Your Coffeemaker Is Watching You

July 8, 2016

Half a century ago, the House of the Future was a marvel of plastic and fiberglass. The $1 million model home, built for an exhibition at Disneyland in 1957, had four cantilevered, capsule-like rooms arranged around a central column, so that it appeared to hover about five feet off the ground.

Inside were appliances that receded into countertops when not in use, an adjustable-height sink, an early prototype of a video telephone, and a heating-and-cooling system that emitted the gentle scent of saltwater breezes or pine needles. Best of all, instead of a refrigerator and freezer, the house had three “cold zones,” chilled compartments that could be lowered from the ceiling with the push of a button.

Refrigerator design hasn’t changed that much in the decades since. Nowadays, though, smart fridges almost always come up in conversations about the Internet of Things, a term that describes a network of Web-connected objects designed to perceive their surroundings and communicate with one another.

Today, the refrigerator of the future is an appliance that, yes, keeps your Chablis chilled, but also adjusts its temperature based on the kinds of food it contains, reminds you to drink more water, and automatically orders a gallon of milk from the store before you run out. Which makes it a pretty good proxy for an ongoing shift—one poised to accelerate in the decades ahead—in how people interact with their homes. Here’s what that shift will look like.

1. Sensors Will Surround You

The home of the future will be freckled with sensors that soak up data about all the activity that goes on inside. Systems in the house will then use that trove of information to understand your needs.

Already, certain washing machines can assess the size of each load—and how dirty the clothes are—to determine how much water and detergent to use.

A company called June makes an “intelligent oven” (hitting the market later this year) that will use sensors and cameras to figure out what kind of food you’re preparing, then adjust the temperature and cooking method accordingly—just throw in a chicken or a batch of cookies, and the oven will take it from there. Down the road, smart surfaces all over the house will respond to whatever’s placed on them: A countertop could help keep a mug of coffee warm, or make sure a beer stays ice-cold.

Your house will know not just whether someone is home but who that someone is. Existing home-security cameras like the Netatmo Welcome can identify family members upon arrival, and notify you via your smartphone when they detect an unfamiliar face. In the future, such systems will use not just facial-recognition software but also data from biometric sensors, like fingerprints and heartbeats, to identify people. And once your house knows who’s home, it can automatically implement their preferences for lighting, temperature, music, and so on.

This technology will also let you inside in the first place: When the front door can recognize you, there’s no need to carry a key.

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