Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via Embrace Smart Mirror.
Welcome to Should This Thing Be Smart? Each month, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, the $99 toothbrush, and the $99 dog collar.
Product: Embrace Smart Mirror
Price: AU$1,699 on Embracesmartmirror.com (where it is currently out of stock). A company representative tells me that the American price is $1,199.
Function: The Embrace Smart Mirror is a large wall mirror that is also a fully functional touch-screen Android device. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections keep your mirror online and connected to your favorite apps and websites, while an integrated camera lets the mirror look at you, for once. Motion sensors and voice-activation technology help you toggle between "mirror mode," in which the mirror is just a mirror, and smart mode, in which the mirror, like Peter Frampton, comes alive. If you have been looking for a mirror that will "show you the way" to quickly waste $1,200, then the Embrace Smart Mirror might be the mirror for you.
The case for the smart mirror: The Embrace Smart Mirror is a very interesting mirror! It tacitly acknowledges that Silicon Valley has not yet devised an elegant way for you to receive push notifications while gargling. We can all agree that small mobile devices are not ideal for bathroom multitasking. If you're texting with one hand while primping with the other, your beauty regimen will suffer for your inattention, and your mobile device will inevitably end up in the sink, or the toilet, or in that gross space between the base of the toilet and the wall. There's got to be a better way!
"It's 2018; why not turn your wall mirror into a touch-screen device?" is the rationale behind the product.
Friends, the Embrace Smart Mirror may well be that way. The smart mirror features an embedded Android tablet-style device—right there in the mirror's surface—that you can use when it would be difficult or dumb to doodle around on a hand-held device. Henceforth you will no longer have to struggle with problems that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time, like taking a selfie while shaving, texting while flossing, or applying makeup while watching a YouTube tutorial on how to apply makeup.
The smart mirror is very ambitious. It aspires to be the nerve center of your smart home. Its inventor envisions the mirror as the "go to device for smart home control and related residential applications," and I suppose if you can a presume a world in which a smart mirror is a common household product, then you can certainly presume a world in which it is easier to monitor your smart home on a large, wall-mounted screen than to fumble to do so on your phone or tablet. "Embrace the beginning of ambient computing," the website says, though I would urge you not to take this literally and start hugging your mirror, because it is made of glass and you might get cut.
The Embrace Smart Mirror promises to enhance the classic mirror experience, much like "cosmic" bowling promises to enhance the classic bowling experience. In addition to being a fully functional mirror ideal for posing and preening and other classic mirror-adjacent activities, it pairs with all of your favorite apps and with Google's smart assistant. Also, integrated speakers let you play mirror-related music from the mirror. Imagine the thrill of hearing your mirror play "Man in the Mirror" as you, a man, gaze into the mirror; or of watching The Mirror Has Two Faces on a mirror that basically has two faces. You can also play non-mirror-themed media, but what's the fun in that?
The smart mirror is splashproof! This means that it will not die or disintegrate if it comes into contact with water. The mirror is "more than a match for even the steamiest bathroom," the website promises, which honestly sounds like a challenge to me, as I pride myself on my steamy bathroom. The Embrace Smart Mirror would be a great gift for eccentric men who relish steam-related challenges.
The Embrace Smart Mirror is futuristic. "Kids love it," Matt Burns noted in a review for TechCrunch, and I can see why. When you use it, you will feel like a character in a Disney movie. "OK Google on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" you can say. "I cannot understand you," the mirror will say, because your mouth is filled with toothpaste. Always remember to spit and rinse before conversing with your smart mirror.
The smart mirror is from Australia. It also ships for free in Australia, comes with a 12-month Australian warranty, and is "compliant with all applicable Australian standards and regulatory requirements." You could even say that Embrace is Australian for mirror. Please don't say that in front of the mirror, though, as the mirror is probably sick and tired of that particular reference.
"Hey Google, when's the next train to Woolloomooloo?" is one of the questions the Embrace website suggests you ask your mirror. Despite my initial skepticism, it turns out that Woolloomooloo is an actual place—a suburb of Sydney—and not just a string of nonsense syllables. Russell Crowe has an apartment there! The smart mirror will teach you geography.
Unlike the sentient mirrors found in fantasy and horror fiction, the Embrace Smart Mirror will neither steal your soul nor whisk you off to some parallel dimension. The mirror will not body shame you. You need not worry about somehow becoming trapped inside the mirror, unless you download and install the "Trap Me in My Mirror" app, in which case that's sort of on you, not the mirror.
The case against the smart mirror: The smart mirror is more of a "why not" product than anything else, which is one reason why it is hard to make a truly compelling case for the smart mirror. "It's 2018; why not turn your wall mirror into a touch-screen device?" is the rationale behind the product. The reasons why not are plentiful, and primary among them is that most of us already own several touch-screen devices that cost less and are more portable than the smart mirror. $1,199 is an awful lot of money to spend on a mirror that isn't even a medicine cabinet, even one that can play "Man in the Mirror" as you shave.
The notion that the mirror will become your smart home command center is ultimately not very convincing. I suspect that people don't necessarily want to control their household devices from a central console. If you're sitting in your bedroom and you want to adjust the smart thermostat, isn't it easier to just do that from your phone, which you have in your hand, rather than schlep to the bathroom to do it? The smart mirror will have you doing a lot more schlepping.
The smart mirror is a case study in planned obsolescence. When did you buy the mirror that currently hangs in your bathroom? I'll lay 50-50 odds that it was probably there when you moved in, and that it will be there when you move out. "Let's go to the mirror store and get a new mirror this weekend" is a sentence that nobody on Earth has ever said. A wall mirror is designed to last a long time, whereas a smart mirror will grow dumber and dumber over time as computing hardware continues to improve. You'll be either stuck with your old mirror or feel compelled to purchase and install a new one every time they release a new version. The smart mirror is a boondoggle for mirror-installation guys.
The smart mirror is still in prototype mode. "The current model is not perfect. You may experience bugs now and then. The odd app crash or two," the website admits. What sort of bugs? Bugs that might cause the mirror to steal your soul? Probably not, but you can't be too cautious when it comes to these dark-magic mirrors.
If you hang the smart mirror in your bathroom, then you may well end up spending a lot more time in the bathroom in order to caucus with your smart mirror. I don't know about you, but my household has more people than bathrooms and bathroom time is already at a premium. A smart mirror would just make bathroom arguments worse. Chaos would ensue. Shampoo bottles would be thrown. The smart mirror will tear your family apart.
Russell Crowe is a jerk.
Security concerns: This mirror is a prototype smart object that is admittedly vulnerable to bugs and crashes and has a camera. Of course there are security concerns. Upon request, a company representative emailed me preliminary privacy-and-terms policies pertaining to use of the Embrace website, and these documents are fairly standard if somewhat vague. (Embrace does not sell, trade, or share your personal information to third parties, except for trusted third parties; Embrace deploys "a variety of security measures to maintain the safety of your personal information.") I'd have no compunction about using the Embrace website. But what about the mirror itself?
"An Android tablet gets two years of security updates," Yan Shoshitaishvili, an assistant professor and security researcher at Arizona State University, told me. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) "And then you're going to end up with a couple years of security updates, and then it won't be worth updating that thing, because it'll be so far behind the times technologically anyway that it'll just be a useless component embedded in your mirror. Worse than useless: Once it stops getting security updates, it'll be a continuous liability in your home," he said.
Shoshitaishvili noted that while the Android framework on which the mirror is built has its roots in open-source software, many of the proprietary applications that run on Android are not open-source products. "If they're not open source, they're much harder for anyone to go through and actually analyze and verify that the mirror is not recording you when it's not supposed to and so forth," he said. This is the downside of having a mirror that looks back at you, I guess.
Is the smart mirror more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? I honestly feel like the most likely crime to be committed here is "violence against your expensive prototype smart mirror." Luckily, attacking your own bathroom mirror out of frustration is not a crime in America, though I suspect it may be a capital offense in Australia.
Should this thing be smart? This thing should not be smart. While the idea of a smart mirror is theoretically appealing, at this stage in its development the smart mirror seems like a solution in search of a problem. Just bring your phone or tablet into the bathroom with you.