A Smart Home Neighborhood: Residents Find It Enjoyably Convenient Or A Bit Creepy

Nov 9, 2019
Originally published on November 12, 2019 10:01 am

When the Ferguson family decided they wanted to live in the Seattle suburb of Black Diamond they weren't in the market for a smart home. But they wound up with one, a house packed with Internet-connected devices.

Fifteen-year-old Macey Ferguson loves it. "I just feel really fancy," she says about having Amazon's Alexa there to turn on the lights for her, or to remind her when to go to cheerleading practice. "I feel like she's my little servant, or butler." Her older brother uses it for math homework, her younger sister for calling grandma. Her three-year-old brother asks Alexa for cake recipes so he can stare longingly at the photos.

Kelli Ferguson, the mom in this household, is more ambivalent. On the one hand, it's nice to ask Alexa to heat up the house before crawling out of bed in the winter. On the other, there's all those cameras. "If I'm walking on our street, I walk on the other side of the street," she said, meaning the side without the smart homes. "Just because I don't feel like being on everyone's cameras."

Living in a smart home neighborhood, the Fergusons experience both convenience and surveillance. And that's typical in Black Diamond, where Lennar Homes offers smart homes as part of a 4,800 unit development that includes other builders. This neighborhood isn't a one off. There are smart home developments in suburbs outside of cities such as Miami and San Francisco. Lennar is making Amazon tech standard on each of the 45,000 homes it builds this year.

This partnership between builders and Amazon benefits both sides. Amazon wants to push for wider adoption of its Echo smart speaker. Lennar relies on Amazon to help distinguish it from other home builders in communities like Black Diamond.

But do users really need smart home technology?

Amazon really wants you to think so. In Black Diamond, the pitch starts at the Amazon Experience Center, a model home just around the corner from the Fergusons.

Lennar New Home consultant Brittney Svach throws out commands like a smart home samurai, using her voice to lock the door, start up the robot vacuum, dim the lights, close the blinds, and call up a feed on the smart television from one of the home's many surveillance cameras. "Alexa, show me the backyard," she commands. Up pops a video. "And now we can spy on whoever's having a drink out on the patio," she says with a smile.

Amazon has a lot of ground to cover if it wants to build a market of consumers hungry for smart homes. A Zillow survey says smart homes technology is down the list of desired home features, lagging far behind air conditioning and ample storage. It's roughly as important as a hot tub for those shopping for a home.

But Dave Garland thinks the technology will take off once people try it. He's with Second Century Ventures, an investment arm of the National Association of Realtors. "There's a new narrative when it comes to what 'home' means," he says. "It means a personalized environment where technology responds to your every need. "

Black Diamond resident Drew Holmes buys that line. Like the Fergusons, he wasn't looking for a smart home, but the technology came with the one he happened to like. Now he enjoys all the smart home features. "I would not live without them," he said.

His favorite is a Ring doorbell that logs visitors. "I have teenagers," he said. "It's nice to confirm when they come home. And I have proof of it."

Therron Smith had a very different reaction to the smart home pitch. "The thought of having cameras in every room and that potential exposure... just kind of made us nervous about it," he says.

Smith works in tech, and says that's how he knows the risks. It's not just cameras, even light switches capture information. "That data's not just sitting there, just ... empty," he says. "Somebody's gonna look at it and leverage it, to try to turn a profit, or try to create an ad, or try to create some revenue."

When newcomers purchase a home in Black Diamond, they're not just buying property – they're staking out a position on how far they'll allow tech companies to intrude into their lives. That's something many us will need to navigate if this technology becomes standard in more neighborhoods.

You can learn more on how Amazon is changing us by subscribing to the KUOW podcast, Primed.

Editor's note: Amazon is one of NPR's recent financial supporters.

Copyright 2019 KUOW. To see more, visit KUOW.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There's a new kind of community about an hour south of Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, Wash. What makes it a new kind of community is all the Amazon gear. The neighborhood in the town of Black Diamond is stuffed with so much technology you could call it a smart home laboratory. Its residents are learning what it's like to live in what may be the home of the future. They're finding smart homes offer convenience but also feed tech companies incredibly detailed information about their lives. KUOW's Joshua McNichols takes us there.

JOSHUA MCNICHOLS, BYLINE: Is one of these the Amazon house?

BRITTNEY SVACH: Yeah. So the one that has the sign in front of it that says Amazon Experience Center - that's the one that we're going to tour.

MCNICHOLS: Brittney Svach works for Lennar, one of the nation's largest home builders, and she's been making the same sales pitch over and over to potential homebuyers in this Seattle suburb - control everything from your window blinds to your door locks using just your voice.

ALEXA: The front door is locked.

MCNICHOLS: Adjust the mood lighting or tell Roomba to clean up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROOMBA RUNNING)

MCNICHOLS: Call up the feed from one of the countless video cameras on the smart television.

SVACH: Alexa, show me the backyard.

ALEXA: OK.

SVACH: And now we can spy on whoever is having a drink on the back patio (laughter).

MCNICHOLS: Cameras and convenience - that's the pitch. Drew Holmes (ph) wasn't looking for a smart home when he shopped for a house here. But the technologies came with the house.

DREW HOLMES: Now I, like, would not live without them.

MCNICHOLS: His favorite feature is a Ring Doorbell that logs visitors.

HOLMES: I have a teenager. It's nice to confirm when they come home and I can - I have proof of it.

MCNICHOLS: One time, Holmes was away on a business trip, and his stepdaughter forgot her key and couldn't get in.

HOLMES: So she just texted me, hey, can you open the door? And I opened the door from Oregon, and so that was nice - problem solved.

MCNICHOLS: There are other neighborhoods like this bubbling up outside tech-savvy cities like Miami and Denver. And I should mention Amazon is an NPR sponsor. In this neighborhood, Alexa's in every room. She adjusts the thermostat and reports on people's commutes when they roll out of bed. And she's getting better at it because she's watching and learning what people need. But that data collection worries Therron Smith (ph), and he went out of his way to buy a home here that does not include smart home technology. He didn't want the cloud to know every time his kids flip a light switch.

THERRON SMITH: That data's not just sitting there just empty. Like, somebody's going to look at it and leverage it to try to turn a profit or try to create an ad or try to create some revenue.

MCNICHOLS: That might be one reason smart homes aren't more popular already. A Zillow survey found people are just far more interested in air conditioning and ample storage than smart home technology. On the other hand, Dave Garland thinks the technology will take off once people try it. He's with Second Century Ventures, an investment arm of the National Association of Realtors.

DAVE GARLAND: There is a new narrative when it comes to what home means.

MCNICHOLS: It means a personalized environment where technology responds to your every need. Maybe it means giving up some privacy. These families are trying out that compromise. Fifteen-year-old Macey Ferguson (ph) says she likes it. She uses Alexa alarms - one for cheerleading practice and one for homework - to help her manage her busy life.

MACEY FERGUSON: I just feel really fancy because I feel like she's my little, like, servant or butler - I don't (laughter) - butler.

MCNICHOLS: But her mom, Kelli (ph), is more cautious.

KELLI FERGUSON: If I'm walking on our street, I walk on the other side of the street...

MCNICHOLS: The side without the smart homes...

FERGUSON: Just because I don't feel like being on everyone's cameras.

MCNICHOLS: And that's something we'll all have to learn how to navigate if this technology becomes standard in more neighborhoods.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua McNichols in Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE THE ROBOTS' "TURKISH VOODOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.