Whatever happened to the automated home?

25th Oct 2009 | 08:00

Whatever happened to the automated home?

Why most people's homes are still thoroughly low-tech

Why don't we all have automated homes?

Back in 2005, Popular Mechanics magazine showed off the home of the future, which took advantage of the latest technologies to automate almost everything. "There's just about nothing in the home that can't effectively be controlled automatically," the family living in the house enthused.

It's all very impressive – but then, it was even more impressive when Popular Mechanics covered exactly the same subject in 1939. We've been hearing about automated homes for 70 years but, despite the wonders of our wired world, most people's homes are thoroughly low-tech.

Popular mechanics

WILD PREDICTIONS:The fully automated, high-tech home of the future is just around the corner, said Popular Mechanics – in 1939

So what's the problem with the automated home? Is it us, or is it the technology?

The automated house of 1939 was surprisingly similar in vision to the automated house of 2009. "Electric ranges already are equipped with automatic controls for temperature and cooking time, but there is no practical reason why these operations together with the other applications cannot be controlled remotely from any room in the house,"

George H. Bucher predicted. "The future home will probably be equipped with a number of control centres, from any one of which the homemaker can give her commands.

"While many of George's predictions in 'The Electric Home of the Future' (Popular Mechanics, August 1939) came true – including TV and radio "[moving] the amusement centres of Broadway and Hollywood right into our living rooms" and homes with "some electrical means of recording news reports and pictures as soon as the news happens" – you're still more likely to see automated homes on MTV's Cribs than in Cricklewood.

To be fair to Bucher, forecasting the far-off future is never easy. But what about more recent predictions?

In 1999, the BBC gushed about a high-tech fridge. "Screenfridge, as it is called, allows you to send and receive email, watch television, pay bills and handle personal banking…

'Imagine this,' says Adrian King, President of ICL's Retail System Division. 'You're in the kitchen and notice that you are running low on eggs. You swipe the carton past the barcode scanner, which makes a note on its personal shopping list. You do this for all the items that you need. When you're ready, you send the list to a nominated supermarket who can then make up and deliver the order to your home.'"

The article also quoted NCR's Stephen Emmott, who said: "The next stage in computing is one that is moving computing devices beyond the desktop into everyday appliances including washing machines, fridges, telephones and clothes. We'll see intelligence embedded into everything we come into contact with."

So, it's time to put your hands up: who owns a Screenfridge, a net-connected microwave or Wi-Fi pants? Nobody? That's what we thought.

The cost of automation

The Screenfridge was developed by Data Vision Europe in association with ICL and Electrolux. The press release unwittingly provides several reasons why it didn't take off.

"The fridges will be market tested within the next six months and could go on sale by next year," Data Vision Europe wrote. In fact it took a bit longer than that: the Screenfridge finally went on sale in 2006, not 2000.

"It is estimated they will cost £700 to £800 more than a standard fridge/freezer," the press release continued. The Screenfridge was £5,000.

"To cap it all, the proud owner can then put his or her feet up and watch TV on it," the blurb trumpeted. The Screenfridge had a 15in display stuck to the front of a fridge. It's hardly a Sony Bravia.

Our favourite bit, however, wasn't in the press release: it was when The Daily Telegraph was shown around the Screenfridge showhome in Stockholm, a state-of-the-art development where the front door could be opened or locked remotely, blinds automatically shielded the inhabitants from the sun and motion detectors turned off the lights and air conditioning whenever they detected that nobody was at home.

"This is not about gadgets for gadgets' sake," project manager Mikael Klein told the newspaper – before admitting that "people do not want things like Screenfridges per se." As The Daily Telegraph pointed out, the technology wasn't exactly affordable either.

"The price of all the appliances, sensors and remote control devices has not been set yet, but Mr Klein estimated that it would double the cost of the £280,000 house." That's a lot of money to spare the drudgery of closing curtains, switching off lights and writing a shopping list before you go to Tesco.

So, will the automated home remain in the same category as jetpacks, flying cars and living on the moon – ideas that fire kids' imaginations but never become reality? Perhaps not.

However, there are several problems that automation needs to address if we're ever going to welcome it into our homes.

High-tech home time

There are several reasons why automated homes aren't in every suburban street. The first and most obvious one is money: cutting-edge kit costs a fortune.

For example, Electrolux's Trilobite 2 robot vacuum cleaner costs around £775, while Husqvarna's robot lawn mower, the Automower, has an RRP of £1,499. When you can buy a decent Dyson mower for around £130 and a top-end Flymo costs £115, then you need to be exceptionally cash-rich and time-poor to even consider buying a robot version.

Electrolux trilobyte 2

ROBO-VACUUM:The second-generation Trilobite from Electrolux is still thwarted by stairs

Price isn't the only issue, though. Robot vacuum cleaners, like Daleks, can't climb stairs – and it seems that they're not too great at the vacuuming bit either. In 2004, the Wall Street Journal reviewed the first Trilobite and two other robot vacuums and the verdict was summed up in the headline: "The only thing latest robot vacuums cannot do is clean."

Of course, the technology has advanced since then, but not by much: in 2008, Register Hardware reviewed the iRobot Roomba 560 robotic vacuum cleaner.

"Roomba certainly didn't pass the wife acceptance test," Lewis Page wrote. "The machine takes its time, going over every bit of floor repeatedly before it's satisfied, but the results after it eventually gives up are frankly unimpressive. In some rooms, the time taken to get rugs and so on out of the machine's way and put them back afterwards meant that an ordinary vacuum actually demanded less user time as well as doing a much better job."

The conclusion? "As a plastic pal that's fun to be with, the 560 is great – as a way of cleaning floors, not so much."

Another issue with intelligent appliances is that it's easy to overcomplicate things. For example, our washing machine is computerised: it has sensors to judge the weight of the load and to adjust washing programmes accordingly. Sounds good? Every third wash, the sensors decide that the load isn't balanced properly and the machine goes on strike, flashing up an error message and beeping.

Our last machine was as dumb as rocks, but it never got in a huff at our laundry-loading skills – and we never had to reboot it like a badly behaved PC. Adding automation adds cost and complexity, and it's often hard to see the benefit.

Take the idea of the intelligent fridge that does its own shopping. You'd need to enlist the supermarkets, decide on a standard way for fridges to place shopping orders – which isn't very likely to happen, not least because automation removes the opportunities for the up-selling, cross-selling and bundling that supermarket websites are so good at – and train your fridge.

'Aaagh! That hummus is awful!' you cry, hurling the pot into the bin. 'We're out of hummus!' the fridge happily exclaims, ordering more from Tesco.

Why connected homes are more realistic

Hyper-intelligent home appliances are still some way off, but that doesn't mean connected homes are entirely pointless. However, actually connecting things in such a house can be troublesome.

Until relatively recently, 'connected' meant Ethernet cabling or manufacturer specific wires running around your house, with all the hassle, drilling and expense that entails.

Wi-Fi is a step in the right direction, but even this option isn't ideal: its short range, hefty overhead and susceptibility to interference means that many people's homes have wireless blackspots or desperately slow connections, especially if they're using older Wi-Fi kit.

The good news, however, is that wired networks no longer mean drilling or lifting carpets, and powerline networking (PLN) technology could make connected homes much easier to create.

Belkin powerline kit

SIMPLE SOLUTION:Powerline networking (PLN) such as HomePlug AV delivers Ethernet speeds via existing electrical wiring

Powerline networking is a simple and very clever idea: it transmits data through your home's electrical circuits. Simply stick a PLN adaptor into a plug socket and you've got an Ethernet port capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 200Mbps.

To connect a second device, just stick another adaptor into a different plug socket. The bad news is that PLN is a bit of a mess, with several different incompatible technologies competing with one another. It's also quite expensive: a starter kit (two adaptors) costs around £50 to £70 and you'll pay around £50 for each additional adaptor.

There is, however, more good news. The HomeGrid Forum and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) intend to publish a single home networking standard, called G.hn, later this year. The first G.hn chips should appear in 2010, removing confusion from the market and bringing down the price of PLN hardware.

The G.hn standard will have serious backing – HomeGrid Forum members include Intel, Panasonic, BT and Infineon – and could conceivably replace Wi-Fi as the most popular form of home networking. The combination of powerline networking for static devices and wireless networks for mobile devices means that the kind of home Popular Mechanics described back in 1939 is certainly feasible – but instead of a control centre, we might use Twitter. At least, that's what Andy Stanford-Clark is attempting.

Home tweet home

Stanford-Clark is IBM's 'Master Inventor' and if you follow him on Twitter (his username is @andy_house) then you'll see that he's connected his home to the social-networking site. His Twitter feed tells him and his followers when the lights went on and off, when the phone rang and, most importantly of all, whether the house is demanding "unusually high energy use".

As Stanford-Clark told www.alertme.com, the system takes data from various sensors to monitor energy consumption, enabling him to control his home's energy usage and carbon footprint from anywhere.

The same principle informs Greenbox, a US start-up company whose energy meters tell you exactly where you're using – or wasting – energy and how you can reduce it. The data is aggregated locally, enabling consumers to compare their usage to their neighbours', and similar technology is coming to your house: according to the Energy Retail Association, smart electricity meters will be rolled out to all 25 million UK homes by 2020.

"This is a major technological and social transformation to rank alongside [the] digital switchover and the introduction of North Sea gas to homes in the early 1970s," the ERA says. Such meters won't deliver the ability to turn off the TV via Twitter – at least, not initially – but they will enable utility firms to provide consumption information via mobiles, the web or digital TV.

According to Zigbee, whose powerline networking technology is built into many smart energy meters, "assuming that smart meters are deployed correctly (using well-designed technologies with an understanding of the enormous potential that they bring) smart meters could, for the first time ever, herald a pervasive network infrastructure in homes – one that can be used not only for energy management but also as a command and control of all manner of lifestyle products, security systems and entertainment and communication devices."

Automatic for the people

We don't think that there'll ever be a market for super-intelligent networked toasters or microwave ovens that download recipes from Delia Online. However, it does make sense to connect TVs, digital video recorders, hi-fi systems, digital photo frames, consoles, phones and PCs in order to enable you to access your media from wherever you happen to be – whether you're at home or on the other side of the planet.

It also makes sense for your various devices to display data from the internet or home network whenever you need it, or for you to be able to control those devices when you're away from home, and the combination of home networking and smartphones could easily deliver that.

The connected home is coming – but the fully automated one? Only if there's somewhere to park your jetpacks and your flying car.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 286

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