I turned my apartment into a smart home... and all I got was bored

By James Robinson , written on September 26, 2014

From The News Desk

After a week of dabbling with making my home smarter, I came to the conclusion that maybe my home was smart enough already... you know, with two living humans in it with full sensory perception, capable of operating all of its devices seamlessly.

It all started promisingly enough. Installation was a dream. I am not what anybody would call a “handy” man but I’d managed to set up a SmartThings hub in my living room and connect a Multi Sensor to the door of my apartment without so much as a raised pulse or a curse word. I opened up the app on the phone and sat my wife down in the living room.

Out of sight, I pulled our front door open and shut, open and shut.

The SmartThings app followed along seamlessly. “Door was opened.” “Door was closed.” “Door was opened.” “Door was closed.”

Technology is amazing!

The Moisture Sensor & Freeze Alarm was slightly more complicated, but was installed okay under the sink. The Motion Sensor in my living room took about a minute. I was especially excited about installing the Presence Sensor on my key ring, because I’m saddled with some OCD tendencies that include waking up in the middle of the night afraid that my keys are missing. This enthusiasm was dampened by the long, slow droning sound this sensor made when I tested it, which took several minutes to turn off.

I’ll give SmartThings credit, it was easy to install and simple to work. I could trace all comings and goings from the apartment. I could check whether the apartment had burned down or flooded.

I guess I am better off now in some ways. My smart home toys let me know that the temperature in my home generally hovers in the late 60 degree territory during the daytime. I didn’t know that before. I know now that as soon as I put a white locator beacon on my key ring, Murphy’s Law means that I will always find my keys within three seconds of looking for them, for now and forever more. I can safely conclude that a moisture sensor in my home is meaningless to me because I’ve lived my life weighed down with very little fear that my home will flood.

The concept of the smart home has problems. I'm a cynic.

Let’s acknowledge first that it’s creepy. Returning to my home the other evening, while a few blocks away from my apartment I received a text from my wife that she was heading out to the neighborhood Whole Foods to get some munitions. “I should try and catch her and we can walk together,” I thought. But then I was vexed. Had she sent the text message when she’d left the house, or was she already at the supermarket and just letting me know? To solve this, I checked the door log. The text message had been sent a minute after she’d left the apartment. A-ha! There was time to catch her. This felt intuitive, but when I explained to her on the walk what I’d done I recoiled.

I’d just surveilled my own wife. What gets sold to you as “find out when your kids are home from school!” can just as easily be twisted out to “keep minute tabs on the respective movements of the people you love!”    

Smart home platforms, at the consumer level that a company like SmartThings are targeting, are also more for hobbyists, tinkerers and early adopters. There’s a lot I could do, if my brain was wired a certain way. If I had a smart thermostat, I could program it to turn on anytime the house fell below a certain temperature. With add ons, I could program my light switches to turn off when there was no motion in the house. I could set my coffee pot to turn on when I woke up. I could even program my Jawbone to alert my next of kin if I was ever motionless for a worrying amount of time. And so on.

But there’s a level of programming involved there that isn’t going to feel intuitive, or really worthwhile at all, to a mass audience. It might be smart, but it’s still a Rube Goldberg-esque rabbit hole.

Regardless, research shows that maybe all people want from the prospect of a smart home is something that allows them to monitor the security of their family and property and the wellbeing of the most expensive asset in their life more effectively. To this, SmartThings ticks all the boxes. The problem there is that these needs are mostly only had by homeowners and families in bigger dwellings, the sorts of people who would benefit by being able to look at their phone to see if the door was shut from the top story of their house. But then, a lot of these needs are already met by security companies, or higher end home automation platforms like Vivint.

And these are needs that a lot of younger consumers, or renters, don’t really have. I don’t need a door sensor, because if someone was trying to break into my house I would know immediately. I don’t need a moisture sensor, because if my sink leaked I have a landlord that would be on the hook financially to fix it.

Today, we have a few smart devices that are taking off at a consumer level: thermostats, locks. There’s a romance to the idea of a smart home that goes well passed this, something that knows you, opens the door when arrive in without you reaching for a key, knows your favorite songs, records your shows, tracks your movements and makes the home a seamless place where you never have to go to the hassle of having to lift for a switch again.

It’s worth thinking twice about whether this romance will ever be a mass market reality. A real smart home is only as clever as its owner. Sitting in my one bedroom apartment, I already know everything going on in my home and I can get to any part of it and turn anything on or off within seconds. I don’t need technological assistance. As it stood, taking the smart home platform any further would be a lot of work to replace things I don’t mind doing myself and tell me things I already knew.

As a cool toy, the smart home is in a great place. But as a real game changer, we're miles away. When the smart home becomes truly intuitive for everyone, not just techies, providing actual piece of mind for people in and out of the home, then we might just see lift off.

SmartThings provided Pando with the smart home sensor kit reviewed in this story.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]