October 17, 2004

Networked Homes, Complexity and Suburbs

Friday I went to the Intel Research Labs / Berkeley open house. Lots of sensor network and RFID projects, along with Elizabeth Goodman's Familiar Stranger project, and a few others.

One in particular was around sensors for the wired, networked house. It had a poster board with all the possible wired, networked objects in the house of the future (felt kind of like a world's faire sort of thing -- E.L. Doctorow came to mind while I was talking with the guy standing there discussing it). So the guy was a young kid (he admitted to being born in India in 1983) who was very excited, gushing even, over the idea that every object in the home could be connected and talking, doing things for us while we were out, making life better, simpler, more possible (insert utopian fantasy here).

I felt a bit skeptical, because I think that by the time we get all this stuff connected and working correctly (washing machine, fridge, vacuum cleaner, lighting systems, smoke detectors, furnatiure, computers and network systems, HVAC, alarms, entertainment and communication systems) we may be living differently than the picture they are designing for, which is suburban fantasy, where everyone has a big house, lots of stuff, big lawns (he kept bringing up a computerized automated lawnmower that could mow those water guzzling laws on its own), or cars necessary due to vast distances required to get to stores, work or family/friends.

I just am not so sure that in the 10-15 years it might take to get existing houses set up, and appliances replaced (you've heard the old joke about the fridge that gets a virus and orders 20 pounds of cheese), that we will not have shifted to simpler, more environmentally conscious lives, where we may not have the big houses with lawns at all (replaced with drought tolerant plants due to large population need for water), or the need for a washer that reads the RFID tags to plan how to wash the clothes. Maybe there will be fabrics that simply don't need washing in the way we do it now. Don't know.

But what I can imagine is that in the Intel world they were showing on the poster, with so much dependency on connection, we must make sure our Palm equivalent is synced with everything and absolutely accuractly reflecting everything we do. Example: while we may put trips out of town into a datebook (note to fridge, don't order cheese), we might not put an event that is so explicitly important, it's on our minds and therefore doesn't require entry (fridge doesn't get note about cheese). But the bigness of that event also means that ordering food is not necessary. Maybe you'd only be out the $100 or whatever, of extra uneaten food that was wasted. But you get the point.

Also increasingly complex systems mean disasters will inevitablly come up with a corresponding level of the same increased complexity. I'm not so sure the convenience and networked control we gain from a highly connected computerized home will outweight complex disasters, especially if we shift our living paterns due to increased populations, or simplicity or environmental concerns. Because part of the assumption of wanting those sorts of controls and connections is due to the current dream of a large house with corresponding great distances between the people and things in the house, and the distances people must travel to and from the house to other outside activities. If those ways of living shift, the assumptions predicating the networked home system Intel Research is developing must also shift.

It's not that I don't think there are interesting aspects to networked home, but as I see in many engineering driven projects, the coolness of some new technology is imagined and planned and maybe even deployed, before a realistic user assessment for value and need is made, and so the way the technology is created ignores what those needs might be. I would love to see a needs assessment done for the networked home project that more closely mapped what seem like real household needs, before the answers are imagined and made, so it would look more like something we would use and appreciate in homes, and be worth the trouble and cost.

Posted by Mary Hodder at October 17, 2004 01:35 AM | TrackBack

There's an interesting, tangentially-related article in the Oct 18 New Yorker, "Green Manhatttan" by David Owen. Not online, unfortunately, but worth reading.

Posted by: Nina at October 19, 2004 01:56 PM