It is a universal truth that 1999 was the The Best Year. A new millennium was pregnant with possibilities, Eiffel 65’s "Blue" was topping charts, Haley Joel Osment was seeing dead people everywhere, and, just as Prince predicted, we partied extremely hard.
It was also the year of Smart House, a Disney Channel movie that warned us about the possibilities of tech gone wrong. It was a story of love, loss, questionable fashion choices and unquestionably outdated ideas about gender roles – but in its soothsaying Smart House wasn’t a million miles off the mark. Almost two decades later, I revisited the movie that did Black Mirror before Black Mirror.
Read this: Get started with the smart home
If you haven't seen it, a quick summary: After the death of his mother, Ben Cooper (Ryan Merriman of Final Destination 3 and Independence Daysaster (yes, a real movie) enters a competition to win a smart home powered by an AI called Pat (Personal Applied Technology), which is actually just a twisted plot to stop his dad (Ultimate Disney Dad Kevin Kilner) from ever dating again. He of course wins, and without anyone really giving one IoTa as to why this house is being given away, he, his dad and sister Angie (Katie Volding of ‘You’ll never guess what that girl from Smart House looks like today’ clickbait fame) move in, Ben hopeful that he can supplant his dead mother with robot Pat and deter Horny Dad from finding new romance.
Every room of the smart home is kitted ceiling to floor with tech, complete with a kitchen capable of preparing entire meals and a carpet that literally absorbs garbage (and presumably small animals and children, something that, concerningly, the film fails to address). But now, 19 years later, just how prescient was Disney's Smart House?
Pat’s better than Alexa, but also strangely somehow worse
Disney’s writers imagined a smart assistant that would anticipate our every need, yet couldn’t fathom the possibility of one that sounded like an actual human. Pat is incredibly smart and conversational, but she sounds very… well, robotic.
It hasn’t taken tech companies long to realise that our personal assistants should sound warm and friendly. Google Assistant is even quite conversational these days, allowing for a small bit of back-and-forth. Apple also updated Siri last year to imitate some imperfections of real speech patterns, down to taking more pauses in sentences.
But Pat is also much more advanced in the art of conversation, while also tapping into a network of smart home appliances to anticipate the family’s every need, from what they're going to eat for breakfast to what they're going to wear.
But some of Pat's abilities are more doable with today's tech. At one point, someone asks Pat to adjust the lights; in another scene we see Pat announcing the current temperature. Get yourself some smart lighting and a smart thermostat and you’re halfway there.
On the money? There's no denying that our smart assistants are becoming more human – Alexa even has different accents to choose from – and, especially in the case of Google Assistant, more conversational. Alexa and Siri can adjust our lights and Nest thermostat, but we’ve a long way to go before any of them can make a fruit smoothie.
Apparently we’re going to be very polite to our smart homes
I couldn’t help but notice that people in the movie kept thanking Pat after asking her to do something, and I can totally relate. It’s not that I’m trying to keep Alexa and Google on my good side should they one day turn on us (though it can’t hurt, right?), but these politeness markers feel natural, and in fact both Assistant and Alexa will acknowledge your gratitude with a response.
On the money? I’d say so. As AI feels increasingly human, we'll instinctively speak to them like real people. Or at least I will, you bunch of ingrates.
Pat knows your biometric data, Pat knows *everything*
At one point Angie places her hand on a device that scans her and administers a tiny prick to take her biometrics. From that it can tell her height, body fat, and all history of disease. “The bite you felt was a tiny microscopic blood and tissue sample,” Pat mastermind Sara Barnes explains. “She analysed your DNA, registered your body temperature, then broke down your entire medical history.”
Sure, blood can indicate many things, but I'm pretty sure it can't tell you someone's height. Then again this is a house of the future where the floor literally absorbs things, so I'm probably asking the wrong questions. Sara also explains that Pat has “atmospheric kitchen sensors” that act as breathalysers for analysing your diet. Again, breathalysers can detect some biometric data, like how much fat you're burning, but they can't tell you your exact fruit and fibre intake – yet.
What’s definitely true is that healthcare and the smart home are starting to intertwine as Amazon, Google and Apple all want to play doctor. We can already get our Fitbit readouts on our smart speakers, and my Nokia smart scale can tell me my fat percentage, so I guess we're close.
On the money? Almost. The wellness smart home is coming and companies are exploring the possibilities. MIT has even created tech to measure someone's gait when walking, which could detect and diagnose health issues. Apple can now hold our health records on the iPhone, and Amazon is showing increasing interest in the health space, having already found its way into our homes. It's all coming together. How long before Alexa tells us to swap out a few items on our shopping list because our latest medical report shows our salt intake is too high? You know it's coming.
Pat is a fitness coach and a health freak
Pat's so smart she can even give you tips on your form when shooting hoops. But that's not all. “I can give you synthetic fresh air and virtual exercise” she informs the family in one of the film's more prophetic moments. Oh, and the house has a smart fridge that looks a bit antiquated by 2018's standards, though whether it can send "shelfies" like Samsung's is left unclear.
On the money? Having a healthy home isn’t just about keeping you fit. Companies like Dyson and Tado are becoming more interested in controlling air quality too, so really this is all true for today. Hell, you can even go au naturale with a smart wall covered in plants, which we'd take over Pat if we're honest. As for virtual exercise, there are plenty of VR games like Audioshield and Knockout League to help you work up a sweat, so we've definitely reached that point.
VR without helmets
Early in the movie, Pat mastermind Sara introduces us to the ‘living room’ where the walls are actually giants TV screens, able to transport its inhabitants to other worlds (Get it? Living room? Honestly it’s one of the movie’s better jokes, along with Sara naming her rat Rat Butler). Angie is amazed that she can feel the mist from the virtual ocean, something that's never really explained, but it's presented as being like VR without the need to wear a headset. Later we see the video for B*Witched’s C’est la vie playing on the wall in Angie’s room.
On the money? VR seems much more immersive, so you could argue we've already gone one better. Would you really want a safari park on your walls? It'd be great for watching movies, but for now you'll just pick up a projector or an Oculus Rift.
Pat is a kick-butt DJ
When everyone's favorite Disney character Horny Dad™ finally gets a date, it sets up the most 90s scene of the entire movie. With the house to himself and his friends, Ben asks Pat to turn on "some kick-butt video screens" – and boy does she deliver. Cue the squad seamlessly transitioning into a synchronized dance to Five's "Slam Dunk (Da Funk)". It's truly badbutt.
On the money? Pretty much. Music is one of the stickiest features of today's smart speakers, so much so that Apple's HomePod is almost totally focused on it. Apple even calls Siri a "mixologist", which is term I really, really hate, but point is, it wants to use AI to be a better DJ. And just wait until Spotify gets involved. Sync up some Philips Hue lights with some IFTTT recipes and you've got yourself a party worthy of Pat's house.
Pat is going to kill us all
Pat shows she's prone to malfunctions – which, y'know, happens. But when Ben removes her safety protocols and feeds her with movies and TV shows to make her more like a real mother, she becomes increasingly controlling and HAL-esque, declaring “Im sorry, I can’t do that Nick", a reference that presumably went over most heads at the time. She eventually goes AWOL, overriding everything and embodying herself in a projection of Katey Sagal (aka Gemma from Sons Of Anarchy). When she locks the family in their own home, Ben manages to overpower her by convincing her she's not human. Is the subtext of the scene Ben finally letting go of his mother? Whoa, deep.
On the money? Well you'd hope not. But despite its sinister message about the potential of technology, all the problems of the film can be traced back to Ben, who is, quite frankly, just a bit of a dick.