Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Reflections on two days in a smart home

I've just had the privilege of spending two days in the SPHERE smart home in Bristol. It has been an interesting experience, though much less personally challenging than I had expected. For example, it did not provoke the intensity of reaction from me that wearing a fitbit did. What have I learned? That a passive system that just absorbs data that can't be inspected or interacted with by the occupier quickly fades into the background, but that it demands huge trust of the occupant (because it is impossible to anticipate what others can learn about one's behaviour from data that one cannot see). And that as well as being non-threatening, technology has to have a meaningful value and benefit to the user.

Reading the advance information about staying in the SPHERE house, I was reassured that they have considered safety and privacy issues well. I wasn't sure what to expect of the wearable devices or how accurate they would be. My experience of wearing a fitbit previously had left me with low expectations of accuracy. I anticipated that wearing devices in the house might make me feel like a lab rat, and I was concerned about wearing anything outside the house. It turned out that the only wearable was on the wrist, and was only worn in the house anyway, so less obtrusive than commercial wearables.

I had no idea of what interaction mechanisms to expect: I expected to be able to review the data that is being gathered in real time an wondered whether I would be able to draw any inferences from that data? Wrong! The data was never available for inspection, because of the experimental status of the house at the moment.

When we arrived, it was immediately obvious that the house is heavily wired, but most of the technology is one-way (sucking information without giving anything back to the participant). Most of the rooms are quite sparse and magnolia. The dining room feels very high-tech, with wires and chips and stuff all over the place – more like a lab than a home. To me, this makes that room a very unwelcoming place to be, so we chose to eat dinner in the living room.

I was much more aware of the experimental aspects of the data gathering (logging our activities) than of the lifestyle (and related) monitoring. My housemate seemed to be quite distracted by the video recording for a while; I was less distracted by it than I had expected. The fact that I cannot inspect the data means that I have no option to reflect on it, so it quickly became invisible to me.
The data gathering that we did manually was meant to be defining the ‘ground truth’, but with the best will in the world I’m not sure how accurate the data we’ll provide was – we both keep forgetting to carry the phones everywhere with us, and kept forgetting to start new activities or finish completed one. Recording activities involves articulating the intention to do something (such as making a hot drink or putting shopping away) just before starting to do it, and then articulating that it has been finished when it’s over. This isn't natural! Conversely, at one point, I happened to put the phone on a bedside table and accidentally started logging "sleep" through the NFC tag!

By day 2, I was finding little things oppressive: the fact that the light in the toilet didn’t work and neither did the bedside lights; the lack of a mirror in the bedroom; the fact that everything is magnolia; and the trailing wires in several places around the house. I hadn't realised how important being "homely" was to me, and small touches like cute doorstops didn't deliver.

To my surprise, the room I found least private (even though it had no video) was the toilet: the room is so small and the repertoire of likely actions so limited that it felt as if the wearable was transmitting details that would be easily interpreted. I have no way of knowing whether this is correct (I suspect it is not).

At one point, the living room got very hot so I had to work out how to open the window; that was non-trivial and involved climbing on the sofa and the window sill to work out how it was secured. I wonder what that will look like as data, but at least we had fresh air! 

By the time we left, I was getting used to the ugliness of the technology, and even to the neutrality of the house colours. I had moved things around to make life easier – e.g., moving the telephone off my bedside table to make space for my water and phone (though having water next to the little PCB felt like an accident waiting to happen).

My housemate worked with the SPHERE team to visualize some data from three previous residents that showed that all three of them had eaten their dinners in the living room rather than the dining room. We both seemed to find this slightly amusing, but also affirming: other people are making the same decision as we did.

The main issue to me was that the ‘smart’ technology had no value to me as an inhabitant in the house in its current experimental state. And I would really expect to go beyond inspectability of data to interactivity before the value becomes apparent. Even then, I’m not sure whether the value is short- or long-term: is it about learning about health and behaviours in the home, or is it about real-time monitoring and alerting for health management? The long-term value will come with the latter; for the former, people might just want a rent-a-kit that allows them to learn about their behaviours and adapt them over maybe 2-3 months. But this is all in the future. The current home is a prototype to test what is technically possible. The team have paid a lot of attention to privacy and trust, but not much yet to value. That's going to be the next exciting challenge...

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