Illustration: James Steinberg
Over the holidays, droves of consumers bought video doorbells, connected lights, and smart outlets that work with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s HomeKit, or Google Home. Plenty of people unwrapped connected speakers and image-processing cameras on Christmas morning.
Many of these purchases will get returned. Or they’ll be thrown away after one too many updates or a security scare. Perhaps luckier devices will find homes with tech-savvy friends. But most will be abandoned, in one way or another, because most of the smart devices on the market are stupid.
Over the six years I’ve covered smart home devices, they’ve presented their owners with four real problems: First, the devices were expensive. They also didn’t offer much functionality beyond remote control from an app. Even more frustrating, getting devices from different vendors to play nice together was tough. But perhaps the biggest problem is that consumers had no idea what to do with these devices.
Thankfully, that’s changing: Now there are more meaningful uses for smart devices because smart devices are finally living up to their name. Companies are now designing products that use artificial intelligence. Alongside that intelligence, the growth of voice as a user interface can now provide effortless interactions.
To see how important intelligence is, consider a camera. There’s a big difference between a camera that can tell you it saw something and one that can tell you what it saw. Adding face recognition and computer vision to that camera turns a product that pesters you with useless notifications into something actually helpful.
The kitchen is a great place to see the growing usefulness of smart devices. My connected June oven has a camera and a graphics chip inside, so it can track what food is in the oven and recognize how it needs to be cooked. But true intelligence goes beyond just computer vision. With a connected device, manufacturers can embed intelligence into its accompanying app so that the user doesn’t have to think about it.
For example, the Joule Sous Vide cooker doesn’t have an interface: Everything is embedded in the app to help cooks take the guesswork out of cooking. The cook tells the app what meat or vegetable is in the bag and its approximate thickness, and from there the Joule sets the temp and timer on the user’s behalf.
This abdication of thought to the device is why voice has been so essential in making products smarter—and more useful—even if at first glance it seems superfluous. Take the new Alexa-enabled US $60 microwave launched last year by Amazon as an example. When the company launched the oven, people reacted with confusion: Why give a microwave voice control if you have to put the food inside it anyway?
In this case, the voice control offers an intuitive way to interact with the artificial intelligence that provides the cook times and settings for various foodstuffs. At the end of the day, the microwave can offer a better result than if you just punched in 60 seconds—even if you still have to put the food inside the oven yourself.
That’s when the high price of a connected gadget becomes justifiable. Now the challenge is to explain why these devices are worthwhile. Given how many people mocked the Alexa microwave as silly, it seems manufacturers haven’t succeeded in that last bit yet.
This article appears in the February 2019 print issue as “Do You Need a Smart Microwave?”
Stacey Higginbotham writes “Internet of Everything,” Spectrum’s column about how connected devices shape our lives. Tech writer Higginbotham enjoys covering the Internet of Things because the topic encompasses semiconductors, wireless networks, and computing hardware. She alsopublishes a weekly newsletter called Stacey Knows Things and hosts The Internet of Things Podcast. Higginbotham figures she has at least 60 IoT gadgets in her Austin, Texas, home, and she admits, “Frankly, I hate keeping it all up and running.”