Smaller Homes, Bigger Media:
I | Simple. Stylish. Green. Wallet-Friendly. Smart: The Current Landscape of the Tiny Home
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau
When he was writing Walden in the early 1850s, Henry David Thoreau likely had no idea that he would be credited with starting the modern social movement towards living tiny. The reclusive author wrote about the value of ingratiating oneself to nature, valuing experience over material possessions, and living life the most simplistic way possible. Now, almost two centuries later, his words have been repurposed as the guiding maxim of the tiny house movement: to “live deliberately” in an ever-changing society.
The modern-day tiny house movement didn’t gain much momentum until the late 2000s, but the trend began much earlier in 1999 with the formation of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. Jay Shafer, the company’s founder, had built his own tiny home in 1997 and wanted to introduce the concept of tiny house living to the mainstream. Though still maturing, the tiny house movement has become a modern-day design and architecture phenomenon.
While living in 400 square feet or less brings about its own unique challenges, it also offers a myriad of benefits. For many, downsizing is an escapism that allows them to shed material possessions, financial burdens, and the siren song of consumer culture in favor of a more simplistic, deliberate lifestyle. Most tiny homeowners cite financial reasons for downsizing; a recent study found that student loans have caused millennials to hold off on homeownership, which can cost upwards of one million dollars over a 30-year period. Tiny houses, which don’t usually require a mortgage, are a financially viable option for young people as well as retirees who are looking for a cheap housing solution to cut back on expenses and stretch out their retirement funds.
Tiny houses have the added appeal of being significantly more environmentally friendly than your everyday home. According to a report by Tiny House Build, the average American home is now around 2,600 square feet, outputs 28,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, and has forty-five lightbulbs. Meanwhile, tiny homes average about 186 square feet, create 2,000 pounds of CO2 each year, and have just six lightbulbs. They use very few resources to build, as evidenced by artist Gregory Kloehn, who uses recycled materials to build tiny homes for the homeless in his area. And they can easily be off-grid with the installation of solar panels and a rainwater collection system. The environmentally-conscious consumer might be drawn to a tiny house as a reaction to the excessive, resource-draining McMansions which have invaded the suburbs in recent decades.
The modern-day tiny house is quite a different sight than the ones of Thoreau’s time. For the most part these homes are artfully designed rather than sparse, with modern, up-to-date décor and all the luxuries and conveniences on a smaller scale. They make the best use possible of small spaces, and must be designed to fit all amenities in that smaller footprint. Though tiny houses are often a DIY project, prefabricated homes, or “prefab” homes, have seen increasing demand for those would-be tiny homeowners who are less than handy. These homes come premade, manufactured in simple individual components and then delivered for the future homeowner to assemble like a LEGO house.
The modern tiny house also emphasizes technology. While some tiny homes are extremely low-tech, many take advantage of custom-building their own house from the ground up as an opportunity to integrate the newest technological advancements. Jeff Wilson, who lived in a 33 square foot dumpster for a year, partnered with a designer to make Kasita, what he calls “an iPhone I can live in”: a beautiful, mobile tiny home equipped with the latest gadgets such as Amazon Echo, a Nest thermostat, and View Dynamic Glass windows, which automatically dim or brighten based on Wilson’s preferences and the time of day.
The demand for smart tiny homes is high enough that some tiny house builders are even beginning to integrate this smart technology as standard with their tiny homes. Tiny Heirloom Homes, a custom tiny house manufacturer based in Oregon City, has a partnership with Nest Labs, whose aforementioned WiFi-connected “learning” thermostat combines environmental efforts with high-tech living and artificial intelligence. The learning thermostat looks at the temperature adjustments the homeowners make, then creates a customized heating and cooling schedule that is more energy efficient and matches your needs — for example, it can turn the heat off as someone leaves for work and then turn it back on an hour before they return so that they come home to a warm house. The thermostat can also connect with a plethora of other green home technologies. While they’re best known for the AI thermostat, the company also has a motion-sensor HD video doorbell that alerts the homeowner to visitors, WiFi-connected electrical outlets that you can turn on and off from your phone, among other things.
Tiny homeowners tend to be early adopters simply because of their age group. These homeowners have an outsized presence online and on social media. Tiny homeowners clearly have a vested interest in technology and media integration as a part of their everyday lives; however, few media companies have shown interest in working with tiny house builders or prefabrication businesses. Devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are the first step towards providing a wholly interactive, integrated AI system for the domestic space, but as of yet that space remains unfilled.
II | Making AI Happen: The Industries at Play
Tiny homes already have the most advanced designs, the newest materials, and the greenest energy. Because these miniature dwellings are built and owned by technologically literate millennials, these artificial intelligence and learning technologies will be integrated into tiny houses before they become commonplace in the average American home. This is not to say that AI technology cannot or will not be integrated into average-size houses; that certainly will occur once domestic AI technologies do take off. However, because of the unique position of tiny houses at the intersection of DIY ethos, advanced technology, and millennial interest, they will most likely be the first, and easiest, integrations of artificially intelligent home systems.
A report from the World Future Society outlines how futuring can help “separate truly significant developments from rapidly appearing and disappearing fads.” The tiny house movement has been much debated and critiqued as just another design trend that will fade away within a few years, yet those who live in the homes have no desire to leave anytime soon.
The World Future Society report also lists six sectors that can set a trend in motion: demography, economics, government, environment, society, and technology. For the trend of artificial intelligence in tiny houses, the main drivers will probably be demography, society, economics, and technology.
As mentioned previously, demographics are a key driver of interest in tiny houses as well as interest in new technologies. While retirees also represent a segment of tiny homeowners, the ones who are responsible for the integration of AI and interconnected technology in these small houses are millennials. They make up the majority of tiny homeowners and also are the target market for new technology. This tech-literate age group is at the age of settling down and buying homes, and by marrying this new downsized housing trend with new technology, companies producing AI technology will surely appeal to millennials who want their small-scale homes big on high-tech appliances and the latest gadgets. It’s no secret that millennials, or the generation born between 1982 and 2004, have a vested interest in technology; technology is absolutely essential to their social lives and jobs, and now technology is being integrated into the millennial’s domestic sphere with increasing frequency.
In addition, society as a whole is seeing a reaction to the suburban sprawl of the pre-recession ’90s and ’00s. While not everyone will want to or even be able to move into a 100 square foot tiny house on wheels, there has been a definite cultural shift towards minimalism and paring back one’s belongings. In “The Anti-McMansion,” New York Times writer Sandy Keenan explored how young couples and families, even wealthy ones, are making the move from clutter to simplicity, but at the same time maintaining high standards of design. As society experiences shifting attitudes regarding wealth and space, tiny houses may see an influx of downsizers seeking a smaller life but not sacrificing the comforts of modern design and luxury.
Economics will also have an impact on this growing trend of AI in tiny houses Student loans have reached an all-time high. According to PR Newswire, the total US student loan debt has reached over $1.3 trillion, and that number is steadily increasing. At the same time, the average cost of living in the United States is also increasing. Finally, Business Insider’s map of median millennial income shows a fairly low average salary for young Americans. This economic distress will likely have the effect of young people looking for cheaper housing (a major draw of tiny homes) and be able to live on a smaller wage.
Of course, technological factors will far and away have the largest impact on integrating artificial intelligence into tiny homes. While economics, demographics, and society all play important roles in creating a cultural space for luxurious tiny homes, technological advancements will soon enable full artificially intelligent home systems to come standard with tiny houses. Technological progress, one of the six supertrends outlined in Futuring: The Exploration of the Future, means that technology is advancing far faster than most realize. The One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence released a report in September of 2016 outlining how “better chips, low-cost 3D sensors, cloud-based machine learning, and advances in speech understanding will enhance future robots’ services and their interactions with people.” The report notes how huge advancements in deep learning, Natural Language Processing, and Visual Simultaneous Location and Mapping (VSLAM) will eventually lead to AI housekeepers, security monitors and home assistants.
As AI technology improves, it will become cheaper and more readily available. Tiny home-owning millennials, who are interested in technology and often have some disposable income due to lower living costs, and who usually build their own new homes, will likely be the first adopters of these domestic AI technologies and will build it right into their houses.
The innovation of AI-integrated tiny homes is stemming from two unique industries at once. On the one hand, the developing tiny house industry is a huge component of this. Tiny houses originally were do-it-yourself projects taken on by ambitious homeowners, but as the concept has swelled in popularity it has become an industry in its own right. Tiny homes are now mass-produced — there are even factory facilities churning out dozens of the homes. Prefabricated homes, which are often implemented as temporary communities for those working in remote areas, are now available in a wide variety of styles and sizes. Essentially, the growing interest in tiny homes has led to their commercialization.
On the other hand, the much larger technology industry is the other major player. As the Hundred Year Study says, artificial intelligence is set to have a monumental impact on all types of technologies, from healthcare to entertainment to real estate to even space exploration. With such a wide range of applications, it’s no wonder that tech giants are building up to an AI arms race. Microsoft Ventures announced its plans to invest heavily in artificial intelligence, and Intel recently stated its intentions to accelerate the AI field.
III | The Omnipotent Home: Where Media and AI Meet
What will this interconnected, artificially intelligent tiny-house-of-the-future look like? Intel’s San Fransisco Internet of Things Tiny House provides a preview of our tiny AI future. Malia Spencer of the Portland Business Journal writes that “in recent years, the Internet of Things has reached peak industry buzz, but it’s still largely used in novel devices when it comes to consumer products. With the tiny house, Intel aims to show connected items in a realistic setting.” At just 264 square feet, it features a variety of offerings like a touchless deadbolt, appliances that learn your usage habits and schedule themselves accordingly, lightbulbs that communicate with each other to provide the ideal lighting for the time of day, an advanced security system, and, of course, a smart thermostat.
Judging from the Intel model, one possible (albeit optimistic) scenario is that media and tech giants will soon bring their own prefabricated homes to life with a plethora of customizable media features. A prototype of what this media-integrated home might look like comes from home furnishing corporation IKEA. IKEA’s futuristic concept kitchen features an interactive “Table for Living” which uses an overhead camera to “see” what ingredients and how much of each one are on hand, suggest recipes, and turn cooking into an interactive experience.
In this scenario, using Google as an example, the artificially intelligent Google House system might feature a similar interactive countertop; the Google Counter could track the homeowner’s meals and cuisine preferences, then give recipe recommendations based on her history and skill level. This would give homeowners that next level of curation — rather than an overload of information, the Home would use its log of personal information to only provide the user with exactly what information they need. For health-minded individuals, the Counter could keep a log of the user’s caloric intake, nutrition, and macronutrient balance for the day and provide dietary suggestions. More importantly for the media companies, websites could pay an advertising fee to promote their recipes directly into the home. Endless applications — a medicine cabinet mirror-screen combination that reminds you to refill prescriptions, or lets you know about the latest hair and makeup trends, or maps out the fastest route for your morning commute — could bring media into the home in a seamless yet unobtrusive fashion.
Like current AI assistants, users could speak directly to the home to search the internet, update their schedules, and send messages to friends, all without typing anything out; the home could track the remaining levels of consumables and order these necessities to be delivered right to the door. A whole-house interactive system provides nearly endless opportunities for media integration beyond the kitchen — for tiny homeowners with a strong social media presence, for example, a tech-integrated home might provide automated blog updates or photos (of course taken at the owner’s request and posted with permission). Perhaps most ambitiously, the tiny house of the future may even be able to read the mood of the homeowners using up-and-coming mood detection technology and adapt its settings in response — dimming the lights after a stressful day, or even creating a custom playlist to lift the mood.
Another, more realistic and surprise-free scenario is similar to the current AI home assistants. Ori Systems is an architectural robotics company which manufactures space-saving furniture modules for small apartments and tiny homes. These automated home systems can be controlled and shifted from a smartphone. A media company could work in partnership with innovative modular furniture developers to integrate personalized media systems into the final product. For example, an Ori module could come with built-in media systems (full speakers audiophiles, a large-screen television for Netflix watchers, and so on) and an artificially intelligent assistant to not only help with curating the latest music and TV shows but also to provide a valuable workstation. Tiny homes are ruled by efficiency, whether that be energy efficiency or conserving valuable square footage. By integrating the AI assistant with the robotic architecture of companies like Ori, users would benefit from the transitional space which automatically converts from a workstation to an entertainment system to a bedroom at the touch of a button. The system would also save space by eliminating the need for multiple entertainment systems governed by a mess of wires; everything is integrated into the furniture itself as a minimalist solution.
The trend of integrating artificial intelligence systems into tiny homes will be led not only by leading tech companies but by an array of smaller tech startups as well as furnishing companies like IKEA who specialize in design for the modern home. Tiny home AI systems would certainly involve the major media names; however, the integration of AI and tiny houses will likely require smaller businesses to step up and facilitate partnerships with these media companies. Nest Labs, Honeywell, Eight Mattress, Wemo, and other technological startups are leading the charge with innovative home technologies; by partnering with smaller firms, media giants can get in touch with what technologies tiny homeowners truly need and what would add value to their downsized lives.
As with any technological innovation, there are some obvious challenges to integrating media into the tiny house realm. For one, though tiny house owners are a diverse group, a portion of the people involved in the movement have an almost counterculture-like viewpoint on consumer culture and corporate America — the simplicity, the low environmental impact, and the anti-materialism culture of the tiny house movement naturally attracts homeowners with the these views. It’s a way of life that meshes well with these ideologies, but this lifestyle of living as simply as possible could prove a challenge for media companies who want to attract the tiny homeowner to their AI integrations. That being said, younger tiny homeowners are especially likely to have interest in a media-integrated AI system for their home.
Perhaps the largest and potentially most dangerous challenge is maintaining privacy when the entire domestic sphere is interconnected. First, having a digital database on these devices of one’s every action, habit, and idiosyncrasy might be beneficial with regards to simplifying daily life, but that information could end up in the wrong hands. At the very least, homeowners would fear companies knowing, buying, and selling that deeply personal information for their own profit; at worst, the information could be used by criminals in more sinister ways.
In addition to sharing personal data, 2014 saw multiple incidents of hackers infiltrating unsecured baby monitors. In 2016, the “internet of things” came into the spotlight as the scapegoat for a slew of hacking incidents carried out through webcams, digital recorders, WiFi-enabled appliances, and other domestic technologies. The interconnectivity of systems like electricity, plumbing, security, and fire alarms means that hackers could take over the entire home system in one fell swoop. It may sound like fearmongering, but once it becomes part of the digital realm, tiny homes could be vulnerable to such attacks that compromise the security and safety of the home itself.
On a less severe note, the issue remains of whether or not tiny houses glamorize poverty. In an article for The Establishment in November 2015, July Westhale confronts the issues of how the trendiness and high-tech aspects of tiny houses stifle the true struggles of those living in poverty. Westhale writes: “This idea of ‘returning’ to a ‘simple life’ is one I struggle with… This back-to-nature and boxed-up simplicity is not being marketed to people like me, who come from simplicity and heightened knowledge of poverty, but to people who have not wanted for creature comforts. For them to try on, glamorize, identify with.”
While Westhale makes a legitimate claim, one positive aspect that this supposed glamorization of poverty is that it creates an opportunity for media companies to enact social change. Already nonprofit organizations and volunteers around the country have built tiny houses for the homeless and underprivileged; media giants who become involved in tiny home integration would have a huge amount of resources at their disposal, and by partnering with homebuilding companies they could have a huge impact on social change. For example, for each sale of a tiny “Internet of Things”-equipped home, Intel might donate a small portion of the profits to a local nonprofit like Liberty House. Though it would not fully solve the ethical dilemma, it would provide a tangible positive change to fight poverty at its source.
There is still the entirely plausible scenario that AI integration in tiny homes will not occur. A clear alternative is that rather than creating their own immersive media- and AI-integrated tiny homes, media companies will focus on appealing to the owners of larger scale homes. In order for AI integration of tiny homes to be a worthy investment of time and resources, Natural Language Processing technology must see huge advances. Otherwise, frustrated customers might face the unique challenge of their own home misunderstanding them.
In addition, the issues surrounding privacy might prove insurmountable to some companies, at least initially. Consumers may not fully trust these automated systems and would be reluctant to quite literally live inside one, regardless of any safeguards by the developer to prevent the theft of personal information that could put them or their families at risk. Especially since these home systems would be so integral to the home’s security systems and appliances, privacy concerns may stop consumers from considering a prefabricated tiny home from a major media company. Privacy risks aside, the public is generally distrustful or even fearful of artificial intelligence and smart machines, so whether or not society is prepared to bring these technologies home is a question media and tech companies will have to answer.
Finally, the problem remains that in many areas living in tiny homes is not fully legal. Due to their size, the miniature dwellings sometimes are not considered habitable residences, and homeowners risk being reported for violating zoning ordinances. In areas where tiny houses are common, organizations like the American Tiny House Association have sought and sometimes won court battles to legalize their homes; despite these legal victories, the fact remains that few companies are willing produce an expensive product with such a dubious legal standing. Until the legality of these homes can be determined, tiny home artificial intelligence may have to wait.