Home smart home

The networked house is no longer a sci-fi dream – our appliances really will soon integrate fully with the web.

If you passed Harrods last month you might have noticed a peculiar sight. Those figures in the window really did move.

They were real people: the LG Internet family, four people who had undertaken to live in the shop window for six days. No, it wasn’t the latest in reality game shows. This was an experiment in smart living.

If you’d stopped to watch the family you’d have noticed they were behaving oddly. You might have seen them watching the fridge. Or sending a text message to the air-conditioning unit.

Welcome to the home of the future. The Harrods window display was the brainchild of LG Electronics, the consumer electronics giant, which is pioneering technology for smart homes. For years technologists have been waxing lyrical about a world in which domestic appliances can be controlled merely by speaking to them, where intelligent computers would service our every whim and do tedious chores like the washing. It’s the stuff of Star Trek.

Finally, it seems, technology is here among us. This is one in a host of new schemes from the likes of Orange, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and others that will bring smart homes, where appliances are connected and can act on or even anticipate human commands.

The LG window display centred on the kitchen, with the most striking exhibit the ‘internet fridge’. Not many fridges have a flat LCD screen embedded in the door. This one can show TV, through a standard aerial connection at the back, or video stored on its 40Gb hard drive. Forget fridge magnets holding up scrawled notes: a microphone and camera mean you can record video messages for the rest of the family. While you potter about the kitchen you can listen to the fridge’s built-in radio through its speakers, or play MP3 files you have downloaded from the internet.

The screen can also be used for straightforward internet surfing, and you might want to browse a supermarket site for shopping. ‘Most people make up their internet grocery list by wandering round the kitchen and scribbling things on bits of paper, then typing them in. This way you can type your order in directly,’ says Andrew Mullen, technical product manager at LG Electronics. Future versions of the fridge will incorporate a barcode scanner so you can scan in your favourite products and to order more of them just press a button on the touch-sensitive screen.

LG’s installation also includes a microwave oven with internet access so recipes can be downloaded to the machine from a special LG website, and a washing machine that can be controlled via the internet so it can be turned on remotely. The other main innovation on display is an air-conditioning system whose smartness lies in the fact that it can be controlled and monitored directly via the internet, e-mail and mobile phone – so you can adjust the temperature of your house before you get home.

Needless to say, all these products are much more expensive than average – the internet fridge will set you back £6,000 and the microwave £400. Whether people will really want to be able to download internet recipes to their microwave must be highly doubtful, and most households already have cheap radios or TVs in their kitchens if they want them. Buying an expensive fridge to be able to leave video messages is a frivolity most of us could not afford.

These are early days, argues George Colony, chief executive of Forrester Research. Having access to an internet device in the kitchen will be useful, he says, for such mundane tasks as looking up phone numbers. Say there was a computer hanging on the kitchen wall with an internet connection. You’d touch a button to bring up a local directory of services and find the number of a plumber. Maybe you’d even connect directly to the plumber and speak to him through a microphone embedded in the device. People will not even be aware they are using the internet: they will merely be using a service, with no more thought for how it is delivered than they currently expend on wondering how the telephone works. Colony foresees that in this way smart devices about the home will become pervasive in a decade, and comments: ‘I think most revolutions start in the kitchen.’

Until those useful services are built, however, take-up of smart devices is likely to remain slow. LG’s internet fridges have been on sale at John Lewis for a year; the company will not say how many have been sold, but the number is thought to be very low.

What’s really interesting about the LG project is that the appliances on display at Harrods are actually available off-the-shelf, the first sign of maturation in the smart home industry. In the early days of smart home experiments just a couple of years ago, much of the technology being used was bespoke, or painstakingly assembled from bits and pieces already available. For instance, one important UK project spearheaded by the housing association Housing 21 created a smart house in Gloucester in the summer of 2000. The house was designed for elderly people suffering from dementia, who would otherwise require residential care, and featured aids such as taps that could turn themselves off, spectacles tagged with a radio frequency chip so they could be located easily, and a bed that could sense if its occupant was present.

Much of the effort lay in putting the devices together to apply them to the needs of the elderly. A lot of this technology is hardly earth-shattering, consisting of simple sensors, actuators and the like. For instance, what does it take to fill a bath at the correct temperature? A few basic sensors and a thermostat. Nobody is going to get too thrilled about those these days. The same goes for the sensors required to walk into a room and make the lights turn on – these are already familiar from burglar alarms. Anyone with enough engineering skill, time and money could have created a reasonably smart home for themselves any time in the past 10 years.

There are two difficult parts: writing the software that controls these chips, and connecting it all together. In the case of the software, companies are beginning to create these systems in such a way that they can be easily integrated with one another, as the LG products show. Firms, from Microsoft to Wind River of the US and the Linux community, are developing embedded chip operating systems to enable these chips to be easily brought into play in smart houses. For the connection, the answer is obvious: the internet. These gadgets need to talk to one another: what better way than for them to use IP, giving each gadget its own IP address if necessary and allowing appliances from thousands of different manufacturers to interconnect?

The internet isn’t the whole story, though. Gadgets need to communicate with one another inside the house too, and for that a range of wireless technologies come in handy. Bluetooth and its fellow wireless networking standard 802.11 wi-fi are the favourites.

An interesting alternative is digital powerline. Powerline technology enjoyed a brief vogue several years ago, when telecoms companies proposed sending data down electricity cables in place of phone lines. The idea foundered because it was too difficult to overcome the problem of interference between the electrical signal and the data. However, smart home appliances generally need to send only small amounts of data at a time, which makes the problem of interference much less.

Intellon in the US makes a home wireless networking product that simply plugs into the mains, available now through its website. The future of the technology looks bright, as the HomePlug Alliance, an industry body aimed at creating open specifications for digital powerline in the home, numbers big companies such as Sharp, Texas Instruments and Panasonic among its members.

Something the LG family lacked, but which has played a leading role in other visions of smart living, was voice control. Orange has been testing its ‘home of the future’ for more than a year, even persuading real families to live there for weeks at a time. Key to the home is its Wildfire voice-recognition technology, also found on the company’s mobile phones, through which users need only say the name of a person in their address book to be put through. In the home the technology allows users to voice simple commands to appliances: you can tell the kettle to boil, the washing machine to start, the oven to warm up.

A UK company is leading the way in this area. NeuVoice, a spin-off from Plymouth University, specialises in voice recognition for embedded chips. Its technology is already used in mobile phones and cars, and the company is working on building it into a variety of domestic appliances such as washing machines and cookers so they can be voice controlled.

The question remains whether people really find it more useful to control products remotely than to walk over and turn them on. A clue comes from the experience of the Orange families, whose feedback concluded that customers do indeed want remote wireless access of their appliances, and their entertainment products such as televisions and radios. Imagine the scene in the kitchen: if you have your hands full, carrying washing or a small child, being able to shout at the kettle to switch on would be a relief. The system can also recognise different voices, so mother and father can control the cooker but little Johnny can’t. But in some cases remote control was too much: Orange abandoned the connected temperature controls it had installed in favour of simple thermostatic radiator valves, in response to the families’ feedback.

Orange sounds another note of caution for smart home enthusiasts: ‘The home will continue to be made up of islands of intelligence – individual kitchen appliances, heating, lighting, security and entertainment systems – and these islands will not be connected for many years, certainly until the customer sees a clear value in changing this situation.’

Nevertheless, some big computer companies are gearing up to connect the ‘islands of intelligence’. Microsoft, for instance, has started an eHome initiative to gather together aspects of its technology for home use. Chief among these is the Web Tablet, a sort of stripped-down handheld PC on which you can send and receive e-mails and surf the web, connecting it to your PC for more complex tasks. Intel is working on similar projects, and focusing on home networking to link together everything in your house from the fridge to the TV. HP, meanwhile, boasts its CoolTown project, under development at the company’s research labs in Bristol and shown off at its £7m centre in Wokingham, Berkshire. CoolTown comprises a wide variety of projects, from connecting mobile phones to video e-mail screens, and alarm clocks to news alerts over the internet.

Even the government seems to be getting in on the act, with the announcement in April of £40m of funding for a Virtual Interdisciplinary Research Centre, which will connect companies like IBM, Dyson and Hotpoint with researchers at various UK universities.

So when will you have a smart home? Well, if you live in Scotland you could have one now. The Cala Homes luxury house-building company has set up a demonstration home in Dunblane, whose features include a heating system that looks up weather forecasts on the internet to adjust the central heating accordingly. Beware: the house could set you back £500,000. Orange thinks the price will come down sufficiently in the next five years to bring the technology within reach of the reasonably well-off family.

So far companies are testing the waters with a wide range of smart home products, but we have yet to see the development of truly useful services to take advantage of them. Will smart homes succeed? Yes, if Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and the rest can help it. These companies realise that their traditional business markets are now becoming saturated with technology, and the 20 per cent plus growth rates that used to cheer shareholders are no longer possible. The solution is to create new markets, and smart homes are seen as the most attractive way to achieve this. So expect concerted marketing efforts from these players in the next few years.

Computers have successfully colonised business and industry, and even our pockets and our cars – the home is their final frontier.