Monday, August 28, 2017

WILL THE SMART HOUSE PASS THE TEST?

High tech, Victorian style: Close up view of a
leading-edge shower faucet of the era.
For the past thousand years, housing technology has advanced with all the urgency of dripping molasses. Perhaps every half-century or so, some fairly important breakthrough has come along to change the way houses are built. It happened around 1840, when heavy-timber construction methods dating back to the Middle Ages finally gave way to the lighter, 2x4-stud “balloon framing” system still in use today.

There was another big technology blip in the late 1800s, when gas lighting, telephones, central heating, indoor plumbing, and finally electricity all made their appearance in Victorian homes within the span of a few decades.

Nutone intercom "master station" of the kind fitted to
many super-high-end houses of the 1940s-1960s:
"BzzzzzzzHebbo?Bzzzzz..."
In the hundred twenty years since, there have been very few substantial changes in the way houses are built. Today, however, the incredibly swift advances in computing, combined with the second generation of internet technology—the vaunted "internet of things"—promise another revolution in housing. Systems such as communication, lighting, climate control, security and entertainment will all be linked via the web. In the resulting smart house, we’re told, the position of the drapes, the fire in the fireplace, even the temperature of your bath water will be monitored by a central brain somewhere in the Cloud, waiting to be controlled by little old you at the touch of your smartphone.

While exercising all these godlike powers over your furniture and appliances might be exhilarating to Silicon Valley propellerheads, they also engender some problems.

To begin with, I'm not at all sure I want the faceless Cloud—much less some mighty Big Brother corporation—to know how warm I like my bath water or what time I draw the drapes at night. But such privacy issues aside, it’s worth remembering that time hasn’t been kind to a lot of domestic innovations once considered state-of-the-art.

The incredible Electro Sink Center, which not only
featured push-button controls for a whole slew of
faucet functions, but also had electric (!) motors
at either end for food preparation.
No doubt you’ve strained to make out the garbled speech from those hokey and unintelligible intercoms that ultra-high-end houses boasted in the Fifties. In the early Sixties, there was the Electro Sink Center, an elaborate kitchen tap with a Jetsons-worthy control panel that dispensed cold, hot, and soapy water at the press of a button. And, it also had a built-in blender! Wow!

Is this the omniscient thermostat of the future,
or the Electro Sink Center of the future?
Only time will tell.
The Eighties brought us one of my personal high-tech favorites: A shower faucet knob containing a digital readout of the water temperature. Just so you could tell exactly what temperature "uncomfortable" is.

For their time, these features were the at the leading edge of technology. Today, they’re just charming anachronisms that draw chuckles instead of awe.

Now imagine a whole galaxy of outdated hardware built into a formerly-smart house. That could be just as embarrassing. After all, no matter how advanced the software might be, drawing drapes and opening valves necessarily requires good old-fashioned electromechanical actuators—very old-school industrial items in themselves. Their slow but inevitable failure could provide enough hijinks for a Lucy Show episode.  

The key to making a house smart lies, not simply in having every doorknob and coat hanger wired up to the internet, but doing it in a way that can grow and change with today’s rapid advances in technology, whether electronic or simply physical. If you’re in the market for smart house systems, make sure both the software and the hardware can be easily updated. Like a person, no house can claim to be smart unless it keeps on learning.

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