Smart House predicted the smart home in 1999. So where is it?

In 1999, before internet of things was a buzz word and back when we still used floppy disks, there was a movie called Smart House. It was a Disney Channel Original movie, directed by LeVar Burton, and unless you are in your early 20s (or a parent to a millennial), you’ve probably never seen it.

But if you happened to catch its run on the Disney Channel, at the changing of the millennia, you would’ve seen the future: an intelligent home with a built-in Siri-esque AI that could do anything from control your home temperature to cook meals. It projected rock concerts or waves to wake you up.

And if you had seen it, you would be left, like me, wondering why it’s not here yet.

Meet PAT

The movie revolves around a single dad, Nick, and his two kids, Ben and Angie. Ben wants to win the house to have a mother figure in their life that can take care of the family, without replacing the memories of his dead mom. That’s where PAT, short for Personal Applied Technology, steps in.

The movie opens with a scene of a newspaper being thrown into a yard, before a house yells at the paperboy that he needs to be more accurate in his deliveries, and sends a claw out to collect the paper.

As an artificial intelligence system, PAT is trained to do “basic” smart home things like set the temperature of the house, store phone numbers, make calls and identify voices. But she can also take a microscopic blood and tissue sample to run a house occupant’s DNA and know his or her medical history. Atmospheric kitchen sensors act as breathalyzers to break down entire diets before PAT cooks up meals to the taste and preference of each person living in the smart home.

“She observes them, studies them, learns to interpret their every need. Her being able to learn is her most advanced feature,” explains the character Sara Barnes, played by Jessica Steen. “The only thing it can’t do is mime.”

This was the future, in 1999

When you juxtapose a house that can cook and know your every need against an age where cell phones didn’t exist, it was supposed to be outlandish. After all, the family misses the call that they’ve won the smart house because they’re logged onto the internet – remember that thing called dial-up that sent a busy signal over your phone lines while you were logged on?

But the key to Smart House’s resonance in the younger generation, compared to say The Jetsons, was its mix of fantastical elements within the realm of possibility.

“For Smart House, we didn’t think that the house was going to fly. It wasn’t taking it above and beyond,” said Stu Krieger, one of the film’s writers and currently a professor at University of California, Riverside. “It was just that next generation. If this is what smart technology is already doing in 1999, why wouldn’t it be doing this in 25 years?”

Stu Krieger
Stu Krieger

Krieger, whose credits include A Land Before Time and A Troll in Central Park, was brought in by Disney to revise the original script about the idea of the smart house of the future and bring it to production. His job was to create the emotional momentum of the script and pair the gadgetry from the future with it, like choosing the right projection screens that wake the kids up in the morning (PAT chooses basketball playoffs for Ben) or the moment PAT’s orange juice maker breaks and it starts hurling oranges at the family.

Krieger had already seen the world transition from typewriters to the Mac desktop computer, and he tried to base the movie around things that could be possible down the road. So a smart house that knew your every wish and could be controlled with voice was the right mix of fantasy and wishmaking combined with tech. And at the time, Krieger said it didn’t seem outside of the realm of possibility for the next quarter century.

“That kind of thing didn’t seem that far fetched based on the combination of where computers and artificial intelligence were headed,” Krieger said. “When I wrote the movie, there was no such thing as apps on your phone where you could call from Europe and have the lights go on and off and have the security system reactivated. All of those things did not exist in any fashion. We’re not there yet, but look at all these things that are in that direction.”

So where’s my Smart House?

Maybe I’m not being patient, but as excited as I was about my own version of PAT in the future, I’m not sure if it will come true any time soon. But like Krieger, I do see small parts of it coming together.

Although PAT could absorb messes through the carpet directly, we at least have Roombas that can vacuum on their own. Nests can control the thermostat while Dropcams are our new security. We have smart locks to let us enter our houses unburdened by keys, not to mention Siri, Cortana and Google Now to set our alarms, send texts or place calls. I don’t quite have anything that can analyze my nutrition like a breathalyzer yet, but there is Theranos, which can run fast tests from a single drop of blood.

We have all sorts of projectors and now we have smart light bulbs that can be choreographed to specific programming. And even the scene where PAT is throwing tennis balls for the dog to get its exercise has come true with the Petcube for cats.

But that list is made up of disparate gadgets and protocols, and it lacks one PAT (or something similar) to tie it together.

The original publicity photos from Smart House show PAT (Katey Sagal) talking to director LeVar Burton (top) and Ben (Ryan Merriman) in the house's control room.
The original publicity photos from Smart House show PAT (Katey Sagal) talking to director LeVar Burton (top) and Ben (Ryan Merriman) in the house’s control room.

Any kind of general consensus around what it means to be a smart home is something my colleague Stacey Higginbotham has nearly given up on. These devices don’t all talk to each other, and our home’s control center will likely be a cell phone with a bunch of apps rather than one mother-like thing to control them all. Some people will opt to go all in on things like Apple’s HomeKit, but that requires people to own an iPhone and buy only HomeKit linked products. The second you install a non-compatible product, you might as well say goodbye to a truly smart home.

Smart House’s greatest lesson

As much as I want a PAT in my house, the movie also predicted a problem that we’re starting to face as the internet of things grows up: what if it goes rogue, and how will we ever secure it?

Spoilers ahead, but once the Coopers win the smart house, Ben decides to hack into PAT and have her be more motherly than robotic (and no, there’s not some switch.) Instead, Krieger had PAT watch old 1950s TV shows to learn “mothering techniques,” something her AI system is apparently capable of doing.

In return, PAT becomes more protective of the household, mandating strict nutrition and eventually locking the family inside the house as she learns of the dangers that the outside world possesses. She even goes as far as creating multiple holographic clones of herself (looking like a 1950s mother) so she can attend to every wish and need that the family might have simultaneously.

Of course, this is a Disney Channel movie, so it all ends well: the creator of the house works with Ben to eventually break back in and take control. (Ben hides in the showers to plot all of this because it’s the only place where PAT doesn’t see).

But it does pose the question: is there a place where we don’t want to go when it comes to the connected home?

While one control center for a house might make life easier, it could make us more vulnerable. There could be a day when our smart locks lock us in, or our Nests turn the heat dangerously high or our cameras start spying on us rather than protecting us. It’s 2015, and I don’t think we’ve figured out a lot of these questions yet. Maybe the Smart House isn’t the smartest implementation of the smart home, but my inner child is happy that it’s starting to at least come true.