What does the word “home” make you think of? For me, the first things that spring to mind are words like family, relaxing, security, cosy, happiness.
As part of a scientific study with British Gas, I set out to learn the secrets behind our emotional connection to the home, and what the introduction of smart technology might mean for how we feel about our homes of the future.
The meaning of home
Home is the place where we unwind, the hub of family life, and the setting for many of my most treasured memories. It’s the place that I’m always the most eager to return to, and if there’s anywhere that embodies the things that we hold most dear, it’s the home.
It’s funny to think just one word, and one we all use on a daily basis, can conjure up such powerful emotions, but I bet you’re nodding along.
It seems that the emotional investment in the place we live is something of a national trait too, with home ownership tending to prove more important to us than many other countries. 60% of us Brits own our own homes, compared with 39% of adults in Germany, for example.
The smart revolution
Given that our homes play such a large part in how we define ourselves and our happiness, it’s no wonder that throughout history we’ve continually looked to improve them. From the introduction of the basics like running water, electricity and gas, right through to today’s sophisticated internet connected gadgets, we’ve always seen our homes as ripe for improvement and modification.
Appliances from the kitchen to the living room, security systems and utilities are all experiencing a smart revolution, and our homes are rapidly becoming connected in a whole new way we barely could have imagined just a few years ago.
In fact, the number of people welcoming new tech into their homes is starting to snowball, with more than four million homes in the UK now having some kind of smart system. The UK government is also making a big push to get every home to be fitted with a smart meter to monitor energy usage by 2020.
British Gas is playing a huge part in helping with the roll-out. With over 3 million homes across the country already owners of smart meters, British Gas is looking beyond just smart heating with their Hive range of app-controlled light bulbs, motion sensors and timer plugs.
In our own household we’re already using smart home technology in several different ways. We have a kettle we can boil from the next room, and an oven with some really clever smart features too. For example, instead of simply following a time, it monitors the food as it cooks and alerts us when it’s ready, so we can save energy every day.
Using energy, smartly
Thanks to British Gas, we are also about to have a smart meter fitted to our gas and electricity supply, which will allow us analyse our usage and identify when we could be making savings. I’m especially looking forward to being able to monitor the cost of our central heating – seeing the actual amount we’re using live on the screen should a big incentive to turn the thermostat down a degree or two when we’re perfectly cosy enough, or a good reminder to adjust the timings as the weather warms up.
It’s also a really great way to engage the kids on the subject of energy saving, and will hopefully help them to really understand what’s going on when we switch on an appliance, and why it’s important for the environment that we waste as little as we can.
The future is smarter
Going forward, I can see us controlling more and more of our home via smart technology; a few taps on your smartphone is such a quick and easy way to interact with your home whether you’re inside or outside of it, and there are the added financial benefits too in terms of trimming down your energy bills.
So, the smart home is definitely a growth area, but also quite different from how we’re used to living, so it’s interesting to ask how this new technology might affect our relationship with where we live.
The science behind our love affair with our homes
Earlier this year, British Gas predicted that as our homes get smarter, we’re likely to feel closer to them than ever before.
To test their hypothesis, they teamed up with Dr Duncan Banks and Dr Tony Sheffert, neuroscientists at the Open University, to develop a scientific experiment designed to explore our emotional relationship with our homes. And I was invited to be one of the subjects of the experiment.
So, one sunny afternoon I made my way to a clinic on Harley Street, London where I was given a rundown of what the experiment would entail.
Wearing a special EEG cap, which monitored my brain’s electrical activity via a set of electrodes on my scalp, I would be exposed to various stimuli in the form of spoken words from a computer, and my reactions to those words would be recorded.
Since I knew in advance that the experiment would evolve an EEG cap, I nerded out for a few days beforehand, and investigated what the technology can do. It’s fascinating stuff. They can be used for all sorts of things, from helping people who have lost significant motor function to communicate with the outside word again, to controlling wheelchairs, to showing people how to ease the pain and discomfort they’re in by letting them look at, and try to control, their own brainwaves live.
The whole procedure was completely safe, and not at all uncomfortable. I can’t say it was my best fashion look though!
First things first was to get a pulse monitor in place, along with the EEG cap, which only took a couple of minutes, and then a conductive gel was applied to the holes in the cap to help the waves carry through my scalp to the sensors.
Thinking of home – the experiment
Once my EEG cap was fitted and connected to the machine, I closed my eyes and a sequence of phrases and words related to home life and smart home technology began. The first section related to my feelings about home and I was asked to think about that topic for a few minutes. To keep my thoughts on track, phrases like ‘think about your home’, ‘your warm home’, ‘your warm, welcoming home’, ‘imagine walking into your home’ etc were played over the speakers. The next section related to smart homes specifically, with phrases like ‘imagine being able to set your heating before you got home’.
As the machine monitored my brain activity and turned the signals into a graph for each electrode that was placed on my head, the neuroscientist recorded the results so that he could later analyse the changes in the patterns to infer my emotional state.
It’s official, we feel emotionally connected to our homes
As expected, the test showed that I did indeed have a strong and positive emotional response to my home. I was fairly sure this would be the case, but it’s nice to be able to prove it with such scientific rigour! It also showed that the idea of a smarter, more connected home was something that I found comforting, and that too has been reflected in my previous experiences of using the smart meter.
Of course, I wasn’t the only subject in the study, and after detailed analysis of the results as a whole, British Gas and the Open University neuroscientists have been able to confirm the following fascination facts about our relationship with our homes:
- Our heart rate jumps up with the same happiness when we see or think about our home as it does about a best friend or the family pet.
- Owners of smart home technology experience stronger positive emotions when thinking about their home than those with non-connected homes.
- People with smart home technology are able to visualise their homes more vividly than those without, with participants exhibiting more activity in their dorsal and ventral visual pathways when asked to picture home.
- Although smart home technology is a relatively recent innovation, it is already enabling people to develop closer relationships with their homes, as it stimulates higher levels of brain activity in the areas associated with positive emotions.
Taking part in the British Gas experiment with Dr Sheffert was a fascinating experience. Tt’s the first time I’ve got to really see what’s going on inside my own head and give me a little bit of insight into how important my homes is to me.
We all feel an emotional connection to our home, and taking part in this experiment illustrated how smart technology is making that connection even more powerful.
On top of the positive emotional impact, smart home technology is certainly making the day-to-day running of our home easier, and delivering environmental benefits too. It’s not often you get something that ticks boxes for saving you time, saving money, making you feel good and helping to reduce waste, so I’m all for it.
Do you have any smart technology in your own home yet, or are you thinking of introducing anything soon?
This is a commissioned post for British Gas.