Inside Target's Trippy 'Open House' Smart Home Demo

SAN FRANCISCO—Target's better known for being a catch-all brick-and-mortar store for buying any essentials you might need than a dedicated electronics retailer. That's what makes the Target Open House so interesting.

The Open House is a mock-up smart home and showroom in San Francisco's Metreon mall. It was built to show off connected devices and other home electronics, and it's a big contrast from the conventional Target store on the floor above it.

The Open House is a transparent sales experience for home electronics, and I mean that very literally. The center of the installation is a three-room Interactive House built entirely out of clear acrylic, with panels and monochrome etchings to indicate the purpose of each room. Instead of a bed, there's an acrylic slab shaped like a bed. Instead of a sink, there's an acrylic box with a recess to indicate a basin. Even the light fixtures are carefully cut and assembled sheets of acrylic, showing light bulbs suspended in clear plastic.

It's a surreal display that feels like walking through a video game where the textures don't load, so you only see the wireframes of most of the elements. That makes the actual smart home devices stand out. Different electronics like a Roomba, a Nest thermostat, and Ring Video Doorbell are placed around the different rooms, often mounted in the clear acrylic walls, which makes them look like they're floating.

The experience gets stranger when you play with any of the tablets mounted on pedestals in each room. They ask you what sort of user you are, with very broad categories like frequent traveler or fitness enthusiast, with follow-up questions about your favorite aesthetic to use to relax or focus. Answering both questions turns on the interactive home's projectors, hidden behind some of the installation's walls. Each room instantly fills up with a background based on your preferences (I got a relaxing waterfall), and pop-up text bubbles jump around to highlight the different devices that might be of interest.

The smart home devices in the Interactive House can be played with in limited ways, but they're mostly props for the full-room marketing videos in each room. If you want a more hands-on experience with the different electronics, you need to go to the two showroom sections of the Open House. The Interactive House is flanked by the Garage and the Playground, open spaces with benches filled with different smart home gadgets.

The Garage is where Target highlights new and unique smart devices, which rotate every month. Here you can find more offbeat gadgets, like the Jibo social robot and the Google AIY Voice Kit. Products in the Garage aren't usually for sale, but set up so curious customers can play with them before they hit shelves.

The Playground is the commercial showroom, where you can get your hands on the actual smart home devices set up in the Interactive House and even walk out with them. Like the Garage, it's set up with benches covered in gadgets you can freely play with. Unlike the Garage, you can actually purchase the products shown off in the Playground.

Target holds events at the Open House, though they're often more industry-focused than directed at consumers. They include retail partnership sessions and spotlight presentations of specific products and companies. The spotlights are open to the public, and let customers meet some of the developers of the highlighted devices.

Aspiring electronics firms can try to get their own products shown off at the Open House. Target has an open pitch process to let companies currently prototyping or crowdfunding their concepts get some time in the Garage to get user feedback. For visitors, this means a chance to check out new gadgets months or years before they go on sale.

The Target Open House is located at 115 4th Street in San Francisco.

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