With great automation comes great responsibility. You may love your smart thermostat and door lock, but as long as they’re on the open network, they’re targets for all manner of digital attacks. And because the devices are smaller and simpler, they don’t have nearly the protection of your laptop or phone. The result is an unsettling thought: as you add more gadgetry, you’re also adding more ways for hackers to break in.
It’s a persistent vulnerability, and it’s common knowledge in the digital security world. For years, the Defcon conference has hosted an IoT Village entirely devoted to cracking Internet of Things devices. The 2014 event featured a router-hacking contest that turned up 15 major vulnerabilities in a matter of hours. For researchers, finding these flaws is so easy, it’s a sport.
It’s not all bad news. Your thermostat doesn’t make a very attractive target to most hackers. (Unlike your phone or computer, there isn’t much monetizable information on it.) The most likely threat is someone trying to enlist it in a Mirai-style botnet — which would be bad, but it would only cost you whatever extra power the device ended up burning.
Still, the net effect of tens of thousands of vulnerable IoT gadgets flooding the market can be significant, and it’s worth it to make sure you’re not part of the problem. The best thing you can do is pay for it: higher-end devices almost always have better security protocols, even if there’s no clear certification to look for just yet. Beyond that, make sure everything you own is getting regular patches — and that you’re installing them. If you want to get really serious, you can get a smart router to isolate all your IoT devices on a separate network, and monitor everything for signs of a compromise. That will put you ahead of 99 percent of consumers, and give you a fighting chance if anyone decides they want to take over your fancy new thermostat.
The smart home was supposed to make things simple. It was supposed to cook for you, clean for you, pick out your clothes, and gently wake you up by parting the curtains.
But that old ideal has been replaced with a vastly different new one: the smart home plays music, when you command it; it turns on the lights, if you’ve bought enough smart bulbs; and it reminds you to take the roast out of the oven, so long as you’ve manually set a timer. And that’s all assuming you’ve somehow managed to set all this up to work correctly and in concert.
There’s a reason our vision of a smart home has shifted. Part of it comes down to what’s technologically possible right now — Roombas are a far cry from Rosie the Robot. But much of it also has to do with what’s practical. And building homes to be smart from the ground up, in a way that’s invisible to homeowners, just isn’t.
“In the early ’60s, in The Jetsons vision of a smart home, everything about the entire building from walls and windows to floors and technology was reimagined,” says Richard Harper, a sociologist and computer scientist who’s done smart home research for Microsoft and Orange. But two decades ago, that vision began to shift thanks to new technologies. “The expectation that the walls of the house would be different had been abandoned, and instead houses were seen as husks that are populated with freestanding internet-of-things devices.”
A lot of that has to do with the reality of homes. While in our series Home of the Future, we were able to plan a smart home from the ground up, that isn’t an option for the wide swath of people who live in homes and apartments built decades ago.
Nor is it necessary any longer to build out a smart home this way. “What’s enabled by internet, Wi-Fi, freestanding autonomous devices is so many new possibilities that you can almost bypass the problem of cabling a house,” Harper says. “Most often homes are old ladies and you’re trying to make them smart with new tech on the inside.”
But that also means new complications arise for homeowners. It means picking the right smart devices for your home, installing them correctly, and choosing the right settings to keep them all working in sync. In our series, a company that specializes in smart home tech installs a completely managed system — most people won’t do this; it’s just too expensive. And it should speak to the difficulty consumers face that this is a highly valued service.
Setting everything up yourself is increasingly doable, but it’s still difficult. While you can go to the store and buy any phone or laptop and be sure it’ll connect to your Wi-Fi network, you can’t bring home a smart home gadget before making sure it works with your existing systems. You need to install products in your house that speak new languages, then connect them all, and do it in a way that won’t break when you install something new.
It’s getting easier. Apple has made it extremely simple for anyone who wants to live inside its HomeKit ecosystem, since those products all connect to iPhones. Amazon and Google are getting there too, with product branding that tells you if a gadget will connect to Alexa or the Google Assistant. But these products often still require a patchwork of digital connections to make them work just the way you want them, because of how many ecosystems are being strung together. And don’t even ask what happens if you want to change from one smart assistant to another.
But there are advantages to this more piecemeal approach. The smart home gadgets we’re getting are more focused and less proactive than those dreamed about on The Jetsons. And while, like everything, that’s partially a result of technological limitations, it may also be a response from tech companies, adapting to what people actually want.
“Part of making the home special is the labors of being at home: how tidy you are, what you put on the wall, in the fridge, the effort you put into your cooking,” Harper says. “The role of tech can’t displace those activities. It has to let people do other things.”
Samsung has announced its entry into the smart speaker market with the Galaxy Home. It’s a high-end speaker that’s meant to go head-to-head with Apple’s HomePod, while standing apart from competitors like Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home with a promise of higher-quality audio. Samsung said the speaker is meant to combine “amazing sound and elegant design.”
The Galaxy Home looks like a strange vase or statue that might go on a table in the corner of your home. It’s wrapped in fabric and elevated by three stout metal legs. It has a flat top with control buttons on it for skipping tracks and changing the volume.
The speaker is supposed to deliver surround sound-style audio using six built-in speakers and a subwoofer. It also includes eight far-field microphones for detecting voice input. You’ll be able to say “Hi, Bixby” to activate Samsung’s assistant and ask it to start playing music or a number of other tasks. Samsung indicated that it’d be able to do many of the same things Bixby can do on a phone.
Beyond that, we don’t have many details. Samsung isn’t ready to fully announce the speaker yet, and it said that it’d share more at a developer conference in early November.
One of the big questions hanging over the speaker is how well its smart functions will hold up. It includes Samsung’s Bixby assistant, which few have seemed to particularly enjoy using so far. If Samsung wants this to be seen as an equivalent to an Echo, it’ll need an assistant that’s about as smart as Alexa. And right now, it isn’t clear the company has that.
The speaker will also enter into a crowded market. Amazon has already taken a commanding early lead with its Echo devices (along with the spread of Alexa inside of third-party devices), while Google has managed to sell millions of Home devices as well, likely thanks to their low price and frequent sales. Both Amazon and Google may have more to share before the holiday season when the Galaxy Home debuts.
Then, of course, there’s Apple, which is the company Samsung really seems to be interested in taking on — likely because higher-end speakers have larger margins and aren’t a market that’s been dominated just yet. Samsung and Apple may find themselves contending with the same problem: a distinct lack of smarts in their speaker when compared to competitors. If that’s what people are buying smart speakers for (it is), then that’s going to make Samsung’s new product a harder sell.
Home, it’s where the heart is. There’s no place like it. And you can never go back there again.
This is how we’ve understood the word for decades. It’s a place full of nostalgia that’s located in the past.
So what is the home of the future?
By definition, it’s not the home of days gone by. That home, romanticized by post-war newsreels, is epitomized by 2.5 dogs and a kid, usually staring at a giant piece of furniture called a TV. It’s suburban and carpeted in a rich shade of burgundy in a neighborhood that’s crisp and homogenous. It’s paid for by a single male income and tended to by an elaborately coiffed woman in a petticoat. It’s the home you raise a family in before moving to a trailer park in Florida to die.
The home of the future, then, is a flexible space for digital natives who value location over square footage. These homes are prefabricated in giant warehouses to whatever globally agreed-upon aesthetic is currently trending on Instagram. It’s a home manufactured from modular components, finished with the precision of an iPhone, and then delivered quickly, for a fraction of the cost required to build on-site. It’s efficient and built using sustainable processes and materials because there’s no other choice. It’s cookie-cutter, but it looks like a highly designed piece of bespoke architecture.
The home of the future is, above all, connected. It’s a place where the home is the computer. It’s always listening and always watching, yet it still, somehow, manages to secure your privacy as well as your belongings. It is adaptable but comfortable, a respite from the urban jungle and a place to savor those face-to-face encounters that have largely been supplanted by the virtual unrealities of modern life.
In the past, the home you selected was dictated by the location of your employer and the salary it paid. You’re in advertising? Welcome to your 5th Avenue apartment. Manufacturing? Welcome to the utopian tree-lined streets of Detroit. People grabbed hold of the “American dream” and bought anything within a reasonable commute of their 9-to-5 jobs.
But what kinds of jobs can we expect in the future? When most of the world’s manufacturing has coalesced around the immovable supply chains of Southeast Asia. When robots have replaced warehouse workers, kitchen staff, and hotel cleaners. When AI has replaced truck drivers, legal aids, and money managers. When main street retailers have all shut down because the neighborhood Walmart is now a highly automated Amazon distribution center offering one-hour delivery, and everyday items like clothing and Tupperware can be made at home on your 3D printer with built-in Alexa, installed for free with a sub-Prime membership loan. Disruptions to our traditional means of employment will almost certainly affect where we live and how a home is used.
Technology, especially 5G connectivity and the rapid evolution of personal computing devices, will continue to redefine what it means “to work.” Beautiful people will, of course, be rewarded for their youth with lucrative endorsement deals that will become more accessible to anyone with an audience, as ad spending continues to shift to nontraditional channels. Knowledge workers of all ilks will be needed to keep the automation automated, Netflix netting, and YouTube tubing. In such a future, nomadic lifestyles become yet another norm, and fixed homes will morph into live / work spaces that can be shared with the access economy.
Unlike generations past, there will be no “dream home” archetype for the masses to aspire to. A white picket fence and manicured hedgerow aren’t very practical when living your best #vanlife in a vintage VW microbus. For the privileged, living in a “co-living” dorm in California, a Muji prefab in rural India, or an Airbnb-owned apartment in central Paris will become a choice enabled by their jobs, not dictated by them. Living where you want to, instead of where you have to, will become the ultimate claim to luxury.
But what about those without means? Industrial 3D-printing techniques can already print an 800-square-foot home (about the size of an average New York apartment) in less than two days for $10,000, with plans to bring the cost down to $4,000 per unit. Imagine the impact that could have on the world’s 1.2 billion people living without adequate housing. That’s the Silicon Valley pitch anyway, which is often far too optimistic for reality.
In fact, everything you’ve read is just one possible future that may or may not transpire. And nothing hits closer to home than a discussion about the home of the future.
Our series kicks off today with an episode that looks at exactly how the Home of the Future is built.
Figuring out what tomorrow’s technology will look like is what we try to do every single day on The Verge, and smart home tech is an increasingly big part of that. So finally, we decided to just build a home and see how smart we could make it.
A few months ago, our team and our friends at Curbedwent down to Texas to oversee the construction and setup of what we’re calling the Home of the Future. And we invited MythBusters’ Grant Imahara to come along.
We’ve put together a six-episode series, starting with the home’s construction and going all the way through how we powered it, wired it, secured it, and what it’s like to live in it. Grant walks through the process every step of the way, until the home is finally ready to be moved into.
You can watch our trailer for the series above. Episodes will run weekly on YouTube starting next Monday, August 6th. Over here at The Verge, we’ll be posting the videos too and running stories alongside them that dive deeper into the elements that bring the Home of the Future together. And there’ll be plenty more over at Curbed.