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Home Automation Is Still Coming, If You Can Afford It

Smartphones and a host of tiny, tiny computers are about to automate your home. So sayeth the futurists, and so sayeth the profit-seeking siliconed youth. And, most recently, so sayeth the founders of Ube, a startup that thinks that one day, we should...

Smartphones and a host of tiny, tiny computers are about to automate your home. So sayeth the futurists, and so sayeth the profit-seeking siliconed youth. And, most recently, so sayeth the founders of Ube, a startup that thinks that one day, we should all be running our dishwashers from our iPhones. Glen Bruthers, a co-founder, is one of a growing crowd of tech savants who believes that microprocessors will soon be in everything; your microwave, toaster oven, dishwasher. This, he told MIT Technology Review, will enable “the automation and remote control of everything from your lights to your laundry.”

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Sans microprocessors, however, he’s stuck dealing with stuff that can either connect to the internet, or plug into Ube’s specially designed, internet connectable wall outlet. Anything you plug in, you’ll be able to control from the corresponding app from you smart phone. Dim the lights! Turn on the TV, change channels! Anything is possible as we strive towards new frontiers of convenience.

Evidently, the startup crowd is calling this “the internet of things,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It is the early stages of home automation, and Ube wants you to get in on the ground floor.

According to MIT, the company “plans in the coming months to start selling the outlet along with a similarly ‘smart’ dimmer switch and plug.” Each will cost you about $60, but it “also plans to offer a free, related smartphone app that can control these and other Internet-enabled devices. For Burchers, who is also Ube’s chief marketing officer, these are the first steps toward mass availability of home automation—an idea once reserved for the wealthy, since it required customized systems to control lighting, audio, and video.”

Make no mistake, however, “home automation” is still very much an idea reserved for the wealthy. $180 for the hardware, plus mandatory ownership of a smartphone and a data plan, plus fancy appliances to play with — let’s be serious. There is certainly a major consumer demographic (though it is shrinking) that can afford all of those things, but they are still among the wealthiest humans in the world. And allow me to note that this is nothing against Ube in particular either; it seems like a good product and one that technology consumers will enjoy discussing and trying out.

Yet when we discuss home automation, we are discussing luxury. True, there are myriad techno-possibilities on the horizon. This app, for instance, also lets you monitor the energy usage of your appliance. In my opinion, that’s most useful and interesting application it has. But then again, I am a holdover from the Old Times; I do not mind walking across the room to turn on the lights. I am also forgetful. If I see that I have left an energy-wasting light on in the other room with my Ube app, I may be more inclined to quickly turn it off in an automated home.

But let us also recognize that the day when all of our stuff can interface seamlessly online is a long ways off; those microprocessor-equipped appliances will be luxuries for the foreseeable future, and probably forever. And for now, installing some old-fashioned insulation will likely save you more electricity than Ube.

This bold new age of home automation is as subject to William Gibson’s famous adage as anything in our fabled techland; the future is (almost) here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. Nor in this case, will it ever be — can you imagine a world with 9 billion homes full of microprocessor-containing, interfacing accessories? Perhaps I lack optimism, but I cannot. But I too find a more Jetsons-esque world intriguing, and many of those fortunate enough to live in our world do. So let us suffer no illusions. Home automation is an aspirational idea by and for the rich and future rich. Let us discuss its pleasures and comforts from within that context.