For all the hype around connected homes, thus far, the Internet of Things (IoT) industry hasn’t found an original killer use case. Could new behaviors or a radically new device emerge to become as universal in homes as refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, or computers?

By New York Times, Nicholas Felton

The 20th century saw multiple structural shifts in living conditions. Some improvements were so welcomed that they’ve reached almost 100% household adoption (in advanced economies). Almost-universal adoption means that a certain tool resonated with universal human needs or desires. Let’s explore these basics to understand whether connected home solutions could augment them.

For thousands of years: from caves to castles, humans have created homes. Available technology (or lack thereof) acted as a constraint for the design of a home and the devices inside of it. New technological capabilities didn’t necesserily translate into mass adoption unless they satisfied a universal human need.

  1. Mitigation of nature’s extreme conditions is one of the core fundamental functions of the home. Caves or built structures provided protection from rain, wind, and heat. Fire helped with cold and darkness. Construction technologies changed the qualities of built environment, but the basic shape of a home has preserved through the ages. Electricity, at first, was mainly used at home to provide light (basic need to mitigate darkness).
  2. Technology hasn’t changed sleeping (or sitting) that much. We still sleep horizontally on beds.
  3. Another basic need is eating. Cooking at home was often the only economical or practical option to get foood. It stimulated the adoption of home appliances like a refrigerator or stove. It’s important to make a distinction between the basic need to eat and the convenience of cooking. With emerging abundance of other ways to eat other than cooking, (on-demand delivery, etc.) some urban residents might adopt a lifestyle that would make kitchens optional or even obsolete for some living arrangments.
  4. Access to potable water and later sewage was a major leap in living technology and comfort and was also adopted up to almost 100%. After that happened, the toilet and bathroom design have remained practically unchanged through modern times. Even if technology allows to have toilets with electrically warmed seats, it doesn’t seem to be a fundamental need to grant mass adoption.
  5. The basic need for security was also augmented by technology; from better construction to locks and alarm systems. Recently, the idea of AirBnB was disregarded by critics because it seemed to violate a fundamental human need for security: “People won’t share their apartment with strangers”. It’s important to note that this fundamental hasn’t changed. Consider Craigslist for comparison. What AirBnB accomplished was to create a mechanism of making people into acquaintances by providing an additional layer of verifications, references etc. In other words, it provided an alternative way to satisfy the need for security.
  6. Television and radio were surprising examples of how technology could augment a less obvious need and desire. Turns out, information consumption and entertainment are also a universal desire. Would we be able to anticipate just how popular television would become when it first appeared? In a surprising analogy, public baths (banyas) are somewhat equivalent to cinemas. When potable water became available at home, public baths ceased to satisfy a need remained a place for recreation. When TV became available at home, cinemas tanked as sources of information and remained only as a place for recreation. Today, access to the internet is gaining even greater importance than access to TV has been.
Source: “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance”

7. We’re witnessing the next level of fragmentation, when people abandon fixed TV for personal mobile screens. Personalization is another basic desire. Even in regulated environments like dorms, jails, office cubicles, most people tend to customize and decorate their surroundings.

8. For a long time, work required going to a special place: farmland, factory, office. With the spread of the telephone and later video-conferencing, some researchers predicted that people would move out of cities to work at home. As it turned out, a fundamental desire to spend facetime with friends and events left cities intact and thriving. Also, mobile work demonstrated that a lot of people tend to get lonely and prefer environments where other people work that led to the rise of co-working spaces. Thus, even enabled by technology, most people still choose not to work from home.

The hype around the connected home and IoT exists because the programmable environment seems technologically within reach. Cellphone production volume drastically reduced the costs of most electronic components in the supply chain. Together with the wireless internet, it allowed to create relatively cheap devices that can communicate between each other. Lots of startups rushed into the promising space.

Most emerging connected home solutions try to address some of the basic needs and desires separately. Companies develop stand-alone devices for better indoor climate and energy savings (thermostats), sleep (sensors), security (cameras, locks, flooding sensors), eating (smart ovens etc.), entertainment (connected toys, smart TVs), and personalization (smart lights).

Thus far, most connected devices address the needs and desires that either have already been covered or try to make them more affordabile or convenient. For example, people were able to dim lights before the smart bulb. They were able to install a CCTV in their office or home (though it was quite expensive). Nest does a great thermostat job, but it’s still a thermostat. Previous thermostats did a less efficient job, but the job itself or people’s behavior hasn’t dramatically changed. Making a much better thermostat could be a good business, but it doesn’t create a historic change in the way we live.

The difference between having to go into a wooden cabin outside and having a toilet at home was revolutionary. The difference between going to cinema and being able to watch more for less at home made TV revolutionary. Air conditioners allowed us to create huge enclosed environments with controlled climate, thus creating a revolutionary architecture typology of commercial buildings and malls.

Stand-alone connected devices resemble the feature phones. Compared to standard cellphones, feature phones had some additional features like music players, email, and even web-browsing capability. But they were designed to fit in an old paradigm. Then came the iPhone with a completely new framework.

Similarly, electric typewriters were an incremental step in technology evolution. Personal computers became revolutionary because they provided a seamless programmable environment that allowed the user to create fundamentally new use cases.

Most existing connected devices for home try to satisfy the needs and desires that have already been satisfied to a large extent. They may be good replacement devices, but are not a revolutionary branch of technology evolution yet.

If existing devices follow a dead-end branch, what’s missing for a truly programmable living environment to emerge?

Co-founder Apt Buildings, Inc., previously Airbnb Samara and Asmbld

Co-founder Apt Buildings, Inc., previously Airbnb Samara and Asmbld