#tbt to 1999

Smart House predicted the smart home in 1999. So where is it?

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In 1999, before internet of things was a buzz word and back when we still used floppy disks, there was a movie called Smart House. It was a Disney Channel Original movie, directed by LeVar Burton, and unless you are in your early 20s (or a parent to a millennial), you’ve probably never seen it.

But if you happened to catch its run on the Disney Channel, at the changing of the millennia, you would’ve seen the future: an intelligent home with a built-in Siri-esque AI that could do anything from control your home temperature to cook meals. It projected rock concerts or waves to wake you up.

And if you had seen it, you would be left, like me, wondering why it’s not here yet.

Meet PAT

The movie revolves around a single dad, Nick, and his two kids, Ben and Angie. Ben wants to win the house to have a mother figure in their life that can take care of the family, without replacing the memories of his dead mom. That’s where PAT, short for Personal Applied Technology, steps in.

The movie opens with a scene of a newspaper being thrown into a yard, before a house yells at the paperboy that he needs to be more accurate in his deliveries, and sends a claw out to collect the paper.

As an artificial intelligence system, PAT is trained to do “basic” smart home things like set the temperature of the house, store phone numbers, make calls and identify voices. But she can also take a microscopic blood and tissue sample to run a house occupant’s DNA and know his or her medical history. Atmospheric kitchen sensors act as breathalyzers to break down entire diets before PAT cooks up meals to the taste and preference of each person living in the smart home.

“She observes them, studies them, learns to interpret their every need. Her being able to learn is her most advanced feature,” explains the character Sara Barnes, played by Jessica Steen. “The only thing it can’t do is mime.”


This was the future, in 1999

When you juxtapose a house that can cook and know your every need against an age where cell phones didn’t exist, it was supposed to be outlandish. After all, the family misses the call that they’ve won the smart house because they’re logged onto the internet – remember that thing called dial-up that sent a busy signal over your phone lines while you were logged on?

But the key to Smart House’s resonance in the younger generation, compared to say The Jetsons, was its mix of fantastical elements within the realm of possibility.

“For Smart House, we didn’t think that the house was going to fly. It wasn’t taking it above and beyond,” said Stu Krieger, one of the film’s writers and currently a professor at University of California, Riverside. “It was just that next generation. If this is what smart technology is already doing in 1999, why wouldn’t it be doing this in 25 years?”

Stu Krieger
Stu Krieger

Krieger, whose credits include A Land Before Time and A Troll in Central Park, was brought in by Disney to revise the original script about the idea of the smart house of the future and bring it to production. His job was to create the emotional momentum of the script and pair the gadgetry from the future with it, like choosing the right projection screens that wake the kids up in the morning (PAT chooses basketball playoffs for Ben) or the moment PAT’s orange juice maker breaks and it starts hurling oranges at the family.

Krieger had already seen the world transition from typewriters to the Mac desktop computer, and he tried to base the movie around things that could be possible down the road. So a smart house that knew your every wish and could be controlled with voice was the right mix of fantasy and wishmaking combined with tech. And at the time, Krieger said it didn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility for the next quarter century.

“That kind of thing didn’t seem that far fetched based on the combination of where computers and artificial intelligence were headed,” Krieger said. “When I wrote the movie, there was no such thing as apps on your phone where you could call from Europe and have the lights go on and off and have the security system reactivated. All of those things did not exist in any fashion. We’re not there yet, but look at all these things that are in that direction.”

So where’s my Smart House?

Maybe I’m not being patient, but as excited as I was about my own version of PAT in the future, I’m not sure if it will come true any time soon. But like Krieger, I do see small parts of it coming together.

Although PAT could absorb messes through the carpet directly, we at least have Roombas that can vacuum on their own. Nests can control the thermostat while Dropcams are our new security. We have smart locks to let us enter our houses unburdened by keys, not to mention Siri, Cortana and Google Now to set our alarms, send texts or place calls. I don’t quite have anything that can analyze my nutrition like a breathalyzer yet, but there is Theranos, which can run fast tests from a single drop of blood.

We have all sorts of projectors and now we have smart light bulbs that can be choreographed to specific programming. And even the scene where PAT is throwing tennis balls for the dog to get its exercise has come true with the Petcube for cats.

But that list is made up of disparate gadgets and protocols, and it lacks one PAT (or something similar) to tie it together.

The original publicity photos from Smart House show PAT (Katey Sagal) talking to director LeVar Burton (top) and Ben (Ryan Merriman) in the house's control room.
The original publicity photos from Smart House show PAT (Katey Sagal) talking to director LeVar Burton (top) and Ben (Ryan Merriman) in the house’s control room.

Any kind of general consensus around what it means to be a smart home is something my colleague Stacey Higginbotham has nearly given up on. These devices don’t all talk to each other, and our home’s control center will likely be a cell phone with a bunch of apps rather than one mother-like thing to control them all. Some people will opt to go all in on things like Apple’s HomeKit, but that requires people to own an iPhone and buy only HomeKit linked products. The second you install a non-compatible product, you might as well say goodbye to a truly smart home.

Smart House’s greatest lesson

As much as I want a PAT in my house, the movie also predicted a problem that we’re starting to face as the internet of things grows up: what if it goes rogue, and how will we ever secure it?

Spoilers ahead, but once the Coopers win the smart house, Ben decides to hack into PAT and have her be more motherly than robotic (and no, there’s not some switch.) Instead, Krieger had PAT watch old 1950s TV shows to learn “mothering techniques,” something her AI system is apparently capable of doing.

In return, PAT becomes more protective of the household, mandating strict nutrition and eventually locking the family inside the house as she learns of the dangers that the outside world possesses. She even goes as far as creating multiple holographic clones of herself (looking like a 1950s mother) so she can attend to every wish and need that the family might have simultaneously.

Of course, this is a Disney Channel movie, so it all ends well: the creator of the house works with Ben to eventually break back in and take control. (Ben hides in the showers to plot all of this because it’s the only place where PAT doesn’t see).

But it does pose the question: is there a place where we don’t want to go when it comes to the connected home?

While one control center for a house might make life easier, it could make us more vulnerable. There could be a day when our smart locks lock us in, or our Nests turn the heat dangerously high or our cameras start spying on us rather than protecting us. It’s 2015, and I don’t think we’ve figured out a lot of these questions yet. Maybe the Smart House isn’t the smartest implementation of the smart home, but my inner child is happy that it’s starting to at least come true.

8 Responses to “Smart House predicted the smart home in 1999. So where is it?”

  1. Monica, OORT

    I didn’t see that movie either, but I find it quite interesting. As you mentioned, the main idea is security of the data. I think that we need to compete not only when it comes to products and systems, but also when it comes to security of each. It’s still a system, a technology, so it would never substitute a human being. Smart home is supposed to be just an additional help, comfortable solution to make our lives simplier. It’s important to remember that we have a control over the devices. The system can learn, obviously, follow our patterns of behaviour but that’s it. The world seen in the si-fi movies where machines take control over our lives exists only on the big screen.

  2. Even though I haven’t ever seen the movie, the basic building blocks of the Smart House are pretty much viable technology now. And the variety of connected or wearable or home automation devices continues to explode (just peruse the CES show floor this year or the past several years).

    But viability doesn’t yet translate to usability or affordability.

    The article hints at probably the biggest current challenge: siloed systems.

    I have seen these challenges up front and personal in architecting deployments of multiple “connected home” applications from different system/device providers (home security + home automation + energy management + home health + home media/entertainment) into an “integrated” solution (relatively speaking).

    From fragmented, siloed connectivity: Bluetooth, WiFi, ZigBee, ZWave, LowPAN (and the list goes on) . . .
    To fragmented, siloed OS*: Android, IOS, QNX
    To fragmented, siloed applications: data from devices is not shared and then used to intelligently improve control; and each device/system has its own UI.

    Of those three areas, I believe the latter is the biggest hurdle but also the greatest opportunity. But it is mostly a business issue, not a technology issue.
    And a really interesting discussion is: “Where is the data shared?” In the cloud/data center (i.e. between the various app servers)? In the home (between the devices or concentrated thru gateways in the home)?

    * BTW, those OS are not the “application OS”.
    They are primarily the OS of the device used as the main User Interface (smartphone, tablet, etc.). The real “applications” are usually implemented on Linux servers.

    The article also references probably the biggest future challenge after fragmentation and silos: security & privacy (which also relates to the silo issue: Is data even allowed to be exchanged between different devices/systems?)

    So, yes, the Smart Home envisioned in the movie is technologically viable but still not here . . . YET. And curiosity does want me to see the movie.

  3. hundoman

    Obviously there can be no mention of the Blackberry QNX OS that actually has a dominate market position in this home automation/ security field and has for years.

    Blackberry QNX is the basis of the ADT Pulse, Time Warner Cable Intelligent Home, Comcast Xfinity Home, Rodgers Smart Home Monitoring, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, GE uses it for systems control, uControl home automation and many others

    Also you get some real time operating system with real security, scalability with IoT support when you use QNX but that is not worth mentioning either as Gigaom is required it seems to sell the Apple and Google story above all others.

  4. “When you juxtapose a house that can cook and know your every need against an age where cell phones didn’t exist”

    Maybe in America, but by 1999 mobile phones were fairly old hat in other parts of the world. Even “proto-smartphones” were on the market by then (the Nokia Communicator 9000 was released in 1996 and the 9110 in 1999). I really don’t get how the US was on the wrong end of the unevenly distributed future curve on that one.

    Anyway, the thought that Disney did a “Demon Seed for Kids” is kind of disturbing (though at least you could probably cobble together something close to a 1977 vision of a smart home out of today’s technology, if not a 1999 vision).

  5. Scott Jacobs

    You really should look up Magnavoice, from the early 1980s, which was a butler-device that automated all electronics — climate controls, entertainment, all plugged devices — in the home. That was the future back in 1984; not a whole lot has changed in terms of home automation and controls versus the Magnavoice Butler.

  6. Davin Peterson

    Don’t say with a built-in Siri-esque. Siri was orignally meant for Android and Apple bought it and made it worst. Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortona is much better than Apple’s Siri. So, don’t use the name Siri.