Smart connected devices like lights, locks, shades, thermostats, robot vacuums, and security cameras can make your home more convenient, safer, and sometimes kind of fun. But even if you’re all in on connecting all the things in your home, there are two things that make the smart home a tough sell for a lot of households. You need your phone to control things 80 percent of the time, and getting all these devices to work together in smart home harmony through routines and automations is often confusing and complicated.
Thankfully, there’s finally some real momentum toward fixing these two challenges through more and better interfaces for smart home control and with smart uses of generative AI that make device automation as easy as typing what you want.
Map my home
While voice control and smart displays teased a more democratic way of controlling devices in the home, it’s still often faster and more reliable to control your lights, shades, locks, and scenes from your phone thanks to clunky nomenclature and underpowered hardware. This is a problem because it means one person in the home ends up being the master of all the connected things (via a folder of dozens of separate apps, but that’s another issue), and everyone else ends up living in a semi-authoritarian state under the control of said person and their smartphone.
One person in the home ends up being the master of all the connected things, and everyone else ends up living in a semi-authoritarian state
As I’ve said many times before, we need more and better interfaces for controlling devices. From ones that blend into your home, like the uber cool Mui Board (a piece of wood that’s also a touchscreen), or those that appear only when needed, like Samsung’s Ballie home robot with its roving projection screen, smart home control needs to be intuitive and accessible for everyone. You know, like the light switch, only better.
New innovative and intuitive control interfaces that fit into our homes better — like the Mui Board 2 — are what the smart home needs more of.
While the likelihood of either of these gadgets ever making it into your home is slim to none, the ideas are good, and I hope we’ll see more like them soon. However, there was one innovative new interface I saw everywhere at CES 2024 that you can actually use today: map view.
All the big tech companies at CES this year were showing off new map-based interfaces for interacting with smart home gadgets through their platforms, including LG, Samsung, Amazon, and even smaller players like TP-Link’s Tapo. These interfaces present a 3D map view of your home with your connected devices placed throughout, and you can simply point and tap to control those devices.
Samsung’s Map View lets you select device types and see status of all compatible devices. This is the camera view. Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge
This view shows all temperature sensors. Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge
Put this on a communal tablet (Amazon is bringing Map View to its new Echo Hub smart display and Tapo to its iPad app) or the screen on a smart fridge, and controlling that specific smart light by the sofa becomes a lot easier for the uninitiated than poring through a list of devices in a smartphone app or guessing the name when asking a voice assistant to turn it on.
However, put map view on a TV, and it’s suddenly even more familiar to everyone in the household. Samsung’s Map View works on your TV today, and it’s likely LG’s will, too, either using its ThinQ platform or perhaps now that all LG TVs can be Google Home hubs, we’ll see Google move into this space as well. It’s obviously something Amazon could easily do with its Fire TV. Now, anyone in a house can pick up a TV remote and easily control lights, thermostats, shades, or a camera feed with a point and click.
I saw a demo of Samsung’s SmartThings Map View on a Samsung TV at CES using a remote control, and it reminded me of the much-missed Logitech Harmony remote. Map View gives you a simple way to point and control any device in your home from the comfort of the couch without the need for separate hardware.
Push my buttons
GE Cync is working on a new scene controller / smart button that will work with Matter. Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge
Many of us still prefer physical buttons for controlling our homes, and that’s where the smart button (also known as a scene controller) is starting to gain some traction as a good solution for smart home control. It’s the light switch, evolved.
A smart button is generally a wireless device that can be wall-mounted to look like a switch or used as a handheld or tabletop device. Rather than controlling a single circuit as a switch might or a single device as a traditional IR remote might, smart buttons can be programmed to control any number of devices or scenes connected to it.
With the advent of the new smart home standard Matter, many of these smart buttons have the potential to become infinitely more useful, as you can connect lights, locks, shades, robot vacuums, thermostats, and more from different manufacturers and control them all with one push.
Flic, Tuo, Onvis, and others have developed smart buttons that do or should soon support Matter. However, Apple Home and Samsung SmartThings are the only two of the big four Matter platforms that support buttons right now. Amazon Alexa and Google Home say they’re working on adding it but haven’t provided a timeline for when Matter button support might arrive.
At CES, smart lighting company GE Cync showed off a new smart button prototype that will work with Matter. Inspired by the high-end scene controllers you might find in professionally installed systems managed by its parent company, Savant, GE Cync’s scene controller is designed to control groups of lights or scenes from each button. With Matter, you could tie in lights and devices from any Matter-compatible manufacturer.
Nanoleaf’s new smart wireless switches (left, next to a standard switch) work over Thread and Matter and can be removed from the wall to act as a remote control. They are scheduled to arrive this summer. Photo by Jennifer Pattison Tuohy / The Verge
Nanoleaf showcased its Sense Plus smart wireless switch, which it debuted at CES last year but now says will arrive this summer. With six mappable buttons, you should be able to use these to control Nanoleaf’s smart bulbs directly over a local Thread connection or tie the buttons into a smart scene from any Matter-compatible platform to control multiple devices with a single button press.
The biggest problem with smart buttons is remembering which button controls which scene, group of lights, or other devices. Some, like Onvis, with its 5-Key Thread smart switch, fix this with somewhat sloppy-looking stickers. Leviton lets you order engraved buttons for your scenes on its wired scene controller, but this is still a problem with smart buttons.
Linxura has a neat solution: with a click wheel around an e paper screen, the $100 Linxura smart controller can display four devices at a time, including lights, shades, locks, and fans, so you can easily switch between them and click to control. It currently supports IFTTT, Alexa, and Google, with Matter support coming in Q2 via a firmware update, according to the company.
Do it all for me
All this talk of control illustrates that today’s smart home still largely depends on remote control. While technologies such as RF sensing are making big advances, the ambient smart home that understands context (and can know when to turn this light on and at what brightness based on who is in the room and where) is still a long way out.
Creating complex automations that make the smart home feel magical is becoming easier, thanks to generative AI
No, I don’t think AI-powered home robots are the solution here — LG’s AI Agent robot it demoed at CES felt more authoritarian than helpful, and Samsung’s Ballie’s best trick was its projector screen. But the context connected devices in our home can provide will be key. LG says it is already poised to use what it calls “real time life data” collected from its 7 billion connected devices in people’s homes to learn about how you use your home and react more intuitively. (With your permission).
Today, however, creating more complex automations and scenes that make the smart home feel more magical is becoming easier, thanks to generative AI. At CES, smart home companies Govee and Aqara both demoed ways they’re using generative AI to help users build and execute routines that would have been fiddly and time-consuming to set up by themselves.
Now, with its AI Lighting Bot, you can tell the Govee app that you want “a Barbie Dreamhouse-inspired effect,” and instead of needing to go through and individually program every Govee smart light you own in various shades of pink, Govee’s bot will do it for you.
You, too, can have that Barbie Dreamhouse look thanks to generative AI. Image: Govee
Aqara is also adding a new Home Copilot to its smart home platform. At first, Home Copilot will be a chatbot in Aqara’s app that understands natural language, so you can ask it to set up an automation that turns your lights off at 10PM, locks the doors, and lowers all the shades.
Ultimately, Aqara says Home Copilot will be able to analyze the usage patterns in an Aqara home and proactively suggest customized automations, including tailored plans for energy-saving automation. With Aqara opening its platform to third-party Matter devices through its new hub M3, this could be a very powerful tool.
Aqara also showed off a concept device in its booth to let you talk directly to Home Copilot. The wireless voice controllers have a microphone in them that’s only activated when you pick them up.
AI is not new in the smart home — Google Home and Amazon Alexa have been slowly incorporating it into their platforms at various levels, and machine learning has been powering smart home security cameras for a while now. But the power of generative AI feels poised to bring a sea change to the smart home that will make it simpler to use and feel smarter overall. Combined with the interoperability Matter is (slowly) bringing to the space, I’m excited to see the smart home enter this new era.
Correction: Monday, January 22, 11:15 AM: A previous version of this article stated Samsung SmartThings didn’t support Matter-compatible buttons. That is incorrect; SmartThings does support them. We regret the error.