From Smart Houses to Empathetic Houses

Feb 6, 2019

The word ‘smart’ has a new context, thanks to the tech boom.  From ‘smart’ phones to smart homes, we’re seeing technology that promises to improve our living spaces  and our lives. And that’s why now’s the time for scientists and consumers to think about what that future should look like.

FutureHAUS in Dubai. The factory produced, energy-positive, smart home can be assembled rapidly due to its modular, pre-fabricated design
Credit Erik Thorsen

At a place like Virginia Tech, the future is practically history, when it comes to the world of smart homes. Almost a decade ago, its team won the solar decathlon for lumen HAUS, an energy efficient prototype, and just last yearVT took first place in a competition in Dubai, for its newest iteration, Future HAUS.

Here’s Joe Wheeler, director of the Center for Design Research, explaining the properties of the smart kitchen his team designed in 2014 as a ‘plug in module’ for streamlined construction

"The centerpiece of the kitchen, we call it the ‘social table.’  The social table is an island that has a horizontal touch screen display.  So, on the surface you can explore Google maps, you can look up recipes. In the morning you can check the weather and check your email.”  

Denis Gracanin is a computer scientist at Virginia Tech, who’s been working with Wheeler’s team on intelligent systems.

He jokes, “A century ago, if you had a big house, you needed a butler, but now you actually have to have a computer scientist to maintain that house, so we, the computer scientists, are the butlers of the 21st century.”

And it seems like a century ago that we had big and bulky, semi -smart devices. Remember those brick-like early cell phones?  And, Gracanin points out, most of technology then did only one thing.  Now the trend is to have very small, almost invisible devices that do multiple things, and soon, he says, we’ll see – or actually won’t see—what they call the ‘disappearing interface.’

“In other words, there is no user interface, there is no computer screen, no mouse.  The environment interacts with our bodies.  So, then you go to the idea of multi-modal interactions, gesture recognition, voice recognition, and that leads very nicely into smart environments.” 

Smart houses will depend on large arrays of sensors, analyzing data and feeding it back. And that's a lot more complicated that it sounds.  But that's what makes a smart house so smart.

“Bottom line,” say Gracanin, “It is a house that is capable of observing of sensing what’s going on (in side or perhaps outside) and is capable of affecting the space.”

Well, not just affecting the space, but improving it. Gracanin sees a future where houses actually help their inhabitants to deal with things like stress, mood, productivity, and more,  so instead of calling it a ‘smart’ house’ Gracanin prefers the term “empathetic house.                                                                               

In the. 2012 Movie Robot and Frank, the smart and empathetic creature is robot, not an entire house. Frank is a fictional representation of what they call the senior tsunami, the wave of older people who might benefit from self-driving cars and smart houses. That is, if they don’t drive them crazy with complexity, malfunction, and the infamous condition when internet service mysteriously drops away. Or perhaps a simulated pompous attitude from a repetitive robotic voice.

Gracanin says, “That’s one of the problems with so called, smart interfaces they seldom strike the right balance.” He says, there’s a sweet spot where, ‘smartness’ really means making users’ lives easier.”

No matter how smart the sensors become, Gracanin says there should always be a human in the loop.

“There has to be some human component, the technology is just part of it and what’s most important in the end, is the human aspect. You don’t want to be talking to Alexa. You want to talk to a human being when it really comes down to that.”

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.