High tech homes

The networking know-how that goes into making residential properties state-of-the-art often goes unnoticed. Alex Ritman assesses how residential networking has progressed and what the networked home of the future may look like.

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By  Alex Ritman Published  March 26, 2006

|~|Shouly,-Ehab200.jpg|~|“Our theme is to live the future and it was born out of people’s wishes, how people would want a home in the future, how they would be living 5-10 years from now.” Ehab Shouly, senior vice president of Omniyat Properties. |~|Coming home from work to find freshly vacuumed carpets, spotless surfaces and crisp ironed shirts is not something uncommon in the Middle East, with such luxuries being the norm for many in the business community. An entire industry has been built around these domestic services, aimed to do the chores that people do not have the time, or often the inclination, to do themselves. But the teams of cleaners may soon find their mops redundant if the futuristic plans of property developers gain momentum, with robotic ready and waiting to take over. “We all watched the Jetsons, and that’s how we’d like the future to be,” says Ehab Shouly, senior vice president at Omniyat Properties. A division of regional real estate and IT giant Almasa Holdings, Omniyat Properties was established in 2005 to offer what it terms ‘intelligent buildings’. “We decided to capitalise on Almasa Holdings’ strength in real estate and IT and integrate it into a new product, which is a niche segment not seen before in this market,” claims Shouly. “Our theme is to live the future and it was born out of people’s wishes, how people would want a home in the future, how they would be living 5-10 years from now.” Shouly says most technology driven developers are focussing on home automation, being able to control things such as air conditioning, lights and curtain from one central console. “For us, that’s basically a very expensive remote control, and it will probably take you a few months to learn how to operate it.” Omniyat, working with internet protocol (IP) communications specialist Avaya, has instead gone for an even more easy to use application. Voice. “We thought, what is the more natural way of doing things. Voice activated. All our homes will be fully automated in terms of voice control, so you will have you TV, curtains, air conditioning, lights, and even your phone, all controllable by voice,” says Shouly. Avaya technology is being used extensively for Omniyat’s voice recognition applications, and Roger El-Tawil, Avaya’s MENA channel and marketing director, thinks that the development is one of the first internationally. “I think this will be the first around the world. I think the expectations of people in Dubai are very different to what they are in other parts of the world, especially in the property market where prices in Dubai are still far below places like Manhattan or London, for example.” El-Tawil claims that speech recognition has progressed a lot in recent years and the demands for the technology is increasing not only in the Middle East but also around globe. “Speech recognition has evolved a lot of the past few years. It used to sound very automated, a lady reading out numbers from a database. But now it has become quite natural speech, reading from a database or e-mail can now be a very natural speech.” To make matter slightly more unusual, alongside automated vacuum cleaners and shirt pressers, even the pets in Omniyat’s apartments will be robotic. “We’ll be giving a robotic dog with every apartment,” says Shouly, with the same air as if he were offering a selection of garden furniture. Rather than being simply a cleaner and perhaps more obedient pet, the robodog will actually be an integral part of the residence’s communications. “It acts as a surveillance camera.” Should your apartment be burgled, the dog is designed to take a photo of the person who has broken in and send it to the police. It also reads out your e-mails. “So when you come home it will say ‘master, you have two e-mails,’ and then read them out. It will also play music. You can ask it questions, such as ‘what is the weather like in London?’ It will be connected to WiFi so it can find the information and read it out to you.” Apparently it is possible to select either a male or female voice for the creature, but having got used to a robotic animal speaking at all, it is unlikely the gender is terribly important. While the current pet available is a dog, feline friends shouldn’t be disheartened as a robotic cat is in the pipeline. “These things are to show off the technology. It is probably things that will come, but it’s not the main technology,” says 3M’s Middle East sales manager, Ramzi Nassif, adding that it is important to look at what is needed today and what can be deployed today. 3M’s home networking solution, allowing for advanced triple-play services of voice, video and broadband across the house, can be deployed immediately, he says. “The first installation may even be in one month,” he claims adding that a local developer is considering a pilot project in the Emirates Hills area of Dubai. “There is a growing need from individual consumers to be able to get high speed access to voice, data in video their homes,” says Werner Heeren, Fluke Networks’ regional sales manager, EMEA. “Everyone needs to make phone calls, but we all also want high speed internet access, and video on demand, digital TV, etc. Families with children are building more home networks to get all family members on line.” Heeren claims that this is especially prevalent in the richer economies. Obviously Omniyat’s advanced technology comes at a premium price. “But at the beginning we’re trying to integrate a lot of these into the cost of the apartment, so we’re absorbing a lot of it,” says Shouly. “At the top end we will be at the premium end, so we’ll always be 15%-20% more expensive than everyone else in that segment.” Studio apartments from Omniyat will start at approximately US$218,000 and Heeren says such a price may not deter people from purchasing these hi-tech homes, but it might not be for the actual technology. “You see the same behaviour with the latest mobile phones. Do most people really need that latest model?”||**|||~|S-Nassif,-Ramzi200.jpg|~|“These things are to show off the technology. It is probably things that will come, but it’s not the main technology,” Nassif Ramzi, Middle East sales manager for 3M. |~|However, Omniyat will also be looking at the lower ends of the market with its technology. “But obviously not as sophisticated as the higher end,” admits Shouly. “Instead of voice control, we’ll have remote control technology, which allows you to do the same thing. But technology will always feature in our properties. The technology we’re pushing is mobility. Through you’re mobile or PDA, you are able to access your communication infrastructure at the office or at home, your messages, single voicemail and faxes,” he explains. Omniyat has two high-rise office towers already for sale on a freehold basis in the Business Bay district of Dubai on Sheikh Zayed Road. The two towers have a combined value of over US$231 million, offering 700,000 square feet of freehold office space, and 25,000 square feet of retail space. “In those towers we have the office technologies integrated. But obviously the robotics will be more residential,” says Shouly. On the residential side of things, Omniyat’s first project is being launched in June. Mass market high-tech homes may still seem some way off, but Shouly is pushing the takeup in Dubai, with extensive construction. “We are developing over 4.5 million square feet of residential and commercial property in the next two years.” The first of the commercial towers has already sold out. Such modern properties obviously bring up some complicated challenges perhaps not experienced in normal residential construction work. “The challenge is mostly the integration of it all,” claims Shouly. “We’re not reinventing the wheel with any of these technologies, we’re picking and choosing existing technologies that have, in some cases, been around for years. Having to actually integrate all of this, and educate existing architects, consultants and constructors to actually work with a technology that is relatively new to them. It requires a different caliber of people.” It is likely to be a learning curve for contractors worldwide to look at the building from a different perspective. “The backbone infrastructure for each building has to be planned from the very beginning. So for us having the integration with one party is the main challenge,” says Shouly, adding that Omniyat is trying to use its in-house resources as a technology company to smooth the process. “We’re trying to work with partners like Avaya who have the experience as well to make the process much easier.” While the technology deployed may sound impressive, it is important that a complete support system is in place for customers. Getting through to the right service in the case of a fault is sometimes difficult enough with gas and electricity companies, but should an Omniyat Properties resident return home to find that the robotic dog has run away and the automated vacuum cleaner has exploded, it might be a different matter. However, Shouly says that the support will be there, and will in fact be simpler to use. “Customers will find it very seamless, because they will be dealing with one entity which will be taking care of all the services. You don’t have to call different suppliers, we’re just one phone call away.” Mechanical dogs giving weather reports are one thing, but the integration of once separate technologies does not sound so strange, and, like Heeren claims, in many residential sectors is being demanded by the customer. Abu Dhabi based structured cabling company Nexans is looking at this demand, but outside of Dubai. “We felt that Dubai is already filled with a lot of competition into that area,” says Tarek Helmy, Nexan’s regional director Gulf and Middle East. He says that most new developments are going to be serviced by TECOM, the telecommunications provider for areas such as the Dubai Internet City, which has now been acquired by the UAE’s second operator EITC. “TECOM have set up a certain standard that they are not going to change the design of, even if it goes for better performance services. It is too late for them to change.” Instead, a major focus for Nexans will be Abu Dhabi. “We are looking to introduce something different, something more advanced into Abu Dhabi, because it is completely new construction where we can influence our technology.” The emergence of telecommunications competition in the UAE, set to begin commercially in the second half of 2006, has given Nexans an interesting revenue-retaining proposal to present to the old monopoly Etisalat with regard to high-tech homes. “Why not go to these buildings, where you can push up your own design. It is not important who put it up, what is important is that Etisalat will have to service it.” Basically, like in Western markets, which have been exposed to telecoms liberalisation for some time, Nexans is encouraging Etisalat to tie up contracts with developers for its triple-play service to be delivered into the new residential buildings. “This is a typical model we have seen in Sweden for the past 15 years, whereby the operator Telia, which Nexans has contacts, has given the fibre connection and additional cabling within the building for free.” While the initial deployment to the developer may be free, they have to sign a contract giving the operator sole provider status to that property for an extended period of time, sometimes 10 years. “All the IP traffic will be terminated by only them, so they will get back their investment.” In markets where there are already two or three operators, Helmy says such a practice is becoming extremely popular. “They implement the cabling for free to the building owners, but under the contract all traffic has to be terminated by them.” Helmy says that, working with Etisalat, Nexans is talking to “big developing groups” in Abu Dhabi. “If they don’t do it, the second operator will come and present it to them, because this is a trend in the world today.” Using Nexans cabling solutions, Helmy points toward the home advantages. “If someone picks up the phone, it automatically cuts out the others so they can’t hear. Also, you can activate your DVD from any room. They put the box in the flat, and you will have the phone, video and broadband. Triple play. We are in a part of the world where people are not high-tech orientated. When you give a service to a client in a flat you have to make it as easy as possible to use. Don’t expect a lot of knowledge with the users.” While Omniyat may be looking for the top tier professionals with its robotic pets, those with extensive IT knowledge, Helmy says the majority of the market, when you look to the local population, do not have this. “You have always to consider that your user is average or below average in IT, otherwise you are hitting a sector which might not be exactly what they are expecting.” It is not the customers making the demand of the new developments, but the technology providers, such as Etisalat, which are pushing the opportunities. “Customers cannot plan what they want to have for an IP solution at home.” From one side, telecommunications liberalisation in the region may spread the deployment of advanced home connectivity, pushing more services from the operator into the home as old incumbents try to retain customers. On the other side, modern technologies from developers such as Omniyat Properties may see the sort of robotic assistance only seen in cartoons enter reality. Either way, it is likely to take some time before people get used to a talking electronic pet dog patrolling their apartment. ||**||

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