The house that Orange built

Just outside London, obscured by trees, up a gravelled drive, is a family house like no other. Jon Excell went to explore the UK’s first full-scale experimental digital home.

Having spent the drive down to Orange’s future home daring to anticipate gliding androids proffering trays of vol-au-vents, and awe-inspiring murals depicting ever-shifting martian landscapes, the first impression of the house was somewhat anticlimactic.

From the outside, the house looks just like any other mock Tudor middle England home, and passing through the front door (I was not disappointed to note a sliding, hissing airlock) there is more of the same, although it’s a little more stylish than the average family home.

But if I wanted these baubles I should have gone to Disneyland (and indeed I did some weeks later), for the purpose of this experiment is not to overwhelm people with dazzling displays of what could be possible, but to integrate advanced technology into an environment that is both familiar and homely.

This isn’t the first experiment of its kind. Sun Microsystems, MIT, and Microsoft have all demonstrated concepts for the home of the future. Orange argues that its project is, however, the first in which humans have been used as guinea pigs.

Designed for a fictional family of 5, the house has already been a home to 3 families and visited by numerous focus groups, all of whom were filmed and observed, big brother style, by a team of psychologists and designers. The manner in which these ‘guinea pigs’ interact with the house is creating a vast pool of knowledge that can be used to influence the design of tomorrow’s products.

Crucially, this house is not a finished product. Orange’s engineers have deliberately provided occupants with a number of different ways of doing one thing. Users can control different home systems and appliances through a range of wirefree devices.

Heating, lighting, door locks, entertainment systems, curtains, baths, and numerous other systems can be controlled from an Orange phone (using WAP or SMS), wirefree PDAs/webtablets; Panja wall panels, any web-connected PC, and even voice commands. All of these interface components communicate with the rest of the system using a specially developed system wide messaging protocol based on Sun Microsystems’ Java technology.

Through offering choices like this Orange is building up a profile of how people would like to interact with technology, although admittedly, £2 million (the cost of the home) is a lot of money to spend on discovering that people prefer using light switches.

There is also an environmentally friendly aspect to the design of the home. An intelligent heating system ensures that the central heating system is switched on when it is needed, and off when it isn’t. Each room in the house is regarded as a different zone and as such has its own controller. The temperature and occupancy times for each room can be set individually. Intelligent valve actuators replace the conventional thermostatic heads of the valves on each radiator and receive commands from the zone controller telling them when to open.

Additionally, there is a low emission boiler, a hot air recovery system that extracts stale air and passes it through a heat exchanger, a waste water recycling system, which filters water from baths, showers etc and uses it a second time to flush the toilet or water the garden. Plus, there’s a host of solar technologies that provide roughly half of the home’s electricity requirements.

And, for when the modern world all gets too much for you, you can always hit the off-button in the hallway.

Sidebar: So how long before we live in networked homes?

The general consensus is that in about ten years time, whether we realise it or not, most of us will be living in digital homes. Indeed, Peter Colebrook, technical director of the Integer Project – the people behind Carol Vorderman’s (a UK TV personality) perfect homes – claims that there are already at least 50,000 houses wired in the UK.

The main driver for the take-up of the technology will, claims Martyn Gilbert CEO of Amino Communications, be the life cycle of white goods. People change their fridge or vacuum cleaner on average every five to eight years, and they’re not going to be bullied into getting a new vacuum cleaner until the current one breaks down.

Talking about the nature of the networked home Gilbert says, ‘people want aggravation taken away. That is about not having fridges breaking down. It is about sensible automation of things which turn on automatically.’

‘Should I want my vacuum cleaner to be able to switch on my lawnmower – it seems unlikely – do I want my fridge to be able to talk to the microwave? You might present an argument for that. But I think it is the fact that we can now network the networked home to the outside world, that is the fundamental shift. It is not just about the fridge and freezers and vacuum cleaners talking to each other. It is the fridges, freezers and vacuum cleaners talking to the outside world, and enhancing the quality of people’s lives, it is the use of the Internet as a tool’.

But how will this world of intelligently integrated products affect the designer?According to David Griffiths of Cyan Technology, to drive these high volume consumer markets, you have to be able to produce the connectivity cheaply.

Griffiths claims that ‘as a rough guide, for every dollar you add into brown or white goods, it adds about $10 in the shops. That is a very expensive add-on to a washing machine’.

Martyn Gilbert agrees, and says that this is why the brunt of the work in the digital home will be done by ‘the gateway’ – a single point of communication that talks to both the outside world and multiple low-cost networks within the home. ‘Rather than needing every appliance to be absolutely dripping with silicon and software,’ says Gilbert, ‘you make something which fits the business model, which is low cost in terms of hardware and software and the services, and it is the gateway that does the brunt.’

Indeed, David Griffiths believes that this technology will be a huge driver in the electronics world. ‘This will probably be the next thing that will bail out the semiconductor business’ he says, ‘I am not joking – if this were to be taken up by 1% of the world, that is a huge driver to electronics, to the chip business. There is a lot of semiconductor content in these boxes and these nodes. It is probably going to be as significant driver in this decade as the PC was in the 1980s and 1990s’.

On a more circumspect note, many claim that there is a dark side to the notion of the digital home, fearing that it will contribute to the further erosion of personal privacy and security.

While the networked home will benefit the user in a variety of ways, it will also undoubtedly benefit advertisers, who are finding increasingly sophisticated methods of observing and targeting potential customers. And, when advertisers acquire information about you, they don’t just keep it themselves. They sell your name, to as many people as possible. This is now evident by the huge amount of junk mail we all receive, but how will this manifest in the digital house? Your own home will soon be able to spy on you unless you maintain the right to opt out.

This may sound a bit far-fetched, but hybrid internet TVs are already offering viewers the ability to have programs tailored to their personality. And how long before other organisations or people start snooping around, threatening your privacy and rights?

How long before Big Brother really is watching you?