Blame it on the Jetsons. Two years ago, the so-called smart home seemed poised to follow the Internet and smartphone as the next big revolution in consumer technology. Devices ranging from app-controlled air conditioners to water purifiers that automatically reorder fresh filters online promised to distribute the benefits of Internet connectivity and algorithmic intelligence throughout the home, rendering dwellings healthier and more efficient. Anticipating this shift, Google acquired thermostat maker Nest for $3.2 billion in 2014 and installed the startup’s co-founder Tony Fadell as its hardware czar. He had helped create the iPod at Apple and envisioned reimagining a panoply of mundane home appliances. A few months later, Samsung bought SmartThings, a maker of connected light switches, doorknobs and water sensors, for an estimated $200 million. Over the course of that summer alone, investors spent some $800 million to acquire or fund companies with dreams of smartening up and automating American homes.
But then the revolution stalled. Consumers brought home fancy new gadgets only to face problems installing them or getting them to talk to one another. By 2016, growth in demand for devices like home-surveillance cameras and connected thermostats had flattened, according to research firm Accenture. High-profile companies began to falter. Quirky, a pioneer in helping inventors of smart-home gadgets find funding, filed for bankruptcy in late 2015. After an acrimonious tenure, Fadell left Nest this year, having launched few new products.
What happened? Jetsons-style visions of automated homes in which technology seamlessly performs the combined functions of butler, cook and maid turned out to be harder to provide than smart-home firms seemed to initially suggest. “Not only has the smart home been overpromised by many companies,” says Adam Sager, founder and CEO of home-security-camera maker Canary, “but the biggest failure has been to conceive reasons why a user would want their home to be smart.” Sager says many ventures erred in trying to sell new gear without first asking “why they’re creating the technology.”
This disconnect between promise and reality jarred early advocates. “The biggest thing we found is that the early returns were consumers getting it home and it didn’t work,” says John Feland, CEO of Argus Insights, a research firm that has studied the adoption of smart-home technology. Some consumers who bought Nest’s $99 smoke alarm, for example, found that their wi-fi network didn’t reach the location where they’d hoped to install the gadget, blunting its ability to communicate with other smart-home gear. These types of installation issues dampened enthusiasm, says Feland.
Technologists have a term for these growing pains: the chasm, or the gulf between the difficulties early adopters are willing to endure to make a new technology a part of their lives and what mainstream consumers will put up with. A lot of would-be best sellers have disappeared into this chasm; there was e-commerce before Amazon, smartphones before the iPhone and wearable tech before Fitbit. But each became a hit by simplifying the concept enough to appeal to a mass audience. The smart home hasn’t quite reached that point yet. “It’s been 15 years we’ve talked about the smart home,” says the CEO of Philips Lighting, Eric Rondolat. “It has not happened because of complexity.”
Put another way, what the smart home has so far lacked is a brain, a central nervous system to bring into concert a cacophony of Internet-enabled lights, doorbells, security cameras, locks and so on. That’s what Silicon Valley is trying to crack right now. Apple and Google both have plans to do just that, building on their dominance in smartphones and software. But Amazon may have gotten there first. The company’s Echo speaker–which understands and responds to voice commands–is increasingly able to control smart gadgets throughout the home. Feland says this has given the e-commerce giant an unlikely edge. “When Echo came out, it was a novelty, but Amazon was the first to give your house a voice and personality,” he says. Not unlike those space-age cartoons.
The truly smart home may be some way off yet, but individual technologies can already do a lot. Here’s a closer look:
1 Adjust your lights
Smart lightbulbs like those made by Philips and Lifx allow users to adjust the lighting in their homes using voice control or an app. These lights can also access your phone’s GPS signal to detect when you’re on your way home and illuminate the interior as you walk in the door.
2 Restock the pantry
Amazon’s Dash buttons allow you to order items like snacks and paper towels simply by pushing a plastic button. Some gadgets take this a step further: Brita, for example, offers a water pitcher that knows when the filter is about to expire and automatically orders a fresh one online.
3 Spy on your fridge
Samsung’s wi-fi-equipped refrigerator has a camera inside so that you can see what items you’re out of when you’re at the grocer, for instance.
4 Change your climate
Nest’s thermostat learns about your temperature preferences over time and automatically adjusts according to factors like the time of day.
5 Watch your back
Companies like Icontrol Networks and Nest sell Internet-connected security cameras that can send alerts and record video when motion is detected in your home. Some gadgets, like the Nest Cam Outdoor, can also tell the difference between people and animals to avoid false alarms.
But the smart home has a long way to go before it can fulfill the classic idea of a conscious house.
1 Tidy up
Vacuums like the Roomba save time cleaning our floors. When it comes to other household chores, like organizing kitchen supplies or hanging clothing, not so much. Robots that handle tasks like these, including Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini, are just research projects for now rather than real products.
2 Fold laundry
Smart washing machines and dryers have made it easier to wash clothing, but the folding part remains unsolved. Japan-based Seven Dreamers’ prototype Laundroid robot is a towering machine that folds garments–but it could take hours to finish a full load.
3 Cook dinner
A soon-to-be-released smart oven, dubbed June, will come close to cooking autonomously. It knows, for example, how long to cook a steak if your preference is medium rare, thanks to built-in cameras and a scale. But, when it becomes available later this year, it will recognize only a limited number of foods.
4 Grocery shop
Appliances from Samsung and LG come with all sorts of tech to let you see what’s in your fridge without opening it. But none of it is smart enough to detect when you’re running low on milk or bread and automatically reorder it for you.
5 Secure itself–completely
Security is a priority for most smart-home firms. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be hacked. University of Michigan researchers were able to hack into Samsung’s platform in May, finding a way to obtain the PIN code for a door lock.
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.