Veteran industrial designer Matthew Cockerill has worked for PriestmanGoode, Samsung, tangerine, Seymourpowell and others. Now an independent consultant who focuses on “creating unexpected, relevant solutions for what’s next,” Cockerill was recently asked to chair a panel discussion on the role of design and technology in the home. Following the panel, which featured some of the industry’s heavy hitters, Cockerill isolated six important takeaways and put them into print. Here they are:
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“Smart Living: the factors shaping ambient technology in our future homes”
by Matthew Cockerill
Our experience of our homes is changing as they become increasingly tech-enabled, from explicit interactions with screens to whole-room led interactions where technology is more observant, responsive and prescient to our needs. I recently hosted a panel discussion with researchers, designers and engineers from some of the world’s leading brands, including Samsung, IKEA, Google ATAP (Advanced Technology and Products) and Nest, to discuss the opportunities and challenges of embedding more ambient technology into our future smart homes. Here are six key [takeaways] from that conversation.
1. The aesthetics of technology have become more complementary to our homes.
When technology such as the radio and television first entered our homes, it took the guise of furniture. But Sung Bai, Head of industrial design at Nest, pointed out that over time, as brands wanted to showcase their tech more and stand out in the market, we ended up with shiny tech objects in our living spaces that eventually started to become obtrusive.
We’re seeing a reversal of this trend now as brands let technology visually recede into the fabric of our homes with products like the wireless speakers from Sonos, Libratone, Google and Amazon taking inspiration from home furnishings. Samsung have gone a step further in this regard with the ‘ambient mode’ on their OLED TV that matches the screen image to the interior wall colour and texture, eliminating the black rectangle in our home when it’s on stand-by.
Samsung’s “Ambient Mode” allows the screen to virtually disappear
2. A sense of agency will become increasingly important.
Smart products can give us the potential for more control at home, but also take control away from us as they become more autonomous. There is an important balance to be made here. As Rick Marks, Director, Technical Project Lead at Google ATAP, put it, “one of the really interesting things about our home is it’s where we have the most authority over what’s going to happen.” For this reason, products that increase our sense of agency and empower us to do more than we can currently do, rather than those that simply do everything for us, will feel more appropriate in our future homes.
At the moment, we don’t always have a sense of initiating, executing, and controlling technology. Marks, who spent 19 years at PlayStation before joining Google ATAP, believes that there are lessons to be learned from the video game world to help achieve a greater sense of agency. This includes creating a really well-defined interface of how to interact with our increasingly intelligent technology at home.
Google ATAP’s Project Soli enables touchless gesture interactions
3. We should unlock new experiences, not just enhance existing ones.
Ambient technologies have the potential to allow us to do completely new things in the home. But a lack of imagination often results in the transfer of existing screen-based digital products into new technology platforms. [However], things start to get interesting when we combine smart products. For example, smart doorbells (with one time access) and cameras in the home might eventually give us the confidence to accept services being carried out within our home without us being present, such as internet deliveries. New technologies like 8K resolution and 5G could open up the opportunity to deliver more intimate interactions in the comfort of our homes with, for example, healthcare professionals, beyond what we do now. Initially for convenience, ideas like these have the potential to open up radical new ways of using our time and our homes.
The Nest Hello smart doorbell
In turn, technology might change the very nature of our houses. Yasushi Kusume, Innovation & Creative Manager at IKEA, explained that they experimented with transforming the walls of our homes from barriers into filters that allow in the things we want, like sunlight and fresh air, and filter out what we don’t, like pollutants and noise. While this idea requires a fundamental change to the architecture of our homes, a lot of the tech we need for this already exists.
4. Collaborative, not competitive, product development is key.
Most of the devices in our homes are designed separately from one another. Despite technology standards and reducing platform fragmentation, we’re still not at a point where services work seamlessly across products unless they come from one company. It’s hard for designers think like this when they often working for a single brand. But more cross-collaboration between brands could deliver much more complete and interesting solutions for consumers in the home. Each brand able to bring their particular strengths to the table.
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5. Technology as a social enabler, rather than social barrier.
Currently, technology is focused around personal devices, which often isolate people from one other. But ambient technology, where we don’t have to interact with our digital products through screens, opens up opportunities for more multi-user experiences that can reintroduce or enhance the social experiences we have in our homes. Through whole-room experiences we will be able to interact and collaborate together seamlessly in the same space which we wouldn’t have been able to do before. Suddenly, technology becomes a social enabler, rather than a barrier.
In the past, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft utilised cameras with depth sensing to understand multiple users inputs for gaming purposes. Now more advanced systems coming on stream like Intel’s RealSense and Amazon’s AWS DeepLens coupled with deep learning algorithms are allowing designer to conceive new multi user experiences for their everyday lives not simply for gaming.
Amazon’s AWS DeepLens is a programmable and trainable smart camera
6. Technology must be constantly interrogated.
A word of caution was raised about embedding observant and data capturing technologies into our homes. Rick Marks from Google ATAP identified the move away from cloud computing to edge computing, which stores data more locally to where it’s being used rather than on a small number of centralised data centres, as partly relating to concerns over trust and privacy. Indeed, there is an ongoing tension between the desire to create better and new experiences enabled by data-gathering services and growing concerns around surveillance. We need to fully understand the implications of new technologies in this area and bake-in privacy and trust into all products and experiences we create for our future homes.