From smart products to sentient experiences: The quiet revolution
Whilst much of the technology and business world is caught up in the hype and future potential of extended realities in the metaverse and web3, a quiet revolution is already taking place in our increasingly connected smart homes, writes consultant Matthew Cockerill.
Companies are reimagining their services and enabling new activities facilitated by ambient interactions with technology beyond screens and enabled by computer vision.
The smart home technology revolution
Smart products are traditionally embedded with processors, sensors, and software to allow us to remotely control them and access cloud services. They cover everything from thermostats, smart lights and speakers to smart refrigerators and ovens. And now, new interoperability standards from Matter, the Home Connectivity Alliance, Samsung’s SmartThings and BSH Home Connect are looking to allow ‘Cloud to Cloud’ interoperability across IoT products from other brands. Opening up opportunities to utilise our existing IoT products in the home as actors in future smart home experiences. At the moment, at the simplest level it would simply allow a Brand A app to receive a notification from a Brand B product. Something not possible at present.
However, much of the development of smart technology in the home is still framed in the context of home automation, where the goal is to relieve us from the monotony of everyday life admin. But the ability to connect to cloud services has made our domestic spaces more porous to people and events from the outside world through increasingly sophisticated digital services enabled by products like smart screens, home hubs, smart TVs, and web cameras.
Voice assistants have signalled the beginning of a new age of spatially based ambient computing where our products are transitioning from simply smart to sentient. Computer vision from sensors like RGB and IR cameras, radar and machine learning databases that enable object recognition, pose/activity detection and image segmentation allow interactions to be initiated by our presence, identity, behaviours, not just the tap of a screen or our voice.
For example, Facebook’s Portal and Apples Centre Stage use machine learning to follow us around the room when on video calls, and automatically pans and zooms to keep us in frame and in every moment. Similarly, Peloton’s Guide delivers strength training exercises with a movement tracker to measure our efforts and see full body view of the muscle groups you worked in the last 30 days.
And this year Sky will be launching a smart camera as a companion to its new Sky Glass streaming TV that will provide new experiences in the home beyond just viewing content.
These are just the beginning of a revolution in how we interact with our technology and the activities possible in the home enabled by observant technology.
The development of ambient intelligence
Back in 2019, Google incorporated its Soli radar chip into the Pixel 4 smartphone, allowing gesture controls such as users waving their hands in order to skip songs, snooze alarms and silence phone calls. Now its latest Project Soli is exploring the potential of this radar technology and advanced machine learning to rethink how we might interact with technology in the future. To create ambient, socially intelligent devices that can be controlled by a wave of the hand or a turn of the head. Our future smart homes might be able to pick up social cues and subtle gestures that as humans we already innately understand; to recognise if we are approaching or leaving, where we are looking or what activities we are doing.
These developments mean our domestic spaces are set to become increasingly enabled by ambient intelligence. I see the creation of our intelligent domestic spaces framed in a similar way to levels of autonomous driving in cars. But we’re going be managing those levels of intelligence and autonomy based on the technology installed, the individuals, family groups and guests present, the services desired and our attitudes to technology observance.
We are currently at level 1 in terms of ambient room intelligence, meaning a single automated system of user assistance is available through voice assistance. It allows individual control of music, lighting, temperature, and utilising automatic speech recognition. As we move to Level 2, Partial Intelligence will mean our technology systems having a greater awareness of the surroundings and people and performing more complex functions through computer vision. For instance, you might point at a particular light and ask Alexa to “dim that light” or start a fitness session automatically by just warming up.
At Level 3, Conditional Intelligence appears, our systems might have an even greater understanding of the surroundings, the objects in them and your even biological condition. As a result, the room’s environment might be automatically adjusting to provide you with the perfect conditions for what you are doing. It might allow you to take part in metaverse experiences through the autonomous orchestration of multiple products in our physical space and digital world to deliver more convincing immersive participatory experiences.
With this development in mind, we need to reframe our thinking about what smart emerging technologies could enable. We shouldn’t think just in terms of incremental improvements to our existing products and services, but in terms of whole room experiences to uncover new human and business value. That will allow us to take advantage of the disruptive challenges of the shift from smart to sentient products that has already begun.
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