Rhodri Marsden: Home is where the heart of absurd technology is but is the automation revolution just pointless frippery?

  • @rhodri

It probably contravenes some unwritten rule to begin a light-hearted examination of the week in technology with a reference to Jimmy Savile, but a few days ago I remembered an episode of Jim'll Fix It in the 1980s where some lucky youngster had his room kitted out with all the latest gadgets from the Ideal Home Show, including some automated curtains. These curtains elicited gasps of wonder from my teenage self as I entertained the notion that, in the future, we'd be relieved of the endless, life-sapping drudgery of having to drag light pieces of material along a rail, sometimes as frequently as twice a day.

Of course, drawing the curtains ranks pretty low on anyone's list of chores they'd like to be relieved of – ditto turning off light switches, unlocking doors or changing the television channel. But following a glut of product launches at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the announcement that Google has just bought the home-automation-product manufacturers Nest for a cool £2bn, everyone seems to be talking about the "conscious home", that "takes care of you" while the act of dwelling becomes a "seamless experience".

You can see a surge of industry hype; one absurdly plush advert features a smartphone that murmurs, "Preparing the house for your return," as you glide up the motorway, while remotely cranking your home's central heating into action. Superficially impressive, yes, but does it really lessen our terrible human burden?

"Imagine," boasts another piece of smart-home blurb, "you enter the living room and your favourite music starts playing." When I imagine that, I wonder how many times I'd enter the living room before my favourite music started to become bloody annoying. It's a tidal wave of solutions in search of problems, from coffee makers that sense you moving about upstairs and switch themselves on (but which obviously rely on you remembering to fill them up with coffee the night before) to voice-activated lamps that require you to say "LAMP ON", where you'd previously have just turned the lamp on, quietly.

I understand that these are nascent technologies, whose eventual applications will be neatly determined by the free market, but so many of these soft-focus promises of enhancements to our "busy lifestyles" seem monumentally absurd. You half-expect to see an ad where someone clicks their fingers and a sandwich appears from a hole in the wall.

Fortunately, the home-automation revolution isn't all pointless frippery. Nest produces two genuinely useful products: a smoke alarm that warns you of low batteries via a phone alert and turns itself off with a single wave of the arm (rather than the endless flapping of a tea towel); and a smart thermostat that learns your ideal room temperatures at various times of the day, quietly going about its business and saving you cash in the long term.

Even the most Google-suspicious geek, paranoid about the stealthy invasion of the data-hungry corporation into our living quarters, would recognise that these are great, well-executed ideas. And slowly, we'll see these innovations achieve greater invisibility – lights will turn on and off as we move in and out of rooms, doors will unlock as we approach, we will complete our total outsourcing of domestic cognitive function to wireless technology, and then we'll sit down, forlornly, wondering what the hell to do with ourselves.