First Click: The truly smart home is finally within reach

February 24th, 2016


Not often, but sometimes, a company sends me a product to play with that helps me see the future more clearly. It just happened again after Netatmo sent me its Welcome video camera — a one-year-old device that arrived at my house only yesterday.

Welcome has one feature that sets it apart from every other $200 video camera sold for the home: face recognition. I have no idea how useful the Welcome will be as it’s still learning the faces of my family. But after less than a day with it, I’ve come to the conclusion that face recognition is a technology that could revolutionize home automation. But first, let me illustrate the problem with today’s so-called “smart” homes captured brilliantly in this single tweet.

I’ve been that guy too many times to list. One holiday, for example, I automated the Christmas tree. "Look at this!" I exclaimed proudly as I pushed a button on my smartphone and turned on the lights. Two days later I disabled it, after the family complained that they couldn’t turn the lights on or off unless I was home. Same for the sophisticated home theater setup I once installed only to find out that nobody else could figure it out. What I’ve learned, what’s become crystal clear to me, is that what works in a smart home for a single nerd, rarely adapts easily to my family of five.

That’s where facial recognition comes in. When my house knows who’s home then the door’s open to a vast array of personalized actions. When a camera sees me arrive home during working hours, for example, the Nest thermostat could set the heat in my office to my desired temperature as the Sonos begins playing my favorite playlist and the Hue lights dim to my preferred shade of Caribbean sunrise. When the kids get home my wife and I could receive text alerts or even a video clip if they enter the house with a stranger. And for security, the camera knows the difference between the neighbor coming over to water the plants while I'm away for summer vacation, and a stranger entering the house without authorization.

This isn’t a new vision of the future, of course. Companies like Jawbone have foreseen similar futures, albeit with one major flaw — they want me to wear something extra when I'm already wearing my identification on the front-side of my head. But facial recognition only helps with security and the automation side of the smart home. Something equally magical is needed on the control side: your voice.

The last time I felt so sure about advances in smart home technologies was at the launch of the Amazon Echo. Having a home automation hub capable of acting on natural language commands from anyone standing anywhere in the room is the stuff of Tony Stark’s Jarvis or Star Trek’s LCARS. And managing a shared Alexa is a far better alternative than equipping every family member with individual smartphones and all the relevant apps. I’m now convinced that voice and facial recognition technologies will form the basis of my own automated home. Someday.

We’re not there yet, of course. It’s still cost prohibitive to have devices like the $179 Echo speaker / mic and $199 Netatmo Welcome camera in every room of the house. And there’s still a lot of work to be done to build out compatible ecosystems that "just work." But the foundational technologies required for a truly smart home are finally within reach of many consumers. And thanks to the continued proliferation of smartphones, high-quality cameras are getting cheaper and cheaper even as voice recognition services like Siri, Alexa, Google Voice, and Cortana continue to improve.

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that cameras, microphones, and speakers will be as commonly integrated into homes of the future as power sockets and switches are today. Only question is: when?

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