Understanding the Connected Home

Peter Bihr
Jun 29, 2016 · 5 min read

TL;DR: We wrote a book. It’s about connected homes (aka smart homes) and how we can design them in a way that makes them great to live in. It’s for practitioners. It’s available online via Gitbook (for free), and extra nicely Kindle-formatted on the Amazon Kindle store (this is also a way to support the publication). This here is the first of several excerpts, with slightly adapted formatting for Medium.

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Why this book?

In May 2015, science fiction author Bruce Sterling gave a keynote at ThingsCon. In his talk he introduced a new research project he and his partner Jasmina Tesanovic have been working on: Casa Jasmina, the open source connected home of the future.

It’s time to live the life. Just go ahead and build the products and see if you can survive being in a room with them. Casa Jasmina is our test bed.

—Bruce Sterling at ThingsCon

A few weeks later in June 2015, we flew to Turin, Italy along with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino to visit Casa Jasmina and spend some time with the team. We were curious to see how it would be to live in and contribute to this home of the future, and we’re very grateful we got to experience it so early on.

Ever since visiting Casa Jasmina, some questions wouldn’t leave us alone. There hasn’t been a day where the topic of connected homes hadn’t come up, where we haven’t been trying to get closer to figuring out answers, or at least asking better questions.

How do we interact with a connected home? How does a space communicate what’s expected of the people who live in it? What are the ground rules and who has permission to change them? What objects require interaction and what don’t? How do we know how to build and live in a connected home?

We asked a great number of smart and experienced people for their thoughts. It slowly emerged that “the connected home” is an area that’s not understood yet — it is so new, with so many unanswered questions and with so few connected homes actually in use.

We know that connectivity increasingly makes its way into our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. The internet is coming into our smoke detectors, lights, door locks, kitchen scales and ovens. We bring in more connectivity through fitness tracking wristbands and our phones and tablets, and take it along when we get into the driving computers that are our cars.

Understanding the connected home — how it can be designed, how we can engage with it and control it, how we can live with it and still have agency over our data — will be essential to address.

Connected homes will impact the lives of hundreds of millions people around the globe.

There are many challenges ahead, including designing interactions, privacy, user empowerment in this new field. We hope this modest exploration will be of use to designers, developers, entrepreneurs and policy makers as we figure this out together over the decades to come.

We published version 1 of Understanding the Connected Home a few months after our visit to Turin, in the fall of 2015. It turns out this collection of essays could not have been more timely. Just about every major tech company has now entered the field of connected homes with a smart home hub, a wifi-enabled light bulb or thermostat or some other gadget.

We believe that understanding connected homes is even more urgent and relevant now.

While there has been great progress in terms of user experience, manufacturing and technology, there has not been much reflection about the implication of the connected homes for our lives. How will ubiquitous connectedness and data change our domestic lives? What are the powers currently shaping this landscape and what do they have to gain? And more importantly, how can we as practitioners shape IoT to be a net positive for society?

We wrote this book with practitioners in mind. We hope the people who read this will be the people who make connected homes happen. That could include designers, developers, strategists, entrepreneurs, researchers, activists, educators and many more.

The lens we bring is that of experience working with fellow IoT practitioners. We are involved in many IoT conversations, and we’re learning as we go, just like everyone in this field.

In this way, we see ourselves as part of a professional peer-learning community. It’s an informal, global network of designers, technologists, activists and more who collaborate with one another and exchange insights and best practices so that collectively we can evolve the IoT conversation and influence the state of the art.

The initial publication of this book coincided with the start of a number of projects & conversations. Since then, we have developed our thinking and followed up on some of the questions we addressed in version 1:

  • September 2015: In collaboration with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Peter launched The Good Home Project to explore the same set of questions this book addresses through design proposals and exhibits.
  • January 2016: Michelle took on a new role at Mozilla Foundation, leading the Open IoT Studio with Jon Rogers, Professor of Creative Technology at the University of Dundee.
  • March 2016: Peter co-chaired Interaction16, a conference that gathered the global interaction design community in Helsinki where many questions of designing connected experiences, services and products were discussed in-depth.
  • April 2016: The Good Home Project exhibited at Fuori Salone in Milan with Iohanna Nicenboim and Michelle.
  • April 2016: Michelle curated a series of design sprints around privacy and the connected home, notably the Mozilla Open IoT Design Sprint in Berlin.
  • April 2016: The German government published a research report and set of policy recommendations that Peter co-authored with Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber on smart cities and their implications for citizens.
  • And throughout, ThingsCon hosted numerous local community events that explore the techniques, design and ethics of connected products and services.

It has been a busy and productive year, with many touch points that are directly relevant to Understanding the Connected Home. All of those activities evolved our thinking. That meant, it was time to revisit the book.

For this new and updated version, we edited and revised the original essays, restructured the whole bit, and added new content. We hope this makes for more accessible reading. New chapters were added to bring the book up to date, offering fresh content for readers of the first version.

The authors

Peter Bihr (@peterbihr) explores the impact of emerging technologies. He founded The Waving Cat to apply these insights through consulting, R&D, conferences and publications. As a strategy advisor, he helps organizations large and small to excel in an environment shaped by digitization, connectedness and rapid change.He co-founded many emerging technology conferences including ThingsCon, UIKonf and Cognitive Cities Conference and co-chaired Interaction16. He also co-founded the Good Home Project.

Michelle Thorne (@thornet) leads Mozilla’s exploration of the Internet of Things. She serves a professional learning community seeking to shape IoT with openness and user empowerment. Previously, as Mozilla’s Director of Web Literacy Programs, she supported thousands of professional educators and activists to teach and advocate for the web. Michelle has a dedicated interest in open practices and design, curating the Mozilla Festival, exhibiting with The Good Home, writing for Open Design Now and co-authoring the book An Open Web.

> Read the next chapter: Values.

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