Athletics

Technology in the Home Age

As we enter a historical period that anthropologists might someday call the “Home Age,” Athletics anticipates the accelerated adoption of connected home technologies, provoking the question: what do people really want from the Internet of Things in their domestic spaces? Here, we explore that question through the lens of three Athletics projects: Samsung Home Services, Brand N (yet to launch), and Nanit.

Home alone, but connected

In the wake of the Great Recession, economists noted a shift in consumer spending from physical property to immaterial experiences, particularly among millennials, or those born between roughly 1981 and 1996. This trend was motivated primarily by the economic anxiety associated with permanent ownership, but also by the emergence of social media, the proliferation of smartphones, and the ascendance of shared services like Uber, WeWork, and AirBnB. While millennials pioneered this new pattern of spending, older generations soon followed. Across the demographic board, Recession-era economics shaped a culture of non-ownership, while a culture of non-ownership reshaped our economy, leading Forbes in 2019 to predict that the shared services industry would reach $335 billion by 2025, up from just $15 billion in 2014 (Forbes). In the United States, nowhere was this shift more pronounced than in the housing market, where, between 2006 and 2014, “owner-occupied households fell by almost 1 million while the number of renter households increased by 7 million” (Bloomberg Opinion).

 

But what happens when an economy built on personal experience, mobility, and physical interaction crashes headlong into a historical moment in which entertainment, transportation, and travel have all but disappeared? The coronavirus pandemic has, in many parts of the world, reformatted our relationship with health, hygiene, and safety — shuttering restaurants, scattering crowds, and making travel untenable. Suddenly, the notion of a fixed domestic environment of one’s own doesn’t seem so constricting. Quite the opposite: in a time of lost control, a comfortable dwelling is essential. Looking ahead, while purchasing a home might still be unrealistic, particularly with another recession or even depression around the corner, consumers will still want to optimize their domestic environments to better serve basic human needs like physiology and safety, as well as higher-order needs like belonging and love.

 

In an emerging era that anthropologists might someday title the “Home Age,” we believe connected home technologies are well-positioned to deliver against a wide spectrum of human needs. Conor Sen of New River Investments, writing recently for Bloomberg Opinion, agrees: “as long as social distancing and fears of getting the virus persist, consumers probably will spend more on the trappings of their homes rather than services and experiences involving public spaces and crowds” (Bloomberg Opinion). Having worked with connected home providers including Samsung Home Services, Brand N (yet to launch), and Nanit, we know that the hard edges of technology and the soft edges of home life aren’t immediately compatible. But with the proper regard for a certain set of practical and emotional dynamics, these two sensibilities — the technical and the human — can not only be reconciled, but yield a quantifiable increase in quality of life.

The hard edges of technology and the soft edges of home life aren’t immediately compatible

Smart homes create time and space

In 2019 Athletics confronted this challenge of designing for our most intimate spaces when Samsung invited our team to strategize and design a graphic user interface identity for its forthcoming connected home apps, focusing primarily on the millennial market. Because the Samsung Home Services app would control a vast set of applications ranging from smart fridges to washing machines to televisions to smart mirrors, we had the opportunity to consider the concept of home from a holistic perspective. That being the case, we began by creating our own strategic definition of the ideal connected home: a place to live authentically, creatively, and sustainably in the modern world.

Our definition of the ideal connected home is "a place to live authentically, creatively, and sustainably in the modern world"

Supporting our working definition of the ideal connected home were four basic qualities of a good connected home experience:

 

  • First, we determined that connected home technology should make you feel at home in the world. This has a dual significance. On one level, technology must make it effortless to control one’s home environment from anywhere on earth, from turning on the heat before walking through the door, to checking on the security of one’s living space while on vacation. On another, it must form a “permeable membrane” to the outside world, whether serving local weather, air quality reports, and traffic news on smart surfaces in one’s kitchen, or automatically ordering fresh produce from a local grocer when stocks in the fridge run low.

 

  • Second, the best connected home technology is there when you want it. Being mindful of overexposure to technology, millennials want the benefits at their fingertips (or, in the age of voice-activated smart assistants, at their beck and call), but don’t always want to be bombarded with screens, buttons, notifications, flashing lights, or ringing bells. As Richard Schatzenberger, the artificial intelligence designer and founder of futurism consultancy Maison Thirteen wrote in 2018: “buttons, switches, and non-entertainment screens will disappear and be replaced with full voice — and, more importantly, living pattern — recognition” (BestLife).

 

  • Third, the best connected home technology has the right solution for every moment. As described above, homes are dynamic spaces. In the course of a single day, one’s home might function as a yoga studio, movie theater, workplace, prep kitchen, party venue, and restful space for sleeping. Connected home technologies can’t exist in a single modality: they have to learn and adjust to the constant evolution of home life. Whether silencing notifications and progressively dimming lights during a yoga session or playing a favorite playlist while entertaining guests, smart technology knows what’s wanted, when.

 

  • And finally, the best connected home technology reflects the best of you. By this we mean that smart devices should be eminently customizable and configurable: “blank canvases” for the preferred aesthetic of the resident. Everyone appreciates self expression, and wants their living spaces to be reflections of their own personality and values — not the personality and values of a tech company.

 

With this definition and these four qualities as our guiding criteria, we determined that the goal of good connected home technologies should be to create time and space to live our best lives. Inspired by this strategic objective, we designed a graphic user interface for Samsung Home Services that felt warm and soulful, with organic textures and motion behaviors, ample negative space, crisp lines, and serene colors. We sought to break the mold of smart home interfaces by considering new modes of commanding technology — from voice to motion gestures — to ease the integration of Samsung technology into millions of homes around the world. And while ostensibly designed with a focus on millennial residents, the intuitiveness and inviting aesthetic of the forthcoming Samsung Connected Home app — and the strategic premise it’s built upon — apply to any demographic. Everyone wants the time and space to live their best lives.

Smart homes bring the basics in-house

Art imitates life, but life imitates economics. As the Great Recession threatened personal finances, American millennials (among the most impacted by the crisis) looked for ways to tighten their belts. One tactic was staying home, which eliminated the unpredictable costs of transportation, entertainment, and other unknowns. The trend served to fuel the rise of on-demand food and drink delivery services like Seamless, Caviar, and Drizly, as well as premium streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go. As early as 2016 The New York Times wrote: “Food, entertainment, romance: the traditional weekend staples are now available entirely on demand. The centripetal force of our homes has never been stronger” (NYT).

 

If only they knew. In 2020, that “centripetal” force has been augmented by the vast medical, legal, and ethical forces unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. In a sense, the post-Recession “staying home is the new going out” ethos was good practice for our current predicament, as it established habits and built industries (like fresh grocery delivery) designed for domestic isolation. Still, no time in recent memory has humankind had to rethink its relationship with the outside world in such stark relief. Trips to the grocer, pharmacy, or post office: essential. Trips to the barber, masseuse, optometrist, laundromat, or shops: inessential. It seems the world has returned to a frontier psychology. Make due. Reuse and repair. Do with less.

 

Just in time to capitalize on this is a wave of connected home products designed to give people reasons to stay home and save money, while enjoying services previously rendered by external providers. This begs the question: can connected home technologies replace services previously provided by people in places outside of the home? Brand N, a smart nail polish system, makes a strong argument for the affirmative.

Can connected home technologies replace services previously provided by people in places outside of the home?

People should never have to compromise on the things that make them feel confident. United by this belief, Brand N’s team of engineers and beauty experts came together in 2016 to explore how cutting-edge technologies could simplify the lives of women and create moments of delight in her everyday. The company’s first product — the Brand N Polish System — gives nails the perfect polish in ten minutes or less — anytime, in the comfort of one’s own home, with the precision afforded by artificial intelligence.

 

Athletics provided guidance on naming, which feels light, airy, and essential, and developed a strategy and identity for the brand focused on the idea of “putting delight at her fingertips.” The visual identity, in turn, celebrates color and individuality, coupled with clear messaging balancing technology and emotion. Inspired by the cleanliness, efficiency, and quotidian wonder evoked by brands like Apple and Dyson, Brand N uses design and technology to bring joy to a task that otherwise would have been complicated, or in today’s world, impossible. In the Home Age, the value of products like Brand N will only increase, as women (and men) will seek to maintain that sense of polish (in the literal and figurative sense). As the Brand N team reminded us throughout our collaboration, “it sounds small, but feels big.”

 

Of course, there is something lost in a world without what sociologist Ray Oldenburg famously defined as the “third place,” defined by the Brookings Institute as “places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place),” or “locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships” (Brookings). Think nail salons, as well as cafés, bars, libraries, and social clubs. Today, with one third of the world’s population under “some form of lockdown,” billions of people don’t have the luxury of accessing their third places of choice, but that shouldn’t mean they should have to sacrifice the solace and delight associated with them (Statista). Instead, they can access a different form of personal benefit in the “first place”: home. Devices like Brand N can offer convenience in a most inconvenient time, and confidence in a time when we all need a little boost.

 

Not every piece of technology has to revolutionize life in any “disruptive” sense. Good technology can simply do one thing well: there is immense value in something that just, simply, works. Of course, technology cannot replace human interaction or experience. Using an at-home nail polish device and visiting a favorite salon with a friend are not the same thing, and that’s alright. Each serves a different, and no less important, purpose.

Smart homes provide peace-of-mind

In the age of coronavirus, we anticipate the success of technologies that eliminate worry and anxiety in the home, providing deeper and more useful intelligence while requiring the resident to actively monitor less. In order to succeed in being invited into the home, however, these devices and systems cannot complicate life or make residents feel watched. In other words, they can’t behave like bad neighbors, or unwanted house guests. Therein lies the core challenge of designing connected home products in the security category: the need to increase personal and family safety without giving anyone a sense they’re under surveillance.

The challenge in designing connected home products in the security category is the need to increase personal and family safety without giving anyone the sense that they're under surveillance

Nanit, the smart baby monitor, is a prime example of threading the needle between support and surveillance. Offering insights into infant sleep habits, Nanit helps guide delicate parenting decisions pertaining to nap and bedtime schedules. Meaning “goodnight” in Catalan, Nanit employs video technology that allows parents to see more, which ultimately means monitoring less. Founded by a team of ex-Israel Defense Forces pilots and navigators, Nanit’s technology was informed by CEO Dr. Assaf Glazer’s research into the health and wellness implications of video surveillance. On a more personal level, Dr. Glazer had recently welcomed his first child into the world, and was experiencing the inevitable concerns every parent faces with their first kid.

 

In 2016, the company enlisted Athletics to develop a creative strategy and apply it to the creation of a new brand identity system — from patterns to packaging to product design to photography. Both the Nanit team and Athletics knew that the central challenge was to introduce this novel technology to the parenting market while transcending the negative connotations of “surveillance.” The Nanit brand identity we designed communicates (implicitly) that the product is an innovative parenting tool well worth the investment, while avoiding any insidious implications of video surveillance.

 

Aiming to resonate with young parents, we focused on the product’s useful health metrics and attractive industrial design, avoiding the predictable pink and light blue palette associated with baby products for a more contemporary color system of red and navy. The entire brand is rooted in the concept “See Better,” which permeated industrial design, naming, the iconic gesture of the physical device, and the logomark. In addition, we developed an icon library to keep the user interface consistent with the overall brand aesthetic. The Nanit brand, from logomark to pattern system, is truly a kit of geometric parts, not unlike the physical product that arrives at one’s doorstep. Intuitive, elegant, and friendly, the pieces snap together, giving parents a powerful tool to see more, and monitor less.

 

Nanit has been reviewed favorably by outlets including Wired, Forbes, TechCrunch, and The Verge, while its Baby Monitor Plus was named one of the Best Inventions of 2018 by TIME Magazine (TIME). What can we learn from the success of this product? First, the company’s focus on applying design (from industrial to graphic) to ingratiate itself into the homes of its residents proves that considered design serves a purpose beyond surface-level aesthetic. As one prime example, Nanit recently launched a product called “Breathing Wear,” that allows its patented camera to monitor a baby’s breathing motion “simply by reading the customized patterns on the fabric” — patterns based on our brand system (Nanit). Second, Nanit’s smart technology proves that residents want greater visibility and insight without actively monitoring. And finally, Nanit shows that parents (and all residents, for that matter) put a premium on peace of mind. As every parent knows, a good night of sleep is priceless.

Homage to the home age

At the cusp of what might well be a new wave of investment into home life, we see incredible opportunities for both residents and creators of connected homes. But as we invite technology brands into our homes in a more fundamental way, it would behoove those brands to behave like good guests, and abide these basic principles:

 

  1. Make you feel at home in the world
  2. There when you want it
  3. The right solution for every moment
  4. Reflect the best of you

 

Conversely, we can characterize poor connected home technologies as follows:

 

  1. Control your life
  2. Make you feel watched
  3. Act like a bad neighbor
  4. Can’t keep up with you

 

These digital resources hold awesome potential, but will have to navigate a nuanced emotional terrain in our most private spaces to succeed. Looking to the future, we believe residents will make connected home technologies an inextricable part of home life, and reap the rewards at a time when the world is at home, and home becomes our world.

 

Explore the Nanit case study here

Please keep an eye out for more on our work with Samsung and Brand N