Emotional disconnect in the connected home

There may not be a word in the English language that carries more subtext, more connotative and emotional weight, than “home.”

We fill the word with significance over the course of our lives. We have a “hometown” that defines us. We “head home for the holidays.” We practice “home improvement,” we work to have a “happy home” life. When we are lost or tired or afraid, every instinct in us yearns to “go home,” or to “phone home” or just to “stay home.”

Another word that is filled with meaning is “connect.” It wasn’t always so. “Connect” has taken on new significance in the modern world. No one seems to fall in love at first sight anymore. But we are filled with joy when we feel “an instant connection.” We describe our friendships as “sharing a connection.” We don’t introduce ourselves anymore. We reach out on social media and ask to “connect” with people.

So what happens when we combine those two words into a phrase -- “connected home” -- that describes an emerging industry of intelligent devices that live with us?

What do we seek in a “connected home”? What are our expectations? What are the emotional states, the human needs that such a phrase speaks to?

Filing for divorce

It seems that what people want in a “connected home” -- and what the industry is selling -- is an intuitive bond between people and the devices in their homes.
And it also seems that the “connected home” is falling short of creating that bond.
Kara Pernice is the managing director of the Nielsen Norman Group, arguably the most influential organization in the world of design and user experience.
In February Pernice published an article about how she had bought a Nest thermostat and experienced exactly such a bond. But over time her “pure love (for the device) morphed into abhorrence.”
Pernice wrote that “things went bad” when the semi-intelligent device let her down “emotionally.”
It’s a fascinating article. And one worth reading in its entirety.
The core of her argument is that rather than answering an emotional need, the device eventually created emotional distress. At issue was that it simply didn’t respond the way a member of a home would.
For example: Pernice lives in Boston. And that city has suffered from an extraordinarily harsh winter this year. The result of being subjected to such conditions is something that all humans understand, but that machines cannot: “... even on days when the thermometer says it’s not that cold, it looks and feels cold,” Pernice wrote. But the programmable thermostat doesn’t respond to subjective states. And turning up the heat with the programmable device is more complex than simple cranking up the heat on a traditional thermostat.
Eventually Pernice decided to get rid of her device. And it’s instructive that the word she used to describe this parting was “divorcing” -- a word generally used to describe the end of a marriage bond.
It’s easy to mock Pernice. A programmable thermostat is, after all, just a machine. It’s unreasonable to expect it be more.
But that’s the point. The promise of the “connected home” is that our lives will be filled with things that are more than machines.

Machine Learning

There may not be anyone on earth who thinks more about the future of the “connected home” than Eddie Hold, vice president of The NPD Group’s Connected Intelligence practice. As such, Hold is central to NPD’s new home automation point- of-sale (POS) data and advisory service. That service comprises consumer panel-based reporting, qualitative reports, U.S. point-of-sale data, and unique analysis of the automated home market. Hold read Pernice’s article, and he thinks her reactions are worth noting.
“It’s an interesting concern as we move more into the automated home: these things are supposed to make life easier for us, but it’s very difficult to predict just what an individual may believe is ‘easier’” he said.
More importantly, when consumers feel unable to control a machine, it triggers a visceral contempt and a deep-seated fear. Anyone who has ever seen a Terminator movie knows that.
“It’s the start of machines taking over the world,” Hold joked. “We think they are working for us, but somewhere along the way, they decide they know what is better.”
This sense that either we control our machines completely or risk annihilation is perhaps the great fear of our era. Is there anyone who doesn’t get just a wee bit nervous when the elevator jolts to a stop and folks start making those “open the Pod bay door, Hal” jokes? Is anyone perfectly comfortable with drone war? with driverless trains?
When consumers grew outraged that their voice-activated televisions were actually listening to what people said in their homes, it felt both funny and true. Of course the machines listen! They’re voice-activated!
Interestingly, we have this level of concern even though we are still very, very far away from having machines that are smart enough to hurt us.
There are now more than a half-billion Internet-connected devices in U.S. homes, according to data from The NPD Group. But the overwhelming majority of those devices are PCs, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles and the like. The technologies in our homes today, although they may evoke fears and inspire sci-fi movies, are not true Artificial Intelligence. They are just machines … albeit with some impressive capabilities. They are based on brute force computing power and sensors. They’re not intelligent. They’re neither sentient nor sapient.
They are machines. And they do not feel the cold. Nor are they capable, yet, of knowing that we feel the cold but wish not to.
And therein is the challenge of building the “connected home.”
Consumers want devices that bond with them on an emotional level. We want the machine to know how we feel and how we wish to feel.
We want, for example, that should we wake one day when we are old and not feel particularly well, that our fitness trackers and body sensors will scan our medical records, review what we ate the night before, and then speak to us through an interface. “Are you OK? Should we call your children? Do you want to go to the doctor? Or do you want to stay here, at home?”
Until then, until we have a connected home that understands the significance of words like “connected” and “home,” we will always be disappointed by the machines in our life.
And perhaps it’s just as well. Because someday soon it’s likely we will have machines with just such capability.
And then we will have to face the fear that a recalcitrant semi-intelligent thermostat only hints at: What will we do if the machines in our homes come to know how we feel, but don’t care?

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