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The house of the future needs an EQ as high as its IQ

Building beauty and cultivating joy, more companies at CES are developing gadgets that make your home more... well, home-y.

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LG's washer/dryer combo boasts revolutionary tech to sense fabric and automatically adjust its settings.

Sarah Tew/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

How do you want the future to look -- like, actually, look? Do you want to live in a house that's all metal and glass, touch screens and displays? That's been the future envisioned by smart home developers at CES, the world's largest consumer tech show, for years. But that vision is changing, becoming less sterile and more accommodating to, well, day-to-day life.

After a week touring booths and chatting to developers at CES, I'm starting to see humanity behind the design of more smart home gadgets. It's giving me a little hope.

To be clear, I still have serious reservations about the privacy implications of smart speakers, displays and cameras, let alone the activity of data gathering giants like Google and Facebook. But when you're walking the show floor, seeing devices like Mui Lab's smart panel, which offers some basic smarts, conveyed via LED display inlaid on a panel of real wood, you realize technology can be both practical and beautiful.

Beautiful things are too easily labeled "luxury goods" in American culture, where barren white apartments are the norm for many of us in the years of early adulthood. Mui, at $550 is no exception. But more evocative aesthetics have long been built into our living spaces, as evidenced in the vastly diverse architectures of cultures in centuries past. Only recently have many cultures adopted more modernist, brutalist and frankly sparse habitations -- and the screens and sleek metals of recent smart home devices have played into that vision.

Sure the occasional sandalwood finish on a smart display offers something different (though the light woods of a Scandinavian aesthetic are hardly breaking away from our overly smooth vision of the future), but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Ours has been a futurism without texture, without nature and often without color.

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Bright colors and bold shapes characterize Samsung's Bespoke fridge -- a modular appliance that can adjust for how much fridge or freezer space you need at any given time.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The "i" of the beholder

Smart home devices are finally starting to push us out of our sleek white and stainless steel comfort zone into more vibrant territory. Samsung's Bespoke Refrigerators, for instance, boast colorful designs and the ability to change shape and organization, so you can personalize how much fridge or freezer space you need.

Level Lock, another device here at CES, hides entirely inside your door's existing lock mechanism, meaning your Victorian townhouse can stay Victorian. From there, it offers the smarts of an August or Kevo without needlessly changing your home's front entryway.

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Mateo's bathmat aims to take the anxiety out of weight monitoring.

Angela Lang/CNET

Another spot for thoughtfully hidden smarts: your bathmat. Mateo, a company designing connected bathmats that track your weight, wants to remove the anxiety associated with stepping on a scale, and instead provide subtle nudges and encouragements to users based on patterns -- say, sending a "careful with your diet" message if you've gained five pounds in three days, or a "good job" message if you've kept up with your weight-loss goals.

These clever devices can address your needs without converting your home's aesthetic. And if they can't totally blend in, other devices are attempting to at least stay out of the way.

Keep it secret, keep me safe

It's tough to totally hide every smart home gadget, but developers are becoming more creative and rigorous in their expectations for diminutive devices. Smart plugs, for instance, offer convenience and automation without much work. Yet chunky smart plugs never look good speckled all over the house.

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Belkin's latest smart plug is smaller than ever, but packs in a load of smarts.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Luckily, Belkin just released a new smart plug with big ambitions -- or tiny ones, I suppose. The Belkin Wemo Wifi Smart Plug is tiny. It's not quite the profile of a basic USB phone charging power adapter, but it's also not far off. Likewise, August's new Wi-Fi Smart Lock is 45% smaller than its previous versions, and it doesn't require any sort of bridge. It connects directly to your home network.

Even appliances are getting in on the shrinking action, with Samsung's Cube series of air purifiers and refrigerators that stack on top of one another. Coming in an array of pastels, these mini-appliances keep the air quality high while letting you personalize your space for drinks, food or even beauty products.

All of the smart home devices that struggle to find an appealing aesthetic are at least adopting less intrusive designs. But it's not all about aesthetics. The smartest devices have something else: heart.

The heart of the machine

A high-EQ house goes beyond beauty: thoughtful design anticipates the deeper needs of users. Think of the light switch -- one of the earliest "smart" home devices ever. What made the light switch ubiquitous wasn't the inventor's pure genius, but rather later innovators' empathy: imagining a child entering a dark room, feeling for a switch, and providing a tiny light to guide their hand; imagining a parent switching off the lights after a baby has finally drifted off, and providing a near-silent internal mechanism.

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Bosch's smart fridges use cameras to identify the food you have on hand, then suggest recipes based on that information.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Bosch's refrigerator designers are attempting a similar level of innovation: the latest fridges come equipped with cameras that identify and track food in the compartments. Then, when you look for recipes to cook, the connected app suggests meals for which you already have the ingredients -- potentially smoothing the process of meal planning and preparation a lot.

Other companies, like Samsung and GE, are developing similar features for their kitchen appliances -- GE's is in a microwave -- and I can't help but be excited at the prospect of starting my commute home from work, looking up recipes for dinner, and being supplied with only ones that I can cook without a grocery stop.

Laundry is making similar steps. LG announced a washer that senses the difference between fabrics -- say towels and clothes -- and automatically washes them differently, even adjusting for mixed batches of fabric. The dryer then auto-selects its setting depending on how the clothes were washed. This kind of innovation seems much more human-oriented than simply adding a screen where one wasn't before.

A homier future

Some years at CES feel like they offer glimpses into the far future -- and those years are exciting. But other years, like this one, seem to set their sights on goals within reach. That's exciting in a different kind of way than the whiz-bang concepts that often seize our attention. Smart home gadgets are finally not just made for the show floor; they're made for you and me.