From PAT to Siri, Alexa, Google, and More

What the 1999 Disney Channel movie ‘Smart House’ got right about smart home automation today.

June 26, 1999 was a super significant day in the history of the internet of things, even though the phrase itself has only barely been born. Long, long before Siri, Alexa, or Google was assistant PAT: Personal Applied Technology. Twenty one years back, the movie Smart House premiered on the Disney Channel bringing us a family who move into a “house of the future” powered by PAT, an integrated virtual assistant way ahead of her time. At times envy-inducing and at other times terrifying, PAT was the perfect prelude to a world in which we’re surrounded by smart technology that routinely toes or tramples on the line between exciting and unnerving. For millennials like me, movies like Smart House  were a classic part of our upbringing that we often think back to, so let’s talk about what this movie did, or didn’t get right.

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Either by design or by accident, this late 90s movie happened to get a number of things surprisingly right about the future of smart home technology. They also grappled with and definitely exaggerated the fears people have experienced over these technologies. Fortunately, in real life, many of these fears have been overcome or have remained fiction.

In a nutshell, Smart House is about the Cooper family which includes a boy named Ben, his widowed father Nick, and his little sister Angie. Ben, who likes computers almost as much as he likes sabotaging his dad's love life in order to prevent any woman from taking his mom’s place, wins a contest granting him and his family a special smart house.

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At first the smart house is awesome, PAT produces smart results seamlessly. She prepares food, packs lunches, cleans the floors via “floor absorbs” that suck up all detritus, syncs with work computers, freeing Nick from his commute, and throws virtual (and actual) tennis balls to entertain the dog. PAT also turns the lights on and off, controls the temperature, serves as a digital address book, sets alarms, and displays videos and video games directly on the walls. Oh, and it electrocutes a bully who’s been picking on Ben, which seems like a serious legal liability. Unfortunately, PAT ended up becoming strict and possessive, locking the family in the home to keep it safe from the dangers of the outside world. So, we’ve found the and highlighted the areas of this prescient movie where technology has come good and delivered what was teased at:

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AI-Powered Digital Assistant

The foundation of Disney’s Smart House was PAT, the AI virtual assistant who was capable of anything from controlling the indoor climate to storing contact information. While PAT runs via a circuit board and control room rather than a smart speaker or smart display, the premise is the same as the way in which Alexa and Google Assistant run smart homes today. Even though a fully integrated AI system like PAT is still some time away from being a reality, Amazon and Google are two companies that have largely succeeded in thrusting their digital assistants to the forefront of our connected homes.

Video Calling

For some reason I found this feature to be the most shocking while re watching the classic Disney movie a few weeks ago. The concept of video calling is now pedestrian but was way ahead of its time 20 years ago After all, we didn’t even have cameras backed into our cell phones back then!

Personalized Alarms

PAT turns the wall into a screen and this is used for more than entertainment. The same principle is used to wake members of the household with personalized video alarms. Although we don’t  have the video component in place yet, it is definitely possible to program your smart speaker to wake you with your favorite playlist or radio station. You can also automate lighting to kick in so you gradually ease into your day as the blinds automatically open.

Wall-Sized Screens

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In Smart House, PAT turned whole walls into screens. This is one of the best party tricks in the movie! Again, we’re already deep into this territory with Samsung’s The Wall and projectors capable of throwing huge displays against the wall. Where in Smart House a concert kicks in, we can now use streaming devices to watch our favorite music videos on the big screen in our home theater.

Voice-Controlled Colored Lighting

Just like in Smart House, you can now take control of your color-changing smart with apps on your smartphone such as The Hue App, or voice commands with Alexa or Google Assistant. Strips are another innovative way of using splashes of color to brighten up a living space.

All in all, Smart House was super impressive with how many technological capabilities it was able to predict and represent, especially at a time where so many of these things were not even close to being possible. However, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, we control every aspect of our smart home and can easily take away features and capabilities at any time. So luckily, the scary uncontrollable parts of the movie were not  very realistic,  but definitely appreciated for entertainment purposes!

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