Japanese notes on the smart home

The remote control for controlling the light of a Ryokan in Hakone. Not an app.

My wife Tomomi is Japanese and we’ve recently been to Japan to visit her family and to have some holidays there. Obviously, I was particularly sensitive to all things automation, and without being particularly looking for it, there were plenty of things I started to realise how Japan is doing it differently.

First, Japan is not particularly active on the global smart home front. All the traditional players such as Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic haven’t released any particularly exciting stuff, and they are generally absent from any IoT buzz. Sure, for some years Japan no longer feels the technology giant that it used to be, but I think there is something else as well. Their attitude towards automation and technology gave me some new perspective on the smart home, and my impression is that in 2018 the Smart Home we were promised, just doesn’t exist.

1 — Automation is everywhere, but it doesn’t need a smartphone

During the trip, we spent some days in Hakone, a small resort town not far from Tokyo. While there, we stayed in a ryokan, a traditional guest house where rooms have tatami floors and futon beds. But even in this old-fashioned settings, the room had a “smart” lamp. You could control not just the intensity of the light in the room, but also fade between different shades of white: from warm to cold tones. That is exactly what some models of internet-connected bulbs offer to do, except that the ryokan lamp was doing it without an app, a smartphone, a hub or a server. Well, it didn’t use the internet at all. It was controlled by just a humble remote control.

But if the guest house’s lamps could have been installed a long time ago, I also had another more up to date example for my case. While I was there my mother in law had a new camera system installed for their door. And despite being a brand new device, the system was using pre-internet technology. The distance between the camera and the monitor was just covered by a cable.

Automation in Japan is everywhere since many years, most Ramen shops in subway stations, no matter their size, have self-ordering kiosks; cars have TV tuners and toilets seats lift up on their own when you get in. What did the past 3–4 years of peak IoT give the world that Japanese people didn’t have already? Not much. Not even useless gadgets. What is an Internet of Shit product if not a connected Chindogu with a Kickstarter campaign?

2 — No, we don’t want to talk to our devices

One of the first thing you notice when in Japan is how formalised social interactions are. Even without knowing the language, you start recognising the formulas and even the tone that shop assistants use when greeting people or at the checkout. In fact, many convenience stores actually have specific language manuals that their employees are required to use when interacting with customers. But this is not limited to public places, the use of Keigo, Japanese highly structured honorific language, is mandatory in working environments and many other social situations. My guess is that also the popularisation of Emojis in Japan is another signal of a general desire to make the language more predictable and formalized.

It does make some sense then, that a country notoriously eager to adopt new technologies, is the least interested in smart speakers among others such as France, Germany, India, US, Italy, and the UK. Japanese social messaging company Line has actually released a smart speaker set a couple years back, but its most popular feature was not its functionality, but its “kawaiiness”: two of its models come with the shape of a chick or a bear. Why reproducing in interfaces the ambiguities, nuances, misunderstandings of language when they’ve done as much as they could to reduce those issues in interactions between people?

But language as a form of communication is not less clear and unambiguous in other languages and culture. And, in turn, voice interfaces are not less problematic outside Japan. I do enjoy talking to my home through my Echo Dot: turning this or that lamp on, setting a timer or asking about the weather. But even with such a limited set of options, most times I found myself repeating commands, shouting a bit louder to be heard or correcting something that our Echo didn’t quite get correctly.

The end

The Internet of Things came with plenty of compelling visions about how our lives would change with connected things: BERG’s Fractional AI — mundane, cheap things equipped with minimal AI capabilities, David Rose’s Enchanted objects — everyday home products seamlessly augmented in their capability by connectivity, Adam Greenfield’s Everyware — a world of technologically connected and reactive environment, and Xerox PARC’s Ubicomp — with its idea of a calm, invisible technology that would move from the desktop to our surroundings.

I was and I still am fascinated by those ideas, but so far none of them seems to have made it into our homes. The Smart Home in 2018 seems to be made just of things that we can control through an app or devices that struggle to understand what we want from them: internet re-engineerings of what we could already have or a technology that doesn’t actually work well for its purpose.

Considering this, there seems to be wisdom in how Japan is doing it. Just sticking to their buttons and remote controls: something better has yet to come.