Growing up, one thing was almost guaranteed. After leaving the house on an errand, my mom would wonder if she'd turned the oven off. Had we even been using the oven? It was probably off, but now that the question was out there, there was that niggling worry that our home was burning down. I've inherited this tic. Halfway down the street, I'll ask myself if I shut the garage door and assure myself that yes, the front door is locked. It is, isn't it?
In the home of the future, those fears will be relieved by the touch of a button on my cellphone. And that future is only a few years away.
Smart-home technology that can do such things as allow you to control the lights and locks from your phone and receive alerts when the kids get home from school has been on the market for at least a decade. But such devices have been reserved for tech enthusiasts who didn't mind tinkering with hardware, or those wealthy enough to spend $10,000 on an automated system. Now, however, major appliance-makers, such as Samsung and GE, are getting in on the market, as is Google. Industry insiders say the smart home is likely only five or so years from going mainstream. While there are concerns that smart technology may become a source of anxiety rather than relief, it promises control over the home that earlier generations could only dream of – and that will be a boon to an aging demographic.
In a major signal of the smart home's march to the mainstream, Google announced in January it is spending $3.2-billion (U.S.) to acquire Nest Labs, a California-based company that makes smart thermostats and smoke detectors. (Instead of making an annoying beep when you're burning dinner, the Wi-Fi-connected Nest Protect notifies you in a matter-of-fact female voice that smoke has been detected and, in case you're not in the house, sends a notification to your smartphone, with the option to call emergency services. Available in black or white, with a circle of blue light in the centre, it looks like an Apple product, and no wonder: Nest CEO Tony Fadell was the lead designer of the iPod.)
And smart-home technology was a major theme at last month's Consumer Electronics Show, an annual trade show in Las Vegas that is a launching ground for new trends. The new "smart" versions of household appliances that can be operated by your cellphone – including lights, locks, air monitors, fridges, washing machines and ovens – all have been created to cater to a growing expectation that every element of our lives should be connected and controlled by our phones.
"This always on, always connected ability to connect to everything is just becoming part of our culture," says Christine Julien, director of the Mobile and Pervasive Computing Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin.
A report this month from Juniper Research, a mobile-industry analyst, found that revenues from smart-home services will reach $71-billion by 2018, up from $33-billion last year. The majority of that money – 80 per cent – will come from entertainment services. But that still leaves potentially billions of dollars for appliance-makers to fight over. To win that fight, however, companies will have to convince consumers that they need to replace appliances and devices they already own – especially higher-price items such as fridges, with smart versions.
"Manufacturers haven't found a way to present a real value proposition yet. The situation will change, but it will take time," says Windsor Holden, Juniper's research director.
Making smart-home technology easy to use will also be key to its appeal.
"People don't want to read booklets on how to set this stuff up," says Mike Soucie, co-founder of Revolv Inc., a Colorado-based startup.
The Revolv system aims to simplify the smart-home experience by unifying many different devices. That spares users having to open multiple apps to operate multiple devices, an experience Soucie calls "app fatigue."
But in addition to providing people greater control over their homes and making busy lives easier – imagine being able to turn your stove on during your commute home from work so that the casserole you left in it is ready to serve to the kids the minute you get through the door – smart-home technology also has another key factor in its favour: demographics. A large portion of it is tailored to an aging population.
For instance, the "smart-home technology in a box" developed by Diane Cook and her colleagues at Washington State University can learn your habits and alert you to the fact that you left the stove on or left the water running in the bath, features surely welcomed by anyone dealing with the early stages of dementia.
"There just aren't enough health-care facilities to take care of all of the associated needs [of an aging population]. And people want to stay at home," says Cook, a professor in the WSU school of electrical engineering and head of the Center for Advanced Studies in Adaptive Systems's smart-home project.
Whatever a user's age, smart-home technologies clearly have incredible advantages over their low-tech counterparts – much more than just turning something on or off from your cellphone.
Take, for example, the air monitor Birdi, set to go on the market this fall. "It can tell you whether you should take your medication because your allergies are going to flare up outside because there's a high pollen count," says co-founder and developer Mark Belinsky. And if the air quality outside is worse than it is indoors, it can tell you where to find an air purifier on sale at a store nearby.
Some people may want their air purifiers to only be air purifiers, just as there are people who want their telephones to only be telephones. But just as cellphone technology quickly evolved to smartphone technology, it's likely many people will desire smart-home technology for many of the same reasons of making their lives easier and more connected.
Some industry analysts are already anticipating the next evolution, the so-called conscious home. In such a house, devices would be able to learn your habits and adjust to them appropriately. "Every night I go to bed between 9 and 11…. I shut down the house, lock the doors, turn off the porch light. Wouldn't it be nice if it sees that pattern night after night and then just will ask if I want that to be automated?" says Soucie, from Revolv.
Perhaps it would, but there are concerns that smart-home appliances and devices will create some of the problems they are intended to solve. Security is an obvious one. What happens if someone hacks my front-door lock, for instance? Or would greater control over household appliances become another source of stress?
"There's sort of a vicious cycle," says Anabel Quan-Haase, a professor at the University of Western Ontario who examines how technology affects society. "The more you gain control and the more you can monitor, the more paranoid you become of anything going wrong."
And with several connected devices already commanding our attention at home, from phones to tablets, adding even more may completely destroy the idea of the home as a place of refuge from all the beeps, alerts and updates of modern life.
"There's no notion of a remote place," Quan-Haase says.
But then, if something was going wrong at home, wouldn't you want to know, even if the message was coming from your refrigerator? If the fridge could have told me back when I was a kid that yes, the stove is off, I think I would have been glad to hear from it, and maybe also be reminded that we were running low on milk. Wouldn't you? In the next few years, we'll probably find out.