UX – It’s going to be emotional
A smart home isn’t truly smart until it can understand what a user needs and when. For that, you need emotional AI but that’s not quite up to standard yet. Geoff Meads explores the human side of the smart home.
Smart homes are actually pretty dumb. That is the assertion of a highly respected industry colleague of mine and, for the most part, I agree.
The term ‘Smart Home’ started off with great intentions. When the term first came into being I think most of us considered it to refer to homes that would eventually look after themselves and deliver well-being to occupiers without any (or at least very much) human intervention.
One area of success for supporters of the term ‘Smart Home’ is in marketing. While the up-scale end of the industry has still failed to agree on a term that effectively describes itself, the consumer end of the market has decided it’s called ‘Smart Home’ and literally marketed the term into the consciousness of consumers, retailers and even the mid to high-end market.
The term ‘Smart Home’ is here to stay, even if homes remain pretty dumb.
Is AI really ‘intelligent’?
Years into the ‘smart home’ industry’s existence, even the most electronically integrated homes are really nothing more than a lot of technology controlled by some ‘if this, then that’ logic.
Even adding in some the recent AI developments that are wowing the ‘millennial press’ hold little immediate promise in my view. For example, I’ve yet to see ChatGPT deliver anything I would call a useful opinion on anything. Factual recall, it has covered, but opinion? Not so much.
For residential systems, ‘AI’ tech may be able to learn what temperature and lighting we like at certain times of the day, day of the week or month of the year. However, that’s just some mathematical averaging of past behaviour being recorded, processed then played back.
Real AI must think, form an opinion (based on more than just past facts) and deliver logical and helpful actions. If it’s to be classed as a real advancement, then it also has to do these things more accurately and more quickly than an average human too.
What’s needed here?
What would it take for us to deliver a properly ‘smart home’? In my view, to really be deemed as ‘Smart’, a home must understand, predict, and react to changes in human emotion. There is research on this subject and (predictably) a term for it – ‘Emotion AI’.
Sadly though, at least to my knowledge, we are a long way from seeing ‘EAI’ technology in the residential home space. Most of the work so far in EAI seems to be related to the rather unemotional worlds of marketing and finance. Who would have thought it?
One of the major barriers here isn’t the processing but the sensors required to detect emotion. As humans we display emotion in many ways. Starting with our voice, we have changes in pitch, volume and speed and they are not static. We might change any one or all of these factors mid-sentence.
Our eyes display emotion too. When surprised they tend to be wide open, when sad we have tears. Even our eyebrows can show emotion, just ask anyone that’s seen Sean Connery play James Bond…
While voice recognition is pretty far advanced in terms of its ability to recognise not only words but context, emotional state recognition through voice has to be close. If only to detect sadness and sell you more tissues…
There are other ways too, of course. Our posture, regularity and speed of movement, frequency of visits to certain rooms etc. To get a clear picture of emotional state it might take a whole raft of these measurements processed in combination and that’s a lot of technology still to be developed.
So, the sensors we need to detect emotional state are some ways off and even further away when it comes to being reliable and useful products for home integration. The processing side of things may well be closer though, given that it will likely be based on current developments in emotional marketing and emotion driven financial transactions.
Why EAI is so important
Let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the original intentions of a ‘Smart Home’. To my mind it should be about providing a better life for the human beings that live within it.
For example, a security system should do more than just record movements in, out and around the house. It should deliver a feeling of protection for oneself and one’s family. It should provide reassurance that potential attackers may well be dissuaded by its very presence and the surety that, should an attack take place, then the evidence it provides will help you get justice.
An HVAC system is all about comfort, the feeling of homeliness, protection from the elements and the feeling of being in a ‘safe haven’ against anything the outside world might through at you. It also should provide a feeling of well-being through clean air at a suitable moisture level. It should invigorate you and motivate you to exercise in your gym or swimming pool when you need to and keep you healthy while you do so.
Great lighting can deliver huge enhancements to your mood. Soft, warm light brings a feeling of relaxation and of contentment. The right light can aid productivity, concentration, and togetherness. It can also help you feel more upbeat, enthusiastic, or ready to party!
And then there is, of course, entertainment. While the news might not be full of joy these days, nevertheless it does leave you feeling informed and somewhat prepared for the day. If it’s delivered with great audio and video clarity, then that information is easier to understand and digest ensuring any resulting stress is minimised.
Music delivered by a great audio system can work wonders in delivering relaxation, mediational calm or evoke happy memories and, in turn, thoughtful reflection.
Finally, we all know just how well a good home cinema or media room can remove you from your day-to-day woes and take you elsewhere, wherever your mood desires in fact.
What we’re describing here is the very cornerstone of User Experience. It’s not about how many buttons, Watts or ports we deliver, it’s about emotionally supporting humans in their home environment in the very best way possible. And that is what I call ‘Smart’!