Large Image Display: The Stepford Wives: Smart Home Interface

This single frame is taken from the 2004 film 'The Stepford Wives'. It has been greatly reduced in size from the original, in order to meet fair use guidelines.

Here we see Claire, acting in her guise as spokeswoman for Stepford, showing off the smart house system. In a manner so eagerly aped in our world by electronics firms from all developed nations, Stepford has been striving to create a truly smart house, in which all appliances are networked together, controlled by a central brain, making the house 'smart'.

The film does not cover all the possible misuse scenarios of course, as the smart houses are not the main focus - other works do a more than adequate job of that. Still, what is covered is certainly frightening; not least because it is so realistic.

It is at this point in the film, that Claire maakes her little speech aboutthe houses. The panel she is standing next to is on the side of the larder. There are numerous other touch-screen panels discretely concealed all over the house. All use biometrics to work out who is trying to access them, and deny access if appropriate.

The touch screens are the centre of the system, but each appliance has a voice, and it can speak up if necessary. This is demonstrated by querying the fridge from the touch-screen to status report. The result is the fridge calling out "We need juice" in a soft male baritone. Once this function is on, it stays on. Later in the film, Joanne takes milk from the fridge, and instead of putting it back after using it, stands holding it, talking to her friend. After a couple of minutes the fridge pipes up "We are out of milk". As Joanne is standing there holding a six pint bottle, this statement is absurd in the extreme, but is an all too clear example of the problems with an overzealous 'smart' house.

Another function of the smart house is much more insidious. In the film, Claire goes on to say "The [kitchen] system also monitors all the commodes; where it will test your urine for blood sugar, protein, and body fat." These records are processed by the house, to determine what, if anything, is wrong with a given individual's diet, offering advice to correct dietary inefficiencies when asked.

Yes, each toilet in the house checks the family member's toilet and urine when they use it; likely via the aid of fluidic biochips. This information is stored and analysed centrally in the house. It is not a great step to see the house sending this information out to third parties, such as a doctor or insurance company. One possible scenario that springs to mind, is your toilet testing your urine, finding out you are pregnant, and the first you hear of it is when the junk mail arrives to congratulate you on that fact. As with all other elements of augmented living, careful ethical and moral boundaries will need to be worked into the systems involved.

A third interface issue is revealed later in the film when Joanna and Walter fight. Walter calls up the interface and orders all doors and windows to lock. In this situation Walter is calm and Joanna is panicky; no harm comes to her. However, it is all too easy to see an abusive husband using such a system to remotely trap a fleeing wife - or even the other way around. Always in such a system, there should be overrides, to allow escape, even if there are not overrides to allow entry from outside.

Link: The Stepford Wives: Index of Stills

Link: The Stepford Wives (2004): A Plot Overview

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