Designing a Hands-Free Future for Your Home

Think about how you interact with your home currently. Maybe you come home from work and unlock your front door with a key to get in. Or maybe you press a button to open the garage and press it once more to close it once you pull in. You then flick a light switch on and may even settle in on your couch after grabbing the TV remote and pressing another button to turn it on. If you’re trying to be safe during these times, you’ll probably even go over to your sink and turn the knob or push the handle to wash your hands before fully settling in.

Interactions like these are what make up the average home experience, but what I’ll explore here is the future of what a more advanced, more versatile, non-touch home could look like. In some ways, your home may already be stepping into the future of non-touch through devices like the Google Home or Alexa. We’ll be looking at how we can maximize these devices and incorporate new technology to create a smart non-touch home. But first, let’s start with a heuristic analysis of how the current average home functions.

Heuristic Analysis

Overall, the current average home doesn’t do too bad of a job at satisfying Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics, but one of the heuristics it needs the most work with is flexibility and efficiency of use. In general, there’s typically only one way (maybe two) of accomplishing a task in your home. For example, to turn the TV on you press a button, whether that’s on the remote or the TV itself. Similarly, to turn a light on you’d have to walk over to the switch and flip it. But if a user doesn’t want to get up, or even can’t, having more options in terms of how to interact with our homes is essential. Think about the ease that could be brought if you could simply say “Ok Google, turn the TV on to CNN,” or if you could gesture to a device that turns your lights on and off.

Next, when we look at help & documentation, there isn’t much clearly provided. For example, have you ever been at someone else’s house and had to shower? It sometimes takes a moment to figure out how their shower works because a lot of shower controls are made differently. Help & documentation exist (sure, you could ask someone how it works or look it up if you’re really confused), but it would be a lot easier if you could just say “Hey Siri, start the shower.”

Something the average home does do well is consistency and standards because — for the most part — all homes run the same. Most homes have light switches, and doors, and toilets, and refrigerators that all work quite similarly. However, software like the Google Nest, Hello video doorbells, and voice interactions are quickly beginning to change the game by separating average homes from smart homes. The consistency and standards we know in our homes is very likely to soon change. Let’s take a look at a summary of all 10 heuristics:

Accessibility and Inclusivity

Looking at accessibility and inclusivity in the home, it’s most important that a home is operable and that it offers choice and control to it’s occupants. After all, it’s your home and it should work for you. For example, if you’re a forgetful person, having more than one way to turn lights on/off or lock doors is important. Technology like motion sensors and remote activation/deactivation can allow users to turn off their lights and lock their doors if they forget on their way out, are in a rush, etc.

Along these lines, a person with a motor disability or even someone who is blind needs a home that works for them. Where getting up to flick a light switch or change the thermostat isn’t impossible, it’d be much easier if there was numerous ways to do this that suited them.

Knowing this, let’s take a look at what it would take to make your home more usable, accessible, and interactive through smart non-touch technology.

The Redesign

For a smart, non-touch home to be truly accessible and interactive for all, it’s important that it does not rely on one type of technology. In this redesign, we’ll be walking through how we can create a non-touch home through voice interactions, gesture control, and biometric technology.

Voice Interactions

A number of homes around the world are already equipped with Google Homes, Amazon Alexa's, Siri, or other voice assistants. But these devices are good for doing tasks beyond just telling us the weather. With the right additional technology, we can use these devices to control certain aspects of our homes.

For example, with a Smart LED Lightbulb connected to a voice interaction device, you can now use this device to control the lights in your home just by speaking to it. This makes controlling the lights completely hands free — no more getting up to turn the light switch on and off. This is especially helpful for those with mobility problems and even the average joe who gets comfortable in bed after realizing they forgot to turn the light off — no longer a problem anymore when you can simply say, “Alexa, turn off the bedroom light.”

Let’s also use voice technology to control our thermostat in a non-touch manner. This involves the incorporation of the up and coming smart thermostats that are intelligent enough to self-monitor the environment. They will raise or lower the temperature and humidity to a homeowner’s desired ranges without any buttons pressed. The Ecobee’s Smart Thermostat, for example, automatically senses the environment and can learn a homeowner’s routine. Users can also talk to the thermometer to control the temperature, make a call, send a message, or connect through other Alexa-enabled devices, without even moving from their spot.

Voice control should also come in handy when you’re not able to use your hands to accomplish a task. If I walk up to my sink with dirty hands, I need an alternative to touching the handle to turn it on and dirtying that as well. Voice technology makes that possible, with devices like Kohler’s Sensate Touchless Faucet. Users can control the faucet with voice commands such as “Turn my faucet on.” This creates an entirely touch-free experience, along with reducing the number of germs and dirt spread for a cleaner home as well.

Now, let’s take all of this a step further. What the future needs is a way to tie all these products and their abilities together. Therefore, I suggest the home you can talk to. Imagine a device in every room of your home that you can both speak to and have speak to you. No matter where you are, you can tell this device what to do, and it can access that appliance or part of your home to accomplish that task. In the below image, we can see a mockup of what these speakers would look like, blending seamlessly into the ceiling of your home.

With speaking devices like these all around your home, you could sit in your living room, say “My Home, start a bath in the master bathroom,” and have a tub ready for you when you get there without having moved a finger. With this device you would be able to speak aloud from anywhere to work any of the devices mentioned above, and more, all on the same system. This diagram below shows the various different demands this device can accomplish.

Gesture Control

Remembering that an accessible and inclusive home is one that has multiple ways of operating for each individuals needs, in comes the voice and gesture controlled home. Having voice control is great, but having gesture control as another option is even better. For the scenario where you’re making dinner while mid-conversation with your friend or family member and you need to wash the food off your hands, a gesture controlled faucet is just another great option so you don’t have to touch it with dirty hands or stop your conversation. With advanced faucet technology like that from Moen, motion-sensing technology at the top and front of the faucet allows users to turn the water on and off with just the swipe of a hand.

Gesture control sinks are great as a more sanitary option, and beyond that, a gesture controlled toilet could have the same benefits. Automatic toilets are often used in public restrooms, but we can take that one step further by creating automatic toilets for the home that not only flush hands-free, but also open and close through motion sensing. The innovative brand Toto is already working on this with their Neorest H Dual Flush Toilet. It’s sensor capabilities provide an entirely touch free experience in your own home.

We can see how gesture control technology would be a great help around the home and how in small ways it is starting to become incorporated. Let’s take it further by imagining a home where you can use gesture control in any room, to control nearly all parts of your home. Through the implementation of a gesture sensing device in each room (see below), similar to an at home security camera, a residents gestures could be picked up from anywhere to accomplish tasks.

For each room, the gesture sensor recognizes where devices/appliances are located around the room and which gestures correspond to each. For example, to turn a light on, you would flick your hand upwards aimed at the light switch and the sensor would understand that you want the light turned on. Similarly, you might also wave your hand upwards aimed at the TV to motion that you would like to turn the TV on. The sensor is able to see not only your hand, but the detail of your fingers and wrist (below). This allows it to detect motions like how you would turn your wrist to motion the turning of a knob, such as if you’re gesturing to adjust the volume of your TV.

Obviously learning and remembering all the gestures to control your home will take practice, but by having the voice system mentioned earlier already in place, the two can work together! If you don’t remember a gesture, you can just ask! Or you can simply speak your desire, providing the user countless options for controlling their home.

Biometric Technology

Facial recognition is already commonplace for unlocking smartphones, but what about for unlocking your house? Face recognition biometric door locks are still in their early stages, but ones like the door lock from ZKTeco help show us what a non-touch entry might look like.

This lock scans your face so you no longer need a key to enter your home, providing non-touch entry and an extra layer of safety in that you won’t have to worry about a lost key getting taken ever again — you’re home is accessible to your face only. Taking this a step further, this technology could be combined with an automatic door to make a home entry that requires no key, door knob, or any touching of the door at all as it opens and closes automatically.

Now imagine this technology all throughout your home. Through biometrics, facial recognition could be used on a number of different areas of the home to customize the experience to the specific user. Imagine a small camera like the one below that is compatible with devices like your shower, TV, lighting and more.

By placing a small facial recognition camera like this around the home and syncing it up with various devices and appliances, we can customize our experiences in the home. For example, imagine walking up to take a shower, scanning your face, and having the shower immediately turned on to the exact settings you like it — the temperature is right and your favorite music is cued up. Or perhaps you turn on the TV, and through facial recognition, the TV can identify it’s you, turn the volume to your preferred settings, and change the TV to your favorite channel. With this biometric technology, we can take inclusion and accessibility in the home one step further by allowing for customization.

One last thing — NFC tags!

As we’ve seen, although voice, gesture, and biometric technology can help create a great non-touch smart home, one more piece of growing technology can also help enhance our homes: NFC tags. With NFC tags, you can simply tap your phone against a tag to take you to a webpage with whatever information you desire. This could be a great addition to appliances around the home. A lot of times if something goes wrong or breaks with an appliance in our home, we have to spend lots of time finding and fishing out the manual that originally came with the product or scouring the internet for how to fix it. Having NFC tags associated with common household appliances could help resolve this problem. For example, if the ice dispenser on your fridge stops working one day, it’d be so much easier if you could use an NFC tag to direct you exactly to the product manual or FAQs about it.

In Conclusion…

As technology improves and evolves over time, it’s important to think big and work together. Achieving a fully voice, gesture, and biometrically controlled home will take lots of progression and it should not be done alone. The average home owner is not going to buy appliances that are all the same brand or from the same company, so it is important that those in the tech industry work to make these devices compatible with all, or as many parts of the home as possible, which means branching beyond their company. As we’ve mentioned, the goal of a fully smart home is to make it as usable, accessible, and inclusive as possible. This means providing the user with numerous ways of interacting and clear directions for use is essential. With all this in mind, we are on our way to the future of smart homes.