Predicting Our Future is a podcast about the next revolutions in technology, as seen through the eyes of a serial entrepreneur. Below is an edited transcript excerpt from Episode 10: “Smart Homes & IoT: A Century In The Making” — the first episode in a 7-part series on the future of the smart home.

In this episode of Predicting Our Future, I trace the history of the smart home and try to contextualize where the smart home movement sits in the larger technology category, the Internet of Things.

The Long Awaited Smart Home Revolution

It’s the dead of winter and you’re driving home. In my case, it’s to my house outside of New York City on the eastern end of Long Island. I remember coming home in the dead of winter and huddling with blankets on the couch until the place warmed up. The use case for a thermostat that could be accessible over the Internet was so obvious, I wondered why it took until 2011 for Nest to launch. It would have been prohibitively expensive for me to heat a weekend home throughout the week, and a timer wouldn’t work, as I was never really sure I was going to be at the house on a weekend. The perfect solution: a thermostat that could be remotely accessed from a smartphone over the Internet to turn on the heat as I’m on the highway and still a couple of hours away from getting home.

That’s what Nest does. It’s a thermostat that is connected to the wireless network in your home. There’s a corresponding downloadable app for your Android or iPhone that, when you open it, shows you the temperature of the room. If you have multiple zones in your house, you can see the temperature in each zone. You can even see the temperature outside of your house. Best of all, there’s a friendly interface that allows you to adjust the temperature upwards or downwards. In my case, I typically pull over in traffic on the Long Island Expressway about an hour away from my home to adjust the temperature.

You’d be forgiven if you thought that the Nest was the first instance of a connected device that was part of the smart home. The truth is that people have been talking about and building some variation of a smart home for decades. When I refer to a smart home, I’m referring to a house featuring “intelligent” technology that simplifies and automates everyday activities such as turning on lights, locking the door, lowering shades, and, yes, changing the settings on your thermostat. You can call any device “smart” that is capable of doing something autonomously. A smart thermostat automatically adjusts the heat downward if there isn’t any motion in my house. That’s what makes it autonomous.

Smart devices are almost always also devices that are connected to a network. The first connected locks and light switches introduced to the home more than a decade before Nest weren’t even connected to the Internet. They were connected to a stand-alone device in the house (called a bridge) that you could operate remotely only if you were in the house. The catch: they were connected from the lock or the light switch to the bridge using protocols like Z-Wave and Zigbee. Think of a protocol as a language for one device to speak to another. WiFi is also a protocol, but it couldn’t be found in these early devices. In 2004, you could operate connected locks and connected lights from a mobile device, but not an iPhone, because the iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007. It’s not hard to see why your average consumer had difficulty getting excited about this type of configuration. First, you needed a dedicated remote control to make these devices work. Second, they only worked when you were inside of your house.

Fast forward to 2011 and Nest and a time when most people you knew had a smart phone. While Nest wasn’t the first smart thermostat, they captured the tech community’s imagination with a clever interface and by putting a WiFi chip inside their thermostat that connected it to the Internet. I could finally heat up my house from the road. Big companies and startups alike began to focus on what other devices, if connected to the Internet, could capture the public’s attention and gain mass adoption.

The Smart Home and the Internet of Things

The smart home space fascinates me — first, because it promises to transform the way we live. Second, because it has been at the cusp of taking off for decades. And lastly, because it represents big business for technology companies and tech startup entrepreneurs.

Think about smart homes as places where people live that contain devices connected to the Internet. Companies write software to program these devices all with a design to make your life easier. Let’s imagine for a moment all of the places you might want connected devices outside of the home. A car could have a device that monitors where it goes and the wear and tear on the wheels. This would all be reported back to the cloud, sharing with the driver at some later date that’s it’s time to realign or change the tires. Machinery within a factory might send out a report of their performance and then be adjusted to increase the output of whatever the factory is making. The Fitbit bracelet on your wrist captures your steps and can suggest what you need to do to improve your health. All of these examples are smart devices. And all of them, including devices that make up the smart home category, are part of the bigger category the Internet of Things, or IoT.

Professor John Barrett is the Head of Academic Studies at the Nimbus Centre at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland. I was drawn to him after watching his TEDx talk on the future of IoT. Not surprisingly, while connected devices have become very visible recently, work on these devices (or, as John refers to them, “sensors”) has been going on for a long time.

John Barrett:

“The Internet of things, in a way, is not a recent concept, in that there has been research on wireless sensor networks for decades, and the Internet of Things is fundamentally a wireless sensor network that is now connected to the Internet. The activity of the Nimbus Centre has grown out of research that we were doing for quite some time in the whole area of wireless sensor networks for various forms of monitoring. But these usually connected to a dedicated non-public wireless network, whereas the Internet of Things connects the sensors effectively to the public Internet . . . . [T]he research community is increasingly referring to it as ‘cyber-physical systems.’”

One of the interesting insights from my conversation with John was his perspective in not focusing on the individual functionality of a device, but on the societal benefit of connecting certain devices to the Internet.

John Barrett:

“Approaching it from a national or government point of view, you have major problems like global warming, national security, and energy management. Conceivably, the Internet of Things can help, if not to stop them, to at least improve things. . . . If you have some ability to monitor groundwater levels, river flows, rainfalls, you have some ability to perhaps be able to predict in advance when and where flooding is going to occur. If you can manage energy better and increase energy efficiency, you can reduce energy consumption and therefore the impact on the environment, and perhaps hold off global warming or at least slow it down. With the growth in international terrorism, some of it caused by the Internet itself, the ability to be able to better monitor what’s going on is a major market.”

The IoT space is already huge. Total global spending on IoT devices and appliances across all environments (work and home) was an estimated $737 billion in 2016 and is projected to reach up to $1.4 trillion by 2021. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, IoT is projected to have an economic impact of somewhere between $4 to $11 trillion on the global economy by 2025, when factoring in its impact in sectors like manufacturing, health, retail, and the smart home. I wanted to know: how did John think of the smart home in the broader context of the entire IoT space?

John Barrett:

“I guess the current perception of the smart home is one of gadgets, one of what would be seen as home automation, more and more home automation, and things like the smart speakers . . . smart appliances, smart security, smart energy management, all sorts of individual gadgets that can allow you to do one thing or another. I don’t think that is the long-term evolution. . . . [T]here are two separate questions. What will the smart home be? What would I like the smart home to be? It’s very difficult to predict these days even five years into the future, never mind 10 or 20, but I could say where I would like it to go. It’s not just a home of gadgets. It’s a home that’s embedded in a wider smart community. That I think is a wider concept, which needs to be taken into account for the long-term evolution of smart home technology.”

John gave me one intriguing example of what a smart home community could be capable of, if all the homes were connected to a central network and communicating with one another.

John Barrett:

“Perhaps water levels are rising in one part of the community. The smart home detects it. There are water levels beginning to rise. You spread an alarm to other areas of the community. As it propagates through different houses, it can map out the direction of propagation, where it’s rising fastest, predict down the line, ‘It’s unlikely that this street or this street will need to evacuate. It’s headed in your direction. Be prepared.’ The homes begin to form a network that looks after the people.”

Here’s another example of how, in John’s view, the smart home is more effective if it is integrated with connected devices not in the home.

John Barrett:

“[T]here is no reason, if I’m wearing a health monitor, why my car can’t communicate with the health monitor and pass the data upwards to some data analytics service that is monitoring how my heart is behaving. I move from my car to my home, I’d want the home to take over that role. I move from my home to somewhere else, I would like for that data from me to still be uploaded seamlessly so that, in a way, we’re not looking at a smart home. We’re looking at a smart life, because the home is the people who live in it. The smartness is something we should be able to carry with us. It’s not just a matter of there is just this single smart home that does something, and that’s where we are at the moment.”

The History of the Smart Home

I was curious where this idea of a smart home originated. Intelligent home devices have long included some type of computational power to reduce manual work. The idea of reducing work using machines has been part of the American consciousness for more than a hundred years, well before the technology existed to implement any of the devices coming online today. Think of the conventional washing machine, which, with the press of a button, automatically soaks, cleans, and wrings out water from a load of clothing.

This idea of a home that could minimize work for its inhabitants was sold en masse to American homemakers in the beginning of the 20th century. It came in the form of the world’s first vacuum cleaner in 1901, followed by the electric washing machine in 1904. In the following decades, the clothes dryer, clothes iron, refrigerator, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and other appliances would be introduced. The time saved by these automated appliances can’t be understated when compared to doing these tasks manually, although it’s hard for us today to imagine living without such modern creature comforts.

This idea of a home that could minimize work for its inhabitants was sold en masse to American homemakers in the beginning of the 20th century. It came in the form of the world’s first vacuum cleaner in 1901, followed by the electric washing machine in 1904. In the following decades, the clothes dryer, clothes iron, refrigerator, dishwasher, garbage disposal, and other appliances would be introduced. The time saved by these automated appliances can’t be understated when compared to doing these tasks manually, although it’s hard for us today to imagine living without such modern creature comforts.

The first instance I could find of a science fiction vision of the smart home was E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” published in 1909. Forster portrays humanity as an underground-dwelling race that depends on a machine to fulfill all their bodily and spiritual needs. That story predicted such advances as instant messaging and video conferencing. In 1948, the book, 1984, by George Orwell depicted every home with a connected telescreen and a voice-controlled device called a “speakwrite,” which today we would think of as a voice assistant.

Interestingly, there are other industries that are being disrupted now that have also been part of the collective consciousness for over 100 years. The first crude version of an electric car was invented by Robert Anderson around 1832. This next fact shocked me. By 1900, almost a third of all cars on the road were electric. It was surprised because it’s hard to imagine that we went from having electric cars to virtually abandoning them for over a century while we polluted the world with gas guzzling vehicles, only to begin the return to them over the past decade. The problem with the electric cars that were used in the early 1900’s was their speed and distance.  They were extremely slow at 20 mph and could travel a very short distance of 30-40 miles before the batteries needed to be recharged. The earliest versions of the electric vehicle were doomed by the introduction of Henry Ford’s affordable Model T in 1908 and the relatively cheap cost of gasoline due to the unearthing of Texas crude oil. By 1935, the electric car was disappearing. It wouldn’t reemerge again until 1997 when Toyota released the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle. It wasn’t until 2008 that Tesla began producing luxury electric vehicles that could travel up to 245 miles on a single charge.

The history of the smart home has had similar false starts. We think of computers in the home today as useful for surfing the web or writing documents and building spreadsheets. But in 1966, the first home computer, the ECHO IV, was built by a Westinghouse engineer on his own time with permission from his employer. The ECHO IV was designed to accomplish, among other things, tasks like computing shopping lists, controlling the temperature of your home, or turning your appliances on or off. The ECHO IV never commercially shipped. As the decades passed, the promise of technology in the home seemed to arrive in slow motion, even while there was a general awareness that this was an area with immense potential. In 1984, the National Association of Homebuilders coined the term “smart home” as a niche group that advocated for integrating technological solutions into the homebuilding process.

Want access to the full podcast episode? Experience Smart Homes & IoT: A Century In The Making” in its entirety.