experience?
  3. If not, is it allowing me to do something substantial that I was not able to achieve before?

Most inventions from the 20th and 21st century that have stuck around have done so because they answer those questions positively. Why else would we keep cars, refridgerators and medical machines around?

Sure, using my phone to control lamps in my house is cool and all, but it is very, if not extremely inconvenient once the novelty wears off—and it does, rather quickly. Whipping out your phone, navigating to a website and pressing a software button is in no way an improvement to flicking a light switch on a wall. It’s not saving time, it’s not enhancing my experience of “controlling lamps” and the wall switch achieved the exact same result anyway.

The web interface is a gimmick for everyday use. The only reason why it is used to show off some features is because the benefits of genuinely useful automations are less apparent or immediate, and often require more explanation.

Some Guidelines

This is where I would like to introduce the “golden rules of home automation”–some guidelines really– because they are important to keep in mind when integrating technology into the home environment.

  1. It has to be at least as useful as the existing alternative
  2. It must enhance your experience in some way. Whether that is through time saved, the replacement of a poor interface or the ability to completely automate the existing interaction (elimination of an interface, later discussed in more depth).

The objective is not to involve software for the sake of it, but to improve the human experience in the system in some way.

Example: Checkout Machines

Companies often use software to automate robotic processes or replace human staff in an effort to reduce cost. One notorious example of this is the introduction of self-checkout machines.

Unexpected item in bagging area.

This is a great example where the introduction of new technology and automation has not sufficiently improved the experience of those using the technology. This can’t be helped in a public environment, however we should be very careful when introducing such technologies in the home.

We observe this same phenomenon happening in fast food chains, where large touch screens are being installed to serve as self-checkout. The purpose of these machines was not to improve the customer experience or save customer time (they could just employ more counter staff…), but to reduce staffing costs and cut costs in general for the company.1

To get back to the topic of discussion, we have to question whether the home automation technology we wish to introduce has a positive effect on our lives, or whether it is simply adding another human-computer interface without much benefit.

A discussion on Human-Computer interfaces

A human-computer interface (HC interface) is an attempt to allow humans to communicate with computers in a way that is as natural as possible for the human. In many ways, this is achieved, though communication is always ineffective because humans and computers are too dissimilar. The mode of communication tends to be unnatural for the human at best and downright bizarre for the machine.

Human-computer interfaces are inherently inefficient. Creating interfaces for the sake of creating interfaces is not beneficial. An interface implies adaptation by both parties to enable communication.

For example, my car has a large touchscreen on the dashboard to take on the function of a media player, GPS and infotainment system. It’s cool and all and certainly feels “like the future” but is a touch screen an effective way for a driver to communicate with the car? Probably not. Physical dials and push buttons are difficult to reach and easy to miss. Let alone the difficulty of accurately selecting a touchscreen button where physical feedback is non-existent. Reaching for the digital button requires direct eye contact with the screen, taking the drivers attention away from the road. The lack of haptic feedback which the physical world provides “out of the box” is removed in digital interfaces.

Voice control is by far the best interface we have so far (assuming it is executed right and used for the correct use cases). It leverages a powerful human-to-human interface (verbal communcation) to allow human-computer communcation. (Skip to the last heading for a concrete example of the efficiency of voice interfaces)

An interface implies adaptation by both parties to enable communication. Humans are forced to use digital touch screen displays and computers, on the other hand, are made to control a two-dimensional array of coloured dots that emit light at precisely the right frequencies and timing to stimulate chemicals inside the vision apparatus of live beings. The computer doesn’t know about “eyes”, “light” and “color” and that the presence of “color” implies the presence of “light”.2 All this to enable an acceptable mode of communication with the human party. Where is the convenience in that?

These are mere interfaces between a person and the machine, and they are mediocre interfaces at best. An interface creates inconvenience. It is therefore important to avoid the introduction of new interfaces into our everyday lives at all costs.

This concept is especially important in a home automation context, as we would be worse off using a web interface than a simple switch on the wall. If there is no benefit to using a technology, it is better to leave it out of the equation and stick with existing, trusted and convenient methods.

Using a new technology to make another technology disappear

So after all this, why is it worthwhile to control lamps with a phone? The answer is automation. If a button on your phone can control your lamps, then software can too! This is essentially the simplest form of automation, where the trigger is a button push on a web page. Once you can control lights using a web interface, you can control them using more sophisticated logic defined in automations. which have the power to eliminate the concept of and need to turn lights on and off.

The real power of home automation is in its ability to make the underlying technology disappear.

Imagine a brave new world where you walk into a room and the light is already on, as you have naturally come to expect after years of living with such a technology. When you leave the room the light is turned off and nobody even takes note of it because it is completely taken for granted. This leaves you more mental capactiy to worry about other things.

Once the need to control light has been eliminated, you become more and more ignorant of “light switches” until they are nothing more than a strange fragment of the past that just used to “come with the building”. Never would it occur to you to link those flicky things on the wall to the light bulb (or future equivalent) above your head. The light is on when you need it and off when you don’t. Just like the sun rises and sets every day, without any action required on your part, we will forget that there was ever a need for pushy flicky switchy things on walls.

What if, in the distant past, people manually triggered the sunrise and sunset every day. They organised shifts, paid people a salary, and there was an elaborate organisation responsible for the sun schedule, charging taxes for their service. Through the invention of some “magic” sun-setting/rising technology, however, the need for humans to trigger the sun has been eliminated. Today we live our lives completely oblivious to this technology that is still working away somewhere unbeknownst to us, fully automated, reliably triggering sunset and rise. Meanwhile mankind has moved on to invent new technologies and worry about other things such as the charge left in our phones or the likes on particular Instagram photos.

Home automation is about reducing non-essential interactions with our home environment. Intelligently designed automations can make interfaces disappear.

Think about that for a moment. We talked about interfaces before, why they are bad and why it is important to avoid introducing new interfaces for the sake of it. Now we are talking about eliminating existing interfaces in an effort to make the technology go away. This is in the sense that the technology does its job without requiring supervision or action from a human being.

A light switch, for example, is a human interface designed to bridge the gap between a person and an electronic circuit. If we can completely eliminate the need to control lights (through automation), we eliminate the need for light switches! This is powerful stuff, because it applies not only to trivial examples like light switches but others as well like air conditioning, security, and maintenance.

This is why self-serve checkouts or controlling lights manually using your phone is so counter intuitive. They replace one reliable, trusted and known interface with a new, unfriendly and less than proven digital interface.

The Efficiency of Verbal Interfaces

Voice control is an extremely powerful way to interface with technology (in the case where a human-computer interface is absolutely necessary). Voice control is at the top of my list of technologies to integrate into my home automation hub.

A well trained neural network can achieve an excellent success rate at recognising the intent of a voice instruction.

This “intent” is represented as a string of text containing information about the entity to control (say a lamp), as well as the action to perform on it (change its color) along with some parameters (such as “to white”).

Consider this voice instruction controlling a multi colored LED lamp:

Home Assistant, change the color of the table lamp to white!

With a single command, we communicated four vital pieces of information to the hub:

  • the intention to issue a voice command
  • the entity to control
  • the action to perform
  • and action parameters.

Imagine a different interface that communicates the same information. Let’s use a web form for example. You would need a button to load the page. When the form loads, you are confronted with a drop down list of twenty-something entities to control. Lamps, garage door, window blinds, locks, heater, fans, A/C. Another drop down with actions to perform and a freeform text field allowing you to enter optional action parameters in a set, structured format such as JSON. (which is not ideal for an interface, but often required to make communication possible.)

{
	"action_parameter": {
		"to_color": "white"
	}
}

Entering this information through a web interface is cumbersome and less than innovative, no matter how much money is pumped into skilled web and UX designers. The result will always be a time consuming process, executed on a touch screen interface by people who—very quickly—come to understand that the original interface was much more convenient to use.

This example illustrates the power of voice control in making HC interfaces more natural and efficient. At this point it is important to mention that voice recognition coupled with intent recognition technology are getting exceedingly better at recognizing intents. In this way, your voice assistant can be trained to respond to different ways of issuing the same voice command.

Home Assistant, I would like the table LED strip to be white in colour.

This blurs the boundaries between human-computer and human-human communication, making it an excellent interface in a home automation context.

Conclusion

We have covered a lot of interesting aspects of home automation in this post and where I think the focus really lies. The motivation of getting your home to do things for you is not the novelty of “ultimate phone control” but rather eliminating existing interfaces through smart automation, or at the very least, replacing poor interfaces with more effective ones.

  1. A machine does not get sick, needs no breaks, does exactly what it is told to do. Once programmed, it does it’s job correctly, repeatedly, first time, every time, without fail, relentlessly. ↩︎

  2. And the fact that the presence of these things implies a conscious observer able to comment on all of the above phenomena. ↩︎