Smart home developers have finally got smart to the fact that consumers don’t want devices that you need a Phd to operate but houses with clever user-friendly technology.

The vision of the 21st-century smart home, bristling with hi-tech gadgetry and humming with embedded computers, typically conjures images of slim models in chic designer clothing, elegantly lounging amid classy minimalist surroundings.

For those with enormous amounts of money, the technology already exists to make this hi-tech dream a reality. But for the vast majority of us, devices that deliver regular mobile updates on the temperature of our ice cubes are fripperies we can do without.

The real challenge for technologists, therefore, lies not in developing increasingly intelligent devices but in making their systems palatable and deploying them in such a way that your granny would instinctively take to them.

A large integrated consortium of businesses and academics has been working over the past five years to change the perception of smart home technology by targeting the commercialisation of systems that consumers actually want. The Application Home Initiative (TAHI) has been developing ways of making the intrusion of technology into the home a little more palatable for those who are not yet convinced of its worth.

The membership list of TAHI reads like a Who’s Who? of household technology names, ranging from big hitters like IBM and Panasonic, Advantica and Marconi to several UK universities and utilities including Severn Trent Water. All in all, more than 40 organisations have been working together to try to push forward the take-up of ‘smart home’ technology and encourage development of ‘ubiquitous computing’ in the home.

Trials nearing completion have been looking at how manufacturers can develop products that can be easily integrated with one another. Alongside that, however, they have been tackling the most obvious but commonly overlooked problem of all: how can this technology be made attractive to the average homeowner?

It is a question that Roy Kalawsky, professor of human computer interaction at Loughborough University, has been studying as part of his work with the Centre for the Integrated Home Environment (CIHE). CIHE acts as an umbrella organisation that manages a portfolio of different projects based around smart homes and ubiquitous computing.

Kalawsky believes that the biggest problem with home technology is that its merits are frequently obscured and let down by a confusing front end. With this in mind, Kalawsky is currently heading a project called the Smart User Interfaces trial. ‘What we’re finding is that people don’t want complex systems,’ he said. ‘No one wants to read a manual or have to work out how to operate a complicated remote control.

They want something that is intuitive to use and they want to be able to personalise it; everyone wants a different way of controlling things.’

John Bryce from Advantica helped run a number of concurrent smart home trials that took place at the Advantica test house at Loughborough University over the past year. He agrees with Kalawsky that the sticking point for past smart home enterprises has been that the focus has always been on the technology rather than the service it should be providing for the consumer.

‘Technology-wise there are no real fundamental issues for smart homes. The issue has always been developing a range of products that people are actually willing to pay extra for, to have in their homes,’ he said. ‘As yet, despite all the work that has been done, no one has ever come up with a set of obvious products that people actually want to pay for.’

The research organisation Ergonomics Safety Research Institute (ESRI) carried out a survey after the TAHI trials to discover which features of a smart home actually appealed to homeowners. Its findings make interesting reading. Consumers were particularly interested in using the TV as a sophisticated device to provide interactive services including information about energy consumption, home shopping and local services.

Less popular was the idea of central remote control of lights, curtains and heating, with many older people expressing concern that this would lead to laziness. People were also worried about the idea of a ‘super remote’ to control home appliances because of the confusion that would result if it was to be misplaced.

The Equipment Management trial, for which TAHI received DTI funding, took place not just in the test house, but in a number of homes in Leicestershire with the aim of developing a user-friendly integrated system. According to Bryce, the key to a successful networked home is to avoid creating completely new technologies, and instead work hard on trying to adapt and integrate existing systems.

The trials used networked intelligent meter reading and appliance control systems for washing machines and other white goods, as well as gas and smoke detectors all linked to a simple plasma screen and basic handheld and touch-screen devices. Energy consumption monitoring was looked at closely in all the trials, letting people know more about how much power or gas they were using on a daily basis.

The ESRI report found that people were very interested in mreceiving information about their menergy use to help cut their utility bills.

As part of the trials at the Advantica test house, a system called Foodware was tested, which scored highly in the ESRI survey. Foodware used sensors to catalogue food that had been labelled in the fridge or cupboard with intelligent labels. Information about the foods that were present was processed and that data was sent, via a user interface, a list of the recipes that could be cooked using the available foods.

Another popular device was a Dyson washing machine that gave information on its wash cycle and water usage as well as any faults in a series of web pages that could be easily read via a single interface in the home.

Cambridge-based speech recognition specialist Linguamatics did work on voice control technology, allowing users to control the lighting and entertainment by navigating a menu, while Kalawsky’s team at Loughborough worked on a variety of user interfaces, from touch-screens to msimple handheld devices. ‘The user interaction side was very important,’ said Kalawsky.

In fact, much of the technology used in the trials was a far cry from most people’s idea of a ‘smart home’, with few obvious control panels or complicated interfaces. Many of the interfaces developed for the trials were designed to be non-invasive. A variety of ambient displays and lighting systems were put in place to provide information to the user. One example was a holographic mirror that could mprovide information about the house’s msecurity and water usage.

Simple ambient lighting that glowed red if it detected an unusual pattern of activity in the home of an elderly relative was another prototype in the trials. The idea of such a welfare service was seen as a good use of technology as it would increase ordinary people’s quality of life.

This was a key aspect of the trials, in Kalawsky’s view. His team selected a wide range of different types of people to test out the interfaces, some elderly and some with families.

‘We don’t want things that only IT-literate people want or can understand,’ said Kalawsky. ‘We want to improve lifestyle.’

Prof Philip Moore, specialist in mechatronics at Leicester’s DeMontfort University, is a member of the TAHI group and thinks it’s time for smart home technology market to finally mature. ‘In the past it has always been technology driven and it remains the domain of the home-automation enthusiast who buys toys for their home,’ he said.

‘The point of TAHI is that what is important is the service that is delivered rather than the technology that makes it happen, whether it’s passive or active.

‘We’re looking to give people a better quality of life, or just an easier life, without it being either too invasive or too expensive.’