What the Future of Home Automation can learn from Back to the Future

Image for post
Image for post

Recently, I was channel surfing for something good on TV when I came upon “Back to the Future II.” It had been a while since I’ve watched it, so I was pretty entertained by 1989's campy idea of what 2015 might look like. Flying cars, hover skateboards, and a “1980’s themed nostalgia restaurant” highlight some of the predictions that were made about how the future will look. While some of it was hilariously wrong in so many ways, some things weren’t completely off target. For example, the scene where Marty Jr. talks to the television asking for multiple channels is something that is not far off. A setup like that is something that we here at Josh.ai think is a perfect solution for voice that will make life easier, and we are working to make that a reality.

Image for post
Image for post
Marty Jr. comes into the room and walks up to the television screen. “Art off. Okay, I want channels 18, 24, 63, 109, 87, and The Weather Channel.” [photo credit: http://alturl.com/beght]

It all got me thinking, though, about how the path for future smart homes and smart home technology will twist and turn. It’s pretty easy to simply jump 25 years into the future and hypothesize wildly about some fantastical ideas that may or may not come to pass, like they did in “Back to the Future.” Instead, I’m going to try and evolve my ideas gradually starting with the problems we face now and slowly solving them towards a (hopefully) more realistic future.

The Present

For more than 10 years people have been able to purchase home installations from companies like Crestron or Savant. These companies make it possible to achieve almost full control from a single control panel. However, these installations can be difficult to use and are often incredibly expensive. This is to say nothing of the devices themselves, which are often fairly pricey. These points naturally combine to limit the reach of the smart home. How are people able to immerse themselves in the idea of a fully automated home when many of them can only afford a fraction of the necessary hardware?

Contrast that with the DIY market of products. This includes lights from Hue, thermostats from Nest, and speakers from Sonos. Each product has its own app. So now you have an app for some of your lights, maybe another app for others, an app for your thermostats, and an app for music. It quickly gets out of hand and becomes an incredibly annoying experience switching from one app to another. More-so, maybe users have a hard enough time learning how one app works, let alone a dozen.

Image for post
Image for post
Even simple tasks are confusing with current home automation setups [photo credit: http://alturl.com/mox3r]

Performing anything aside from a simple task takes a number of taps and swipes, and even simple tasks can be taxing when they are hidden behind layers and layers of UI and sub-menus. Right now, even the best case scenario has work to do before it can be mass consumed.

Near Future (3 years from now)

So where do we go from here? There are a number of startups being created and partnerships being formed to help try and solve the app bloat issue. It’s not a feasible long term solution to expect users to open separate apps to perform different actions. The goal of these startups and partnerships are good, but often fail to recognize the bigger problem: a well-designed clean user interface. No matter how many ways you combine all the devices into one app, if the UI for that app is non-intuitive, then there isn’t much in the way of progress.

Josh.ai, a home automation client, is an attempt to solve both problems. Not only will it be able to interact with multiple devices and services used throughout the home, it will also make interacting with those devices and services easier to use through flexible voice control and a learning intelligence that grows as you use it.

Image for post
Image for post
[photo credit: http://alturl.com/4vtjz]

By reducing complex tasks like “wake me up at 6:30 and play my theme song and brew some coffee” to a single voice command instead of a minimum of 6 button presses, we’ve removed the annoyance and difficulty of talking to your home. Suddenly, there’s not a bloat of apps you use to talk to your devices. There’s a brain in your home that understands natural language and controls your devices for you.

Sounds awesome, but it’s certainly far from perfect. There are always more devices to control, and while voice recognition has gotten good over the past few years, it’s nowhere near the comprehension of a human. Proper artificial intelligence is also considerably further behind than what a human brain can do, not to mention other functionality that opens up now that there is a brain in the home.

10 Years From Now

You wake up in 2025 to the shades being pulled open electronically next to you, letting the sun fill the room. Josh greets you good morning and informs you that your coffee is ready. As you grab your cup of coffee, Josh starts reading you today’s news, cultivated from a few of your favorite websites and any topics that he knows you tend to find interesting. You’re not really in the best of moods so you tell him to shut up. You hear the shower start to turn on, since you always shower in the morning after your coffee. Afterwards, you get dressed (by yourself, Josh can’t do that for you) and open the door to the garage where your car engine revs up and the door starts to open upon your entry. You get in and your car drives you to work. The garage door closes and everything in your home that is no longer needed turns off.

Image for post
Image for post

Above, I paint a fairly idealized description of what your future smart home can do. And there’s good reason to believe that it’s overly optimistic. But at the same time, the technology to do almost everything above exists today — we just haven’t yet put the substantial work required to make it as seamless as described. The beauty of it isn’t that everyone would have to live in the house that I just described, it’s that you could live in the house that you want to describe. Don’t want to have a conversation with a robot in the morning? No problem. Do you want some level of control over everything you do instead of something doing it for you? Go for it! The idea isn’t to force everyone into my idea of a smart home, it’s to build out a system that lives alongside you and caters to you. This isn’t some robot that says here is the functions I will provide, it’s a system that can learn your patterns and understand exactly what functionality you want to have provided for you.

So what problems do we face now? It seems like that whole “smart home” thing is pretty well accomplished for the most part. Aside from the perpetually unsolved problems surrounding speech recognition and artificial intelligence, what else is there to do?

25 Years From Now

Projecting further into the future is a much more difficult task. It’s hard to make it seem familiar, yet more advanced. If someone from 1990 were to be transported to today, although there would be an obvious shock at the sort of technology we take for granted, not much of it would be terribly unrecognizable or unfamiliar. Everything would be novel and exciting, but at the same time neighborhoods would look largely the same, streets and cities would operate largely the same, and people would still be largely the same. For as much as there is that changes, so much of what our 1990’s traveler recognizes about humanity and day to day life would be familiar, and they could relatively easily assimilate to our modern way of life.

Image for post
Image for post
Although Marty McFly was shocked and out-of-sorts using the futuristic tech, much of the functionality stayed the same (such as a new and improved skateboard — the hoverboard) [photo credit: http://alturl.com/autym]

Odds are that the same will be true 25 years from now. I feel that our homes will operate largely the same way that they do today and in the above example 10 years into the future. Although, with the increasing amount of energy consumption I would guess that the biggest difference would be that homes have now effectively become batteries. Energy is less of a worry since homes produce much of their own power through wind, solar or other renewable energy sources (while still probably connected to the grid for supplemental energy). Phones and other devices within the home draw from that power wirelessly such that you don’t really need to worry about plugging your phone in for a charge. In fact, homes are smart enough to share power with one another, or neighborhoods are all treated as a large power source. Maybe even an entire city. The technology described in the “10 Years From Now” section will be more ubiquitous, and since most homes have a brain, communication amongst the homes can happen more freely (if you so choose, you can always opt out of such connectivity).

Maybe this makes it easier to meet people and connect with them in a more personal way than the current Facebook and other internet models. Maybe some of these changes means our day to day lives are easier, freeing us up to discover new things that I don’t have the creativity to imagine. Maybe I’m just being optimistic. But this whole exercise has really only helped to reinvigorate my passion for building this potential future, and I know that everyone else helping to make Josh a reality feels a similar optimism for what we’re building and the future we’re helping create. Regardless of whether Marty had it right with hoverboards and kitchens that cook for you, one thing is for certain, the future of home automation is exciting to think about!

Image for post
Image for post

This post was written by Michael at Josh.ai. Previously, Michael was a software engineer at Microsoft before joining the Josh team where he works on interconnected device control. Michael plays hockey, loves Chipotle, rocks out to T-Swift, and has a love-hate relationship with Destiny Potato (the best band you’ve never heard of).

Josh is an AI agent for your home. If you’re interested in following us and getting early access to the beta, enter your email at https://josh.ai.

Like Josh on Facebook — http://facebook.com/joshdotai

Follow Josh on Twitter — http://twitter.com/joshdotai

Image for post
Image for post

Written by

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store