Although Ikea is just starting to embark on smart home technology with light bulbs, speakers and blinds, the Swedish furniture giant is showing a much more ambitious vision.
Someday, for example, you might be able to use augmented reality to visualize how your computer and TV share data, or to research the environmental impact of all your gadgets. You can even use spatial audio to designate parts of your home as “quiet areas” or use a digital avatar to alert you to potential privacy threats.
To be clear, Ikea isn’t turning any of these ideas into products anytime soon, but it did bring in its innovation research and design lab, Space10, and a group of external designers to come up with them to think about what the future holds for smart homes. The first of these “Daily experiencesConcepts launched last year, and the latest batch focuses on privacy and trust in an effort to explore what a respectfully designed non-invasive smart home might look like.
“We wanted to get there where privacy isn’t a dystopia, and we’re not working on it from a dystopian perspective,” says Tony Gjerlufsen, chief technology officer at Space10. “Confidentiality shouldn’t be a chore either.”
The augmented house
The clearest example is “Invisible Roommates” by designers Nicole He and Eran Hilleli. Using augmented reality, he envisions smart home devices as cute characters sitting next to their real-world counterparts. When these devices communicate with each other, the AR versions represent the flow of data like a trail of paper planes.
Another experiment from London-based design studio Field, called ‘Digital Buddy’, tackles a similar idea. It envisions users talking to a small blob-shaped avatar to ask about the privacy policies of other products and services. The AI would then go through those companies’ terms of service and read the relevant information, such as whether a service can read the content of your private messages.
A second concept from Field, called “Chain of Custody,” imagines that household items would be recorded on a blockchain, which would store information about materials, carbon footprint, and the production process. The idea would be for users to analyze these products with an artificial intelligence application so that they can make more informed purchasing decisions.
Perhaps the craziest idea of all, however, is “Sound Bubbles” by Yuri Suzuki, who imagines using an AI app to loop through the quiet parts of the house. Users could then move sound away from these quiet spaces using 3D spatial audio.
From concept to reality
As these are design concepts rather than working prototypes, there is no guarantee that Ikea will achieve any of them. Still, some of Space10’s ideas have roots in existing technology.
Augmented reality apps, for example, are widely available today on iOS and Android devices, and Ikea itself has an app that helps people visualize furniture in their homes. AI assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant are now ubiquitous, as are resources like TOSDR to make service contracts more digestible. Spatial audio is also starting to make its way into smart speakers, with Apple’s HomePod and Amazon’s Echo Studio supporting virtual surround sound.
Georgina McDonald, Space10’s lead design producer, says the goal of these projects is to get people thinking about what’s possible in a way that doesn’t require years of product development. The latest ideas, for example, were developed over a period of 9 to 12 weeks. (There’s also a chance that Ikea could patent some of the ideas for itself, or use them for inspiration.)
“It’s a way to challenge people to use, integrate and redo these technologies, and to have the opportunity to do so in a rapidly changing environment,” McDonald says, “rather than working in a basement for three years, tossing it to all, and hoping for the best.
To that end, McDonald’s would still love to see Space10 and its designer partners push the privacy front further with future experiments. She notes that none of the current projects addressed whether smart home technology belongs in people’s bathrooms, but that could change next time.
“It was a really tough subject,” she says, “because data and ethics play a pretty big role in what’s actually doable at home and what people are willing to give up.”
As Ikea seeks to distinguish itself from the big tech companies while building a smart home business around his loose empire, he will inevitably have to answer these questions for himself.