It looks like I've linked you here myself. Linking people to a blogpost I wrote is often a bit akward, especially at work.
I likely shared this blog in an attempt to further a conversation. Usually the post does a better job at succinctly sharing information than I could by talking.
In any case, I hope me sharing this post doesn't come across as humblebragging, that's really the opposite of what I'm trying to achieve.
Thanks for reading!
Home Automation has come a long way in the past few years. Yet despite my fairly elaborate setup, I still find that my daydreams about a Jetsons future in which the robots do all the work is pretty far out.
What are the problems to solve? What already exists? What is missing? Some thoughts.
Before we start looking forward, let’s acknowledge how fantastic the - mostly dumb - robots are that we all already use on a daily basis. Washing machines, dryers, kitchen appliances, vacuums and all their companions: these devices and appliances are already quite amazing.
We often forget that in the past, people (mostly housewives) spend almost all day doing laundry, cooking and keeping the house tidy (and childcare of course). While this can still be a hugely laborious job, there really is no comparison when it comes to total-time-spent and quality-of-work of modern house hold appliances vs. manual labor.
Despite this, we all still spend hours per day doing repetitive household work. Why can’t robots and smart appliances do that for us?
Without trivializing the complexity of the tasks, it seems like a lot of these household tasks are (close to) automatable today - it’s clear the next decade will bring huge amount of innovation in this area.
Before diving into the specifics, let’s address a few things up front:
With that out of the way, let’s start dreaming about the smart home of the future. Starting with… Smart Housekeeping!
Tidying can be tedious. Especially if you have young children, when it’s pretty much a continuous task. For years, we’ve been told this is being worked on - I’ve lost count of the number of demo, videos I’ve seen, of robots tidying up - yet it seems like no real world solution is coming anytime soon.
Understandably this is a complex problem, given the number of different items that need to be recognized and handled, let alone putting them in the right spot, in vastly different home layouts. Regardless, it would be cool and useful to see relaxed versions of this problem solved in real-world settings. For example, collecting kids/pet toys and sorting them in different piles.
Vacuuming and mopping seem like problems that are largely solved but need more fine-tuning. With the increased competition (the Roomba Reign days are long gone) and incremental improvements, I’m willing to bet that these robots will be close to flawless in a decade from now. Weird personal indulgence: Robot Vacuum reviews on the Vacuum Wars Youtube channel.
But of course, tidying up and cleaning the floor is only a part of house cleaning, perhaps less than 50% of it. You still have to do general dusting and clean the toilet, windows, kitchen counter, fridge, shower, sinks, etc.
While some products exists such as Window Cleaning Robots and Toilet Cleaning Robots (another and another), most of them are still not great: making the work a little easier at best and being expensive gimmicks at worst.
Assuming those get better, robot vacuum towers might evolve in more generic cleaning stations that house additional robots and tools, charging and cleaning them:
An alternative approach is the further development of self-cleaning appliances and furniture. While some of those exists, like self-cleaning ovens, toilets, blenders with cleaning programs, or self-cleaning windows, my personal experience with these is a bit hit-and-miss. Despite this, self-cleaning is definitely trend in the right direction.
By combining smart cleaning robots with self cleaning devices, hopefully we can already cut down on cleaning tasks in the next decade or so. Any hour saved on a weekly basis is a big win in my book.
While washing machines and dryers do the bulk of the work; ironing, laundry folding and neatly putting everything back in the closet is still a manual job that takes hours per week in our family.
Attempts to automate more of this work (like Foldimate, now bankrupt) haven’t succeeded yet.
Perhaps washing machines should get additional drying, sorting and folding features. While the consensus on current washer-dryer combos seems to be that they’re worse than having separate machines (less capacity, worse cleaning/drying, energy inefficient, no parallel activity), this might be an acceptable trade-off if the entire process becomes set-and-forget.
A next-gen version might do sorting using AI and/or smart labels combined with a vaccuum system to place clothes in different bins.
A different angle to this problem is to have a smart wardrobes dewrinkle, (clean) and sort your clothes. Some of this already exists like the Samsung Airdresser or LG Styler, but those are expensive products with limited functionality.
A next-gen smart version of this could be much larger and deal with clothes sorting: dispensing 2 identical socks or some underwear after you’ve dumped a load of clean clothes in the smartrobe. Dewrinkling could happen slowly in a climate controlled chamber or at dispense time (1 min steaming cycle) - skipping pre-sorting and folding entirely for many clothing items.
Similarly, for dirty laundry it could pre-sort clothes by color and fabric. This would easily shave off an hour a week of laundry work! Sign me up :)
Of course, the ultimate utopia is the single versatile robot that can do all chores. Like a real-world Rosey.
We’ve been teased with first-gen versions of this like Samsung’s Handy and Care robot and Amazon’s Astro bot, but it’s clear that these are still years away from being both generally available and able to do meaningful work.
I’m hopeful this will ultimately translate to butler robots in the home, but hope isn’t really a strategy. What we need is more people working on this problem: both professionals as well as hobby enthusiasts.
This requires lowering the bar dramatically. Even as an experienced software engineer and amateur electronics and home automation hobbyist, building a useful robot entirely from scratch is way above my skillset. It requires a unique skillset-blend consisting of hands-on electromechanics and state-of-the-art AI that few of us posses.
What we need is an Arduino or Home Assistant moment: an open source platform that dramatically simplifies getting started for enthusiasts.
Like a modular robot base model that easily can be bought or self-assembled and then has open interfaces for people to build on using accessories that can be purchased or self-assembled (using e.g. 3d printing).
Perhaps what we need is the likes of Home Assistant (ESP Home), Arduino and Raspberry Pi to more deliberately start expanding in this space.
Obviously that’s easier said than done - my arm-chair analysis isn’t really contributing to making it happen. But if one of those projects comes out with an official modular robotics platform that can do meaningful work, it would surely make some heads turn.
With a title like “Dreaming of the Ultimate Smarthome”, it should be clear that this is what we’re doing here: Dreaming.
Clearly solving these problems is difficult, otherwise they would’ve already been solved - there’s plenty of people that want this to happen and there’s plenty of money to be earned.
Yet, day dreaming, talking and researching about this stuff is one of my favorite things to do. Not so much about far out imaginations, because that misses the element of “coming soon” excitement. It’s the incremental changes that seem possible by integrating and moderately advancing existing technology that make me enthusiastic.
However, with all that’s happening, building them in the open is going to be critical. With the convergence of AI, smart appliances, the proliferation of (humanoid) robots and a grab bag of adjacent technology (e.g. 3D printing, AR/VR) - the platforms, frameworks and practices that will emerge in the next decade are likely to shape our future for long beyond that. We all benefit from those being 100% interoperable, extensible, inclusive and transparent. The only way that can happen is by using open source, open licenses, open community and open decision making. I’m here for it.
Next time: Smart Kitchen!