SmartHouse 2.0: Diary of a Future Homeowner


TCI, the nation's largest cable television company, is in talks to launch a unique pilot project in conjunction with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Microsoft Corporation to design a "smart home".  Here is the diary of a future homeowner ...


November 28: Moved in at last.  Finally, we live in the smartest house in the neighborhood.  Everything's networked.  My PC is connected to the power lines, all the appliances and the security system.  Everything runs off a universal remote with the friendliest interface I've ever used.  Programming is a snap.  I'm, like, totally wired.


November 30: Hot stuff! Programmed my DVR from the office, turned up the thermostat and switched on the lights with the car phone, remotely tweaked the oven a few degrees for my pizza.  Everything nice and cozy when I arrived.  Maybe I should get the universal remote surgically attached.


December 3: Yesterday, the kitchen crashed.  Freak event. As I opened the refrigerator door, the light bulb blew.  Immediately, everything else electrical shut down -- lights, microwave, coffee maker -- everything!  Carefully, I unplugged and replugged all the appliances.  Nothing.  Called the cable company (but not from the kitchen phone).  They refer me to the utility company.  The utility insists the problem was in the software.  So the software company runs some remote tele diagnostics via my house processor.


Their expert system claims it has to be the utility's fault.  I don't care, I just want my kitchen back.  More phone calls.  More remote diagnostics.


Turns out the problem was "unanticipated failure mode" -- the network had never seen a refrigerator bulb failure while the door was open.  So the fuzzy logic interpreted the burnout as a power surge and shut down the entire kitchen.  But because sensor memory confirmed that there hadn't actually been a power surge, the kitchen's logic sequence was confused so it couldn't do a standard restart.


The utility guy swears this was the first time this has ever happened.  Rebooting the kitchen took over an hour.  December 7: The police are not happy.  Our house keeps calling them for help.  We discover that whenever we play the TV or stereo above 25 decibels, it creates patterns of micro-vibrations that get amplified when they hit the window.  When these vibrations mix with a gust of wind, the security sensors are actuated and the police computer concludes that someone is trying to break in.  Go figure...


Another glitch: whenever the basement is in self-diagnostic mode, the universal remote won't let me change the channels on my TV.  That means I actually have to get up off the couch and change the channels by hand.  The software and the utility people say this flaw will be fixed in the next upgrade -- SmartHouse 2.1, but it's not ready yet.


December 12: This is a nightmare.  There's a virus in the house.  I come home and the living room is a sauna, the bedroom windows are covered with ice, the refrigerator has defrosted, the washing machine has flooded the basement, the garage door is cycling up and down and the TV is stuck on the Home Shopping channel.  Throughout the house, lights flicker like stroboscopes until they explode from the strain.  Broken glass is everywhere.  Of course, the security sensors detect nothing.


I look at a message slowly throbbing on my PC screen: "Welcome to HomeWrecker!!! Now the FUN begins ... (be it ever so humble, there's no virus like HomeWrecker...)".  I get out of the house.  Fast.


December 18: They think I've digitally disinfected the house but the place is a shambles.  Pipes have burst and we're not completely sure we've got the part of the virus that attacks toilets.  Nevertheless, The Exorcists (as the anti-virus SWAT members like to call themselves) are confident the worst is over.  "HomeWrecker is pretty bad," one tells me, "but consider yourself lucky you didn't get Poltergeist.  That one is really evil."


December 19: Apparently, our house isn't insured for viruses. "Fires and mudslides yes," says the claims adjuster, "viruses, no."  Everybody's very, very sorry but they can't be expected to anticipate every virus that may be created.


We call our lawyer.  He laughs.  He's excited.


December 21: I get a call from a SmartHouse sales rep.  As a special holiday offer, we get the free opportunity to become a beta site for the company's new SmartHouse 2.1 upgrade.  He says I'll be able to meet the programmers personally. "Sure," I can't wait ...


The Nightmare on Connected Home Street

BY MAT HONAN 06.13.14

I wake up at four to some old-timey dubstep spewing from my pillows. The lights are flashing. My alarm clock is blasting Skrillex or Deadmau5 or something, I don’t know. I never listened to dubstep, and in fact the entire genre is on my banned list. You see, my house has a virus again.


Technically it’s malware. But there’s no patch yet, and pretty much everyone’s got it. Homes up and down the block are lit up, even at this early hour. Thankfully this one is fairly benign. It sets off the alarm with music I blacklisted decades ago on Pandora. It takes a picture of me as I get out of the shower every morning and uploads it to Facebook. No big deal.


I don’t sleep well anyway, and already had my Dropcam Total Home Immersion account hacked, so I’m basically embarrassment-proof. And anyway, who doesn’t have nudes online? Now, Wat3ryWorm, that was nasty. That was the one with the 0-day that set off everyone’s sprinkler systems on Christmas morning back in ’22. It did billions of dollars in damage.


Going back to sleep would be impossible at this point, so I drag myself into the kitchen to make coffee. I know this sounds weird, but I actually brew coffee with a real kettle. The automatic coffee machine is offline. I had to pull its plug because it was DDOSing a gaming server in Singapore. Basically, my home is a botnet. The whole situation makes me regret the operating system I installed years ago, but there’s not much I can do. I’m pretty much stuck with it.


When I moved into my house in the 20s, I went with an Android-compatible system because there were more accessories and they were better designed. But then I changed jobs and now my home doesn’t work with my company-issued phone. Which is a bummer because I have to keep this giant 7-inch tablet around to control everything and Google doesn’t support the hardware anymore so I can’t update it and now the door just randomly unlocks. Ugh, I’m going to have to start using keys again.


I’d just reinstall the OS, but that would be too expensive. Besides, all my Nexus Home® stuff uses proprietary chargers, and I can’t deal with having Amazon drones come in and rip out the drywall again.


Everyone thought the connected home would be Apple or Google’s game. Turns out, that was short-sighted. An Internet-connected thermostat? LOL. Of course it was entirely about who would gain control of your SmartWall. It was the thing that controlled the screens and the lights and alarm clocks and burglar alarm and outdoor atmospheric monitoring system and interior climate control and mirrors and irrigation system and solar collector and water filtration and grocery inventory management database and kitchen appliances and communications center and automobile docking system and exercise equipment and biofeedback monitoring and medicine dispensary and stereo that mattered. But in fairness, who could have foreseen the Microsoft-Samsung deal or its consequences?


“?? ?????, Mat” my oven chirps through the speakers in the ceiling, as I place the kettle on the induction element. “???,” I mutter.


So I just replace things here and there as they quit working. Which means I’ve got a mishmash of Apple, Android, and Samsoft components all cobbled together. Nothing works exactly right. It’s a huge mess.


As I plod through the kitchen, my floor lights up, exposing rows of flashing LEDS, and a snippet from an old Queen song starts to play. “Congratulations!” purrs my house in an Elvis Presley voice. “You’ve just hit your step goal for the day!” Years ago I reset the step goal to 20 because I was tired of my house nagging me all day. Every time my couch vibrated or my TV told me to get up and walk around, I found myself resenting my home a little bit more.


I sit down with my coffee and fire up the short throw projector embedded in the kitchen table. The news is depressing, so I flip through a Redfin search I started last night in bed. There are these houses up in Humboldt County that are listed in the inundation zone, so they were never required to upgrade. That was a cartography error; even if sea levels go up another 20 feet they would still be above the water line. They’re rustic, and don’t even have high energy automobile docks. But the idea of getting off the grid really appeals to me, even if it’s just a fantasy.


The skylights open up. The toaster switches on. I hear the shower kick in from the other room. It’s morning.