The living room

The living roomThe smart home which answers the door touch control for heating, lighting, security is no longer just the domain of the rich. Tom Foremski finds developments in chips giving life to houses
The popular cartoon series The Jetsons featured a futuristic family living in a home where most functions were controlled at the push of a button.
Although the idea of such as ‘smart home’ has been an intriguing concept, for many home owners the reality is that it only has practical appeal to the very wealthy.
But that could change as new developments in cheap chips that can respond to voice commands become more widely used, and as automation systems for large commercial buildings make their way into home applications; and as the use of neural networks becomes better understood, allowing for homes that learn from their occupants, without requiring any programming.
Intel, Hewlett-Packard IBM and Compaq Computer, last year demonstrated a Jetson-style home in San Francisco, calling it CyberHome 2000. Visitors were greeted by what IBM calls a Video Doorbell which consists of a speaker and a video camera. The system can record messages from callers and it can also say things like “Hi. We can’t come to the door, please leave a message.”
The family room had a huge TV connected to the Internet for web browsing. And a special touch screen flat panel display offered controls for entertainment devices and the home’s heating, lighting and security systems. It also allowed users to check telephone, email and videomail messages. A bar code reader was used to scan food items brought into the home, so that a real-time inventory check could be performed and recipes offered based on the food items in stock.
The CyberHome 2000 attracted a lot of curious visitors and although much of the technology is available now, there have so far been few takers.
“Home automation systems haven’t really taken off yet, mainly because of the programming and high costs involved. Up till now, its been mainly used by the rich and famous, since a large home is in many ways similar to a commercial building where you want control over lighting and heating systems, but this will change,” says Barry Haaser, marketing director at US-based Echelon.
Echelon was founded in 1988 and it developed its Lonworks technology which is a standard messaging system that operates over any communications medium to control Lonworks compatible devices such as lights, heating systems or any electrical system. The goal originally was to push this technology into the home, but the company quickly discovered that there was more demand for LonWorks in industrial control systems where it is now the de facto global standard.
Haaser says that interest is growing in applying LonWorks to home automation systems but that home owners have had few incentives. “Energy costs are relatively cheap, especially in the US and there hasn’t been much incentive to deploy home automation, but that is changing,” he said.
One key factor is the deregulation of the electric utility market in the US. This is forcing electric companies to look at ways of cutting costs.Their key focus is to automate electric meter reading by installing a device that can automatically read the meter and relay information back to the accounting department.
Once such systems are in place, electric companies are interested in leveraging the infrastructure to provide other services such as home automation in which electrical devices could be controlled by the home owner.
Customers would be offered a single user interface that would give them control over their home’s electrical systems and it could also be used by the electric companies for load balancing, turning off some home appliances, such as a clothes dryer in the event of brownout conditions. Once such a system is in place, it opens the door to other possibilities. Echelon has been demonstrating a room where by anybody with a web browser and an Internet connection can turn lights on or off. And the company is porting its control software over to Sun Microsystems’ Java computer language, which will give it hardware independence and extend its ability to control electronic devices through an Internet connection that could come into the home through the mains, wireless, cable TV or telephone line connections.
“There will eventually be many communications gateways into the home. Our goal is to make every device into its own web server, building TCP/IP connectivity into every device,” says Haaser. NEURAL NETWORKS IN THE HOME Not far from Echelon is Sensory Systems, which has developed a cheap $5 chip that can recognise speech commands and can be used to control home based appliances. Sensory’s products are currently used in a wireless phone from Uniden which allows users to tell the phone which number to call, and in a $70 light switch sold by California based Vos Systems,which responds to user commands. Referring to the Uniden VoiceDial phone, Sensory president Todd Mozer, said, “This is a significant first step in bringing speech recognition technology to the consumer mainstream. This new product will be the most widely marketed consumer electronic voice recognition-based product in history.” Sensory sees its voice control systems entering the home through products such as the Vos light switch and the Uniden VoiceDial phone. Mozer’s brother, Michael, is an associate professor at the University of Colorado researching into neural networks. He has built a home in Colorado that uses 75 motion and temperature sensors running on a neural network to control heating and lighting systems. “The idea is that the house learns from the habits of its occupants so that no programming is involved,” says Michael Mozer. “The house knows what time I come home so it switches on the heating system and lights and it knows which patterns of lights to switch on when I walk into a room.” Mozer’s system is just a research project, but he says that the neural network software could be ported to a standard PC, and some companies are interested in commerci alising the system. “It’s surprising how quickly you get used to the house switching light sand heating on for you. It’s easy to anthropomorphise the house and really feel like its looking after you,” says Mozer. “I now find it strange to walk into a house that does nothing.”

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