Home, smart home

You’re stuck in the worst traffic jam that you can remember — but the evening isn’t wasted yet. Calmly reaching for your mobile phone, you instruct your house to email you the contents of your fridge, preheat the oven and begin to download a movie.

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By  Justin Etheridge Published  April 16, 2001

Introduction|~||~||~|You’re stuck in the worst traffic jam that you can remember — but the evening isn’t wasted yet. Calmly reaching for your mobile phone, you instruct your house to email you the contents of your fridge, preheat the oven and begin to download a movie.

The idea of the intelligent home is hardly new. Since the first domestic appliances brought smart technology into our houses, the race has been on to develop an integrated, intelligent home of the future. Today, a host of new digital appliances and developing communication protocols are bringing us closer to that goal.

All this is not a fanciful pipe dream. On the UAE coast, Emaar has undertaken to build Dubai Marina — nothing less than an e-community, the largest of its kind in the world. Marconi has been chosen to deliver the technology that underpins the project, piping fibre optics and a bandwidth of 40MB into very home.

“At this time that means technology for technology’s sake, but we’re talking three years from now,” said Ayman Altounji, country manager, Marconi UAE. “Soon, people will want to control their A/C from their TV screens. And it will be there for them to use. It will just be up to them how much they want to use.”

While the infrastructure will be included in the price of the apartment, you’ll have to buy the particular appliances and furnishings yourself. However, the showrooms easily demonstrate the potential of such a house with plasma screens, Net fridges and cordless keyboards scattered throughout.

Marconi is creating software that will link not only each house, but also every building, in the complex — including shops and services. “The choices include healthcare, videoconferencing and movies,” explained Altounji. “For example, I will be able to contact the doctor and arrange to speak to him on videoconference. We’re having the hospitals support this, and there will be several in the community, plus universities and retail outlets.”

||**||Intelligent appliances|~||~||~|CabSat 2001, the Middle East’s cable and satellite trade show, recently threw light on another technology ready to impact on the home of the future: digital TV.

In Europe, ordering pizza from your TV is rapidly becoming the norm, and set-top boxes have made the Internet more accessible, and convenient, then ever before. Thomson’s Tivo personal video recorder is smart enough to learn your viewing preferences and stores up to a staggering 40 hours of video on a 40GB hard disk.

Back in the kitchen and the word is spreading. Already this year, we’ve seen an unprecedented number of standalone devices. LG’s Internet fridge delivers an LCD display for email as well as TV, radio and MP3 to keep you company while you’re whipping something up for that special evening.

Stuck for ideas? LG’s most recent innovation, the Internet microwave, can access the Web for recipes and cooking tips. To cap it all off, LG has developed an Internet washing machine, the Turbodrum, which can be connected to a PC in order to download new wash-cycle programs.

Next up is a network terminal, tying all the devices together for a single point of remote control. Samsung too has tabled plans for a range of Net-friendly appliances.

Where will it all end? With robots perhaps. Sony’s Aibo might appear to be a simple toy but it conceals, in fact, a sophisticated operating system. More importantly, it heralds a trend towards interactive automatons and the same technology has just been put to use in Sony’s latest project, the SDR-3X humanoid.

Major players like Matsushita, NEC and Honda have followed suit with their own robotic creations, which beggars the question: how far away can the android butler really be?

||**||Insanity setting in?|~||~||~|It’s hard to think of a more in-your-face example of where the intelligent home might take us than the robotic assistant — particularly for those of you that remember the Jetsons.

But the truth is that getting there is all about invisible communications, linking each appliance to the outside world. Most people agree that wireless technology will play a key role, removing the clutter of cables from your beautiful home.

“Wireless will make a huge impact in the Middle East,” says Drew Darby, director of International Sales for Wave Wireless. “As demand for information, entertainment and communication explodes, a broadband fixed wireless network presents the single best medium for delivering these services reliably, cost-effectively and profitably.”

With the rise in must-have devices like mobile phones, PDAs and laptops, plus the overwhelming interest in Internet applications, the need for users to access a network from anywhere is now paramount.

Wireless LANs were originally developed in vertical industries with transfer speeds as low as 1-2Mbps. As vendors began to develop for broader markets, however, new standards were called for.

Today, the defacto standard is the 802.11b; about as uninspiring a name as you could possibly dream up, but you’ll appreciate the 11Mbps connectivity.

The more cynical readers amongst you may be questioning the sanity of all this technology in your home. And it’s a fair criticism. Siemens has produced an Internet toaster that you can control from any corner of your house, provided you have put the bread in first, of course.

But for every ill-conceived branding exercise there is a genuine breakthrough, ready to alter radically the way we live. The luxuries of today rapidly become the necessities of tomorrow.

If you don’t believe us now, you will in a few years, when you’re stuck in the worst traffic jam that you can remember, crawling home at a snail’s pace — and there’ll be no point reaching for your phone because your house won’t able to answer you.

||**||Web Pads for everyone|~||~||~|Entertainment is driving the concept of the future home. Money talks — and customers want more than just hardware. We want full installations, custom-built home theatres and, most of all, for the technology to be invisible.

According to 3Com, the greatest possibilities for wireless networks exist in the home and small office. The physical infrastructure of a building has impeded — or prevented altogether — the setting up of a wired network only too often in the Middle East.

But there are always options, even when “you have to turn to wireless instead,” as James Walker, product marketing manager for 3Com, explains. Your whole house can be fitted with audio and visual pleasures and tomorrow’s technology can do it without turning your dream home into a building site.

The growing stature of the Internet and its role as a source of entertainment has everyone looking to get houses online fast. And we’re not talking about PCs either. Finally wise to the fact that we all lead very different lives, manufacturers are unleashing a vast range of Web Pads and appliances to suit all comers. Wireless communications have cut the cables too, so you can now expect to surf the Net whilst stretched out on the sofa.

Rather like digital cameras, manufacturers are jumping into the Web Pad market from many different disciplines. While competition as fierce as this is usually good for consumers, it does come with complications. For example, software developers that will create compelling applications for Web Pads are screaming for standards that will allow them to create a program just once — in the certainty that it will run on Web Pads from any manufacturer.

Internet standards go a long way to resolving this problem, assuming Web Pads run standard browsers, but it’s far from clear whether this will be the case. If Web Pads are developed that are tailored for specific tasks — one for the kitchen, one for the kids, one for the study — the chances of additional complexity are increased.

These issues will be resolved sooner or later. And by the end of the year, you can expect to have a dozen different Web Pads available in the Middle East. It won’t be long before they plummet in price but be warned: we may have to settle for a stripped down set of services that have proved most popular with consumers in high-growth target markets.


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