Mirror, mirror on the wall

An orange WiFi symbol stands out against an illustrated background with various pieces of home technology such as gaming equipment, cameras, laundry machines and laptops.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Imagine a home where everyday appliances talk to you — and to each other
December 17, 2015

6:30 a.m. The alarm clock launches its unholy clatter, slingshotting you out of the rumple of bedsheets and off to the bath. You grumble at the reflection in the mirror, then shuffle on to the morning paper, a few slices of toast, a chug of coffee, and you’re out the door. It’s the typical series of hurdles you might leap over to start your day.


 

A grid of pressure sensors embedded in a bed sheet can monitor
your sleep cycles, and a network of small vibration motors will shake
you awake at just the right time.

Photo credit: A. El Saddik

But if the vision of researchers like Abdulmotaleb El Saddik is realized, your future morning routine could look entirely different. El Saddik is the director of the DISCOVER Lab at the University of Ottawa. His team inserts sensors and microchips into ordinary items to collect and process data, which is then shared between objects. “We are helping to build the Internet of Things, where everything will be connected to every other thing through the network,” says El Saddik. “We are inventing the appliances of the future.”

These appliances include smart bedsheets and alarm clocks, intelligent bathroom mirrors and savvy toasters and coffee makers. When linked together, these gadgets of the future will monitor your behaviour, take action when the time is right — and talk about you behind your back.

“I’ll describe a scenario,” says El Saddik. “When you go to bed, your bedsheets will sense the way you sleep through the night, whether your sleep is deep or not.” The sheets, he explains, will then beam your nighttime habits to the room, which will inform the alarm clock when you need a few more minutes to snooze your way through a deep sleep cycle.

After your clock wakes you up, sensors in the bedroom floor will tell the bathroom that you’re en route and that it is time to fire up the shower to the perfect temperature. As you towel off, a tickertape of news headlines, weather and emails will slide across the bathroom mirror. El Saddik is also outfitting mirrors with sensors and cameras that can provide you with your body stats. “A lot of people think they are fat or thin, but we want to project their true body mass index onto the mirror,” he says. “We want people to stop worrying about their bodies by letting them know that they are just fine and that they should go and live their lives!”


 

Sensors in a coffee cup measure how much liquid is left, so other
gadgets in your home know you’ll soon be moving on to the next task.

Photo credit: A. El Saddik

Once you’ve harrumphed at the smart mirror for its “accurate” information, says El Saddik, it will dispatch a message to its kin of kitchen appliances, telling cousin coffee maker and aunt toaster to get crackin’. Expect to arrive a moment later to the pop of an automated intelligent toaster (which holds off on the butter after the mirror upstairs squealed about your true weight) and the last few dribbles of coffee dropping into your Wi-Fi mug. Yes, says El Saddik, even your coffee cup will be connected to your domestic cloud.

“Once you are down to a quarter of your coffee, your cup will tell your car to turn on. Basically, you will walk through a house that is completely sensored.”

“I would love to have a house like this,” says El Saddik. “Yet I want to be very clear: This is something scary.” He acknowledges that major issues of privacy and security will need to be addressed to make sure that domestic data don’t fall into the wrong hands or that your house doesn’t become a sci-fi horror, where the appliances turn on you. “In my lab, we always try to keep the final control in the hands of humans,” he says. So when your know-it-all mirror of the future points out your problem areas, you should be able to rip its cord right out of the socket.

Originally posted December 2013