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From Smart House to Networked Home

By Chris Carbone and Kristin Nauth

Two foresight specialists describe how tomorrow’s integrated, networked, and aware home systems may change your family life.

In the last decade, a range of digital technologies and services have hit the market and moved quickly from niche use to the mainstream. Consider that just seven years after being founded, Facebook is used by more than 50% of the online population in the United States and India, and much higher percentages in global markets from Chile to South Africa to Indonesia. And flat-panel TVs, e-readers, smartphones, and even augmented-reality apps—all largely missing from the consumer landscape just a few years ago—continue to be eagerly adopted even in the face of economic uncertainty.

As we look toward the next decade, it’s clear that we are in for even more dramatic changes in the roles that technology will play in daily life. But what technologies are poised to move from niche toward the mainstream in the next 10 years? And how will these technologies change everyday activities?

To bring this into sharper focus, Innovaro Inc.’s futures consulting group identified 10 key themes that it feels will help define the tech experience in the coming decade. These 10 “technology trajectories” will give people a powerful new “toolkit”—new devices, services, and capabilities—that will forever alter the way that we go about everyday activities, from dating and shopping to learning and working.

This glimpse of Innovaro’s 10 Technology Trajectories presents several forecasts for how these new capabilities could reshape family and home life in the next decade. And although these themes were identified with the United States and other advanced economies in mind, the Technology Trajectories have global potential to reshape life in emerging economies as they’re adopted and explored there as well.

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10 Technology Trajectories

1. Adaptive Environments. Advances in materials will make the home and work environment “smart.” Everyday objects, surfaces, and coatings will gain the ability to adapt to changing conditions or people’s needs—e.g., becoming self-cleaning, self-insulating, or protective. The built environment will no longer be simply structural and passive; it will become adaptive, functional, and smart.

2. Cloud Intelligence. The cloud will evolve from being a static repository of data into an active resource that people rely on throughout their daily lives. With new capabilities for accessing online expert systems and applications, we’ll tap into information, analysis, and contextual advice in more integrated ways. Virtual agents will migrate from being an automated form of phone-based customer service to a personalized form of support and assistance that provides information and—more importantly—performs useful tasks. For example, such agents might design a weekly menu based on a family’s health profile, fitness goals, and eating preferences, and automatically order ingredients.

3. Collaboration Economy. The power of collective intelligence will enable us to accomplish cognitive tasks not easily handled by virtual agents and machines in the cloud. We’ll get advice and recommendations and solve problems by tapping into the social graph, and this cognitive outsourcing will be applied to both business issues and personal and lifestyle questions (e.g., “Which diet will work best for me?”).

4. Contextual Reality. People will navigate through their daily activities thanks to multiple layers of real-time and location-specific information. This contextual overlay for everyday life will give us a new way to see our surroundings and provide new forms of decision support. We will move from a world where information and connections are hidden to one where real-time, contextual information generates ambient awareness.

5. Cutting the Cable. Personal devices will be largely untethered from wired power and data connections. Access to the Internet will be ubiquitous, and the tech infrastructure—from electronics to sensors to cars—will be powered by a more diverse set of technologies, including micro-generation, wireless power transmission, and advanced power storage. We will move beyond plugging in, and even beyond the “plug and play” model, to a world where data, power, and inter-networking are ubiquitous.

6. Information Fusion. It will become possible for people to generate useful insights about their own habits and behaviors by fusing personal data (e.g., social media profiles, tweets, location data, purchasing histories, health sensor data). But these insights will only be as good as a user’s ability to understand and act on them. Personal data will become comprehensible through visualization and other services.

7. Interface Anywhere, Any Way. Intuitive interfaces will become the dominant form of interaction with personal electronics and computing devices. We’ll be freed from the rigidity of conventional input devices (e.g., keyboard, mouse, screen, remotes) and able to interact with the digital world anywhere—and any way—using a combination of gesture, touch, verbal commands, and targeted use of traditional interfaces.

8. Manufacturing 3.0. Manufacturing will be reconceived—from a far-flung, global activity to more of a human-scale and re-localized endeavor. As consumers continue to call for both personalization and attention to environmental pressures, demand will grow for a more local manufacturing infrastructure where product schematics in certain categories are digitized and distributed to commercial fabbing services (or in-home 3-D printers) for final fabrication.

9. Personal Analytics. Data analytics will increasingly become a consumer tool as much as a business tool. This will open up analytics to a wide variety of personal and lifestyle applications. We’ll collect, store, interpret, and apply the vast amounts of data being created by and about ourselves during our everyday activities.

10. Socially Networked Stuff. Many of our possessions will interact with each other and with the broader digital infrastructure. This will create a world of socially networked stuff, where things can actively sense, communicate, and share data. Rather than owning a fragmented set of possessions and devices, passively sitting next to each other, we’ll manage a dynamic ecosystem of belongings that interact and work in concert for our benefit.

Societal Drivers Influence Technological Advancements

So, how will the new capabilities described in the 10 Technology Trajectories change home and family life? What will our homes look and feel like? How will they support our activities and lifestyles?

Technology is not the only driver at play here, and the Technology Trajectories are not emerging in a vacuum. There are numerous social, generational, and values drivers at play as well. Of the many drivers that our team at Innovaro considered while generating these forecasts, we especially noted the impact of digital natives on adoption of technology in the home, shifting demographics, and economic considerations.

  • The maturing of the digital natives. Digital natives—people who have grown up never knowing a world without the Internet, smartphones, Facebook, etc.—have far different attitudes toward technology than do older generations. There are now two distinct generations of digital natives in the United States: millennials (born 1979–1998) and Gen Z (born 1999 and after). The technology behaviors of these groups will affect adoption of technologies that impact family and home life in coming years, as more millennials become parents and as members of Gen Z hit their tween (10–12) and teen years.
  • Shifting demography. Delayed marriage and parenthood is shrinking family size. At the same time, the strong connection between millennials and their baby-boomer parents has led to a rise in multigenerational households in the United States, a trend that has been further intensified by the Great Recession. The changes in the form and function of the home will happen within the larger context of these continued demographic shifts.
  • Digital DIY. Digital natives grew up in a world where building, modifying, and hacking consumer technology is taken for granted (think MAKE magazine and sites like Instructables and even YouTube). The participatory and DIY proclivities of younger generations could drive a move to more customizable home technology and help weave advanced technologies deeply into home life.
  • New family dynamics. Social media and mobile devices are altering family relationships. Studies have found high ratios of Americans saying Internet use has reduced time spent with family members. Conversely, technologies can increase family connectedness over distance—e.g., by enabling nearly continuous parental oversight via Facebook or weekly Skype conversations with far-flung relatives.
  • Constrained family finances. It’s likely that families’ heightened focus on value will persist for years to come. Some people will invest only in home technologies that either directly save money or offer exceptionally compelling new functionality or experience, such as immersive entertainment systems. A two-tier market could emerge in which well-off families adopt smart-home technology while less-well-off households stick to twentieth-century-style home systems.

In the decade ahead, a confluence of these sorts of social factors with the Technology Trajectories will begin to change the very nature and function of homes, give family members new roles, and further alter family dynamics.

Homes Will Become Aware and Adaptive

Homes and home systems could become far more aware, adaptive, and responsive to their residents. New interfaces, for instance, will make home technology more ubiquitous, as flexible displays finally reach commercialization. Nearly any home surface could become a touchscreen, providing fingertip control of home electronics, as well as access to “cloud intelligence.” Interfaces will also be more intuitive, with voice control, eye-tracking, and even emotion analysis that monitors facial expressions to help determine what the user wants.

For example, a house or apartment might monitor you walking through the door at the end of the day and look for clues on how to best serve your needs. It might remotely sense body temperature or interpret body language; compare these with past arrivals, known schedule for the day, etc.; and “know” if you were likely returning from a workout at the gym or a 15-hour workday.

With this information, the system might adjust lights, music, and temperature in the house or display different information based on cues that it picked up from you. It might automatically pull up exercise tracking stats and healthy recipes after a workout, or carry-out food options when it senses that you might have just worked overtime. While this future may sound far-off, vending kiosks in Japan are already using sensors to detect age, gender, and emotional state in order to offer shoppers a more targeted selection of products.

New materials and power technologies may also change the way homes look and feel. LED wall coatings will change colors or designs to match the season or holiday—or show a movie or ballgame during dinner. A wave of the hand might turn any part of a kitchen counter into an induction cook top. Counters could also be self-sterilizing, using ultraviolet light, and have built-in touch-screen controls. And advances in short-range wireless electricity transmission may eliminate plugs and cords entirely for our electronic devices.

Digital Natives Will Drive Home-Tech Adoption

More millennials are buying homes and starting families, and Gen Z is moving into its tween and teen years. These groups will spur adoption of next-generation home technology. It’s well known that teens rely on their constant connectedness to friends via texting and social media to process their feelings: As MIT researcher Sherry Turkle noted in her book Alone Together, “They need to be connected in order to feel like themselves.”

This intense need for a connected lifestyle will shape the kinds of home products that kids—and their parents—buy, and younger family members will become the de facto DIY mavens for their households: staying current on new technologies, knowing how to customize them, and guiding family purchases. Digital natives of 2020 could be the family experts at customizing household technology—just as in the 2000s they were the social networking experts, with parents often asking their kids to help them set up Facebook pages.

Digital natives may also drive greater personalization of the home. They have grown up with the ability to personalize the look of their Wii character, cobble together personal media feeds, and express themselves visually on sites like Pinterest. Based on the control they’ve grown accustomed to in the digital world, they may expect to customize and modify their families’ home systems to a greater degree than previous generations. This could be especially true of entertainment systems, but could also apply to adaptive walls or other smart infrastructures in the home.

Much of the demand for virtual products—i.e., digital possessions that exist locally on their devices or in the cloud—will be from digital natives as well. It will be increasingly possible to render the artifacts of our digital lives in the real world, and millennials could be big adopters of 3-D printing. People may print household and hobby items they design or modify themselves. Imagine, for example, a crafter taking a 3-D scan of a sea shell, modifying the shape and texture using design software, and then 3-D printing her digital creation as a piece of art or jewelry. Already, a prototype 3-D printer called Origo is being developed for the tween market. Children who grow up with toys like Origo will be proficient in the technology—and as young adults in 2020, they may expect to be able to fabricate things at home to personalize and customize their home environment.

Technological Advances Will Change Society and the Home

The Technology Trajectories outlined above will alter the home and its physical artifacts, as well as the families that adopt them. These family and home environment alterations may have repercussions well beyond the household into daily life and society at large.

  • Living in “glass houses.” Levels of transparency in the home will rise. Home systems and processes that have been opaque to homeowners, such as energy consumption or the off-gassing of paint, will become transparent. For people who are interested in the “quantified self” movement, smart homes will make it easier to measure and track one’s own behavior. For example, your home could help record and analyze your activities to uncover insights about your behavior over time—e.g., that you tend to argue with your spouse more on days that you don’t exercise, or that you sleep poorly when you eat dinner after 8 p.m.
  • House layouts will change. Houses will change to accommodate the new technologies and the behaviors they enable. As the need for wired power and data access falls away—and new interfaces emerge—more-flexible home designs may come into vogue. Rather than dedicated media rooms or home offices, spaces may be more flexible and adaptive; residents may be able to work or play in any room that suits their preferences.
  • Homes could become even more central to daily life. Homes will be more personalized, responsive, and attuned to residents’ preferences. As this becomes the case, people may find that the experiences that they have in their homes will be superior to what they can have in public spaces for certain activities. For example, productivity levels working at home in a space personalized for one’s physical, mood/emotional, and practical needs will likely exceed what can be achieved with a rented desk at the local telecommuting space. Homes could become the preferred location for core activities such as work, education, and entertainment. People could become more dependent on their homes and home systems.
  • Creating new divisions. With so much more control available over home devices and systems, issues of who controls what will go far beyond tugs-of-war over the remote. Being granted access to or control over certain home systems—such as refrigerator-mediated food ordering or immersive multimedia systems—could become a new rite of passage for younger family members, just as getting your own set of house keys has been in the past.
  • Family impacts could have pros and cons. With all of these new capabilities at hand, home life could be more engaging, convenient, and fun. On the flip side, learning curves could be steep, especially for generations who are not digital natives. To sidestep this problem, some families may simply outsource management of these next-generation home systems—creating a new business opportunity. Others, feeling stressed out by tech complexity and the prospect of another monthly bill, may choose to opt out.
  • A new digital divide? Cost will be an issue, and not all families will be able to afford emerging home technologies. Whereas the digital divide used to be about access to PCs and broadband Internet, in the future it could be about access to adaptive and aware living spaces.

A final outcome of these changes is that the market for advanced home technology will grow much larger, more complex, and more competitive than today. Rather than having a few key technology nodes in the home (e.g., PC, tablet, Internet-enabled TV, and smartphones), all key home systems might well become networked devices—from water and electric meters to electrochromic windows.

This will open up myriad opportunities for new home products and the potential for exciting collaborations across previously unrelated industries—from consumer electronics and computing to home furnishing, décor, and home improvement. As the Technology Trajectories are realized, tomorrow’s families could be far more connected with each other and with their communities than ever before. And when you call home, your home will answer.

About the Authors

Chris Carbone is a director with Innovaro’s foresight group, where he oversees the Global Lifestyles and Technology Foresight projects and contributes to the firm’s custom futures research projects. Email chris.carbone@innovaro.com.

Kristin Nauth is a founding partner of Foresight Alliance and has 15 years of experience as a foresight professional, including six with Innovaro. Follow her on Twitter, @knauth2015.

This article draws from Innovaro’s Global Lifestyles Research Series; visit www.innovaro.com for details. Innovaro, The Innovation Solutions Company, provides the intelligence, software, and consulting services that companies need to innovate and grow. Innovaro’s foresight group operates two subscription-based futures research services: Global Lifestyles and Technology Foresight. It also conducts custom trend and futures research projects for a wide range of corporate and government clients.

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