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Saturday » March 29 » 2008
Home smart home
Advances in wireless technology, coupled with falling prices, will bring intelligent living to the masses, whether it's turning off the heat from a cell phone or keeping tabs on your kids' web-surfing habits. Michael Mccarthy
March 28, 2008
Advances in wireless technology, coupled with falling prices, will bring intelligent living to the masses, whether it's turning off the heat from a cell phone or keeping tabs on your kids' web-surfing habits. From Deborah Jones' penthouse condo near the waterfront in the West End the view goes on forever. Aqua buses tootle around False Creek and whitesailed yachts drift by on their way to English Bay. But the fabulous view from her 20th-floor deck doesn't begin
to compare to the amenities hidden inside her gorgeous suite. Jones is the proud owner of a "smart home," now available at an "intelligent design" shop near you. "I simply touch this with my finger,"explains Jones, indicating a flat screen computer monitor standing on her kitchen counter, "and I can adjust the music, the lighting and heating,
virtually everything that's electronic in my home. I can play music in the living room that's different from what's playing on the sundeck, I can pre-program my favourite TV shows and watch them later, I can turn off the heating from my cellphone when I'm not home. Everything is connected together via wireless technology. I love the convenience of it all."
Jones' West End condo is an example of the move towards "intelligent living"that incorporates new technologies into home automation, all based on wireless capability. Her condo was reconfigured to incorporate the latest breakthroughs in wireless technology.
Deborah Jones' two-floor penthouse condo near the waterfront in the West End is divided into six zones. Jones' home was automated for less than $20,000. Each zone in Jones' home is controlled automatically or manually with an Ultimate Mobile Personal Computer.
Frank Ogden, aka Dr. Tomorrow, has been playing with wireless tech for longer than most. While the concept is not new--people have written about automated homes in science fiction since the 1950s--the reality has finally arrived, and it's not just the Jetsons or Hollywood movie stars who are installing such systems. Home automation has been around for some time but has generally been limited to high-end homes. The costs were prohibitive primarily due to the
requirement that most systems were either proprietary or required extensive wiring. However, over the past few years, new technologies emerged with open architectures that rely on wireless technologies. There is also the emergence of IP (Internet Protocol) and IT (Information Technology) systems that primarily use standard Microsoft Windows operating systems. Microsoft has been a leading proponent of home automation and has invested substantially in audio, video and home automation systems through the development and launch of a Microsoft Media Center operating environment. Installation of intelligent design into a smart home involves two major components. First, you need the independent systems many people have already installed in their homes -- security alarms, lighting switches, audio/video equipment, TVs, home theatres, CD and DVD players, video cameras, sprinkler systems, heating and air conditioning systems --and then make them talk to each other using integrated and easy-to -use touch panels. Wireless technology also allows users to operate these devices by remote control, which can mean from the next room, or next door, or even from around the world using either a cellphone or through the Internet. Wandering into her bedroom, Jones displays a "tablet" that she keeps next to her bed, a small handheld UMPC (Ultimate Mobile Personal Computer) that looks somewhat like a Blackberry. This "almost idiot proof" device controls the TV, and its matching TiVo, utilizing an Xbox 360 Extender that reaches out via wireless signal to the Media Centre in the kitchen. The tablet can open and close
her drapes, lower the lighting, lower the room temperature after she leaves the condo, record TV shows on her high definition set, select music from her CD collection, and lower or raise music levels throughout the condo. Jones' condo is divided into six "zones," each one controlled automatically or manually. Her bedroom is Zone Six; other sections of her two-floor condo are pre-programmed differently. Living on the top floor of a highrise, security is not a major problem, but motion detectors could be installed to let her know from a distance if anyone has entered her unit while she was away. Installation of such equipment would have cost a fortune years ago, but costs have dropped dramatically in recent years, so Jones' home was completely redone for "less than $20,000." The price of automation keeps dropping, but is mere convenience really worth this cost? "I love music, so that was my first interest in getting a system installed, so I could play music all over my apartment," says Jones, who owns a major event management company, "but over time I've found that convenience is the main reason I love it so much. Yes, you can save some money by programming the heat and lights, but I consider that just a bonus. I liken automation to car windows; once you've experienced electric, you just don't want to go back to manual rollup." Many wireless controlled appliances can also be installed in a home these days. Speakers can be imbedded into walls, bathroom mirrors turn into TV screens for those who want to catch the morning news while they shave or put on makeup, and touch pads in each room are built into the walls. Everything is controlled by a central computer, usually installed in the kitchen. Homeowners can combine various activities and tasks during the course of their
daily lives, like keeping the children's school schedules or accessing recipes on the Web. You can store all upcoming events on your calendar, share internal and external messages, keep grocery lists, telephone numbers and addresses,
all those sticky notes you used to have posted on the fridge. At the Smart Home Shop in North Vancouver, managing partner Drew Campbell has built an entire house indoors to show off even more nifty gadgets, like the
enormous home theatre with drop-down screen and hidden projector that rich folks in places like West Vancouver can afford. He gives a tour of the home, pointing out hidden features. Speakers are secreted in lamps and desks and
behind pictures that turn into giant plasma TV sets at the flick of a switch. Closed-circuit TV is built in throughout the home. Opening a closet door, Campbell displays a vast stack of electronic toys that even Hugh Hefner couldn't have dreamed up for the Playboy Mansion a few years back. Stereo and home theatre amplifiers, tuners, surge protectors, 400
disk CD and DVD changers, a video matrix switcher and Linux-based CPU all hum quietly as they control eight separate zones throughout the display home. The long-promised land of digital convergence is upon us, morphed into one
multi-tasking component. Work and play have become indistinguishable and paper has gone the way of the Dodo. But who's buying all these incredible technological marvels? Campbell says his customer base would surprise you. It's not just rich folks in West Vancouver or kids who have inherited family wealth, or high-end earners like rock stars or NHL players. No, it's largely middle-aged people with families and young professionals who consider technology a wise investment.
"Some custom integrators go for the top three per cent, the ultra rich people who can afford to customize their home just for fun, but we are more top 30 focused," says Campbell. "Our customers might also shop at Best Buy or Future
Shop. Entertainment is a key selling factor, but for many of our customers it's about keeping the family at home by sharing media. It's about entertainment, but also about functionality and productivity. It's also an investment in the
future." The family of tomorrow might see mom and dad coming home from their jobs toting their laptops and Blackberries, joining the kids after dinner at the kitchen table, everyone online, working and playing. No more wondering where the kids are going at night; they're sitting next to you playing on their Xbox while you switch back and forth from doing your taxes to watching CNN and listening to Michael Buble. And if you're out and the kids are home alone, your computer will alert you via cellphone if they're watching or surfing what they shouldn't. Via cellphone, you can have total access to your home, and in case of any emergency the company that built your in-house system can access and fix it
from afar. "Suppose you have gone on vacation, and pre-set your thermostats to a certain level," says Campbell, "and the outside temperature drops, freezing your pipes. We can tell the plumbing system to let the water flow so your pipes don't freeze up. We can also increase or decrease the heat inside your home. A difference of a few degrees can make a big difference in your heating bill over time."But do people spend $35,000 to $50,000--the average cost of customizing an
entire house with wireless technology--for entertainment or to save a few dollars on heating bills? The answer is a resounding "no." What's important is the appreciation of the investment. A condo can increase as much as $100,000
in value when digitally automated, a single-family home even more. "It's not just wealthy folks in West Vancouver--our customers are all over the Lower Mainland," says Campbell. "And it's not just home renovations that we do. We get a lot of developers dropping by here to see the latest technology and they incorporate it into the new homes they are building. Installation of wireless technology can add huge value to a new home." In upscale Shaughnessy, where old money goes home to rest and new ideas might not be that welcome, developer Troy Van Vliet has built a brand new manor home for those who don't blink at a $5.5 million price tag, a new home that looks like its century-old neighbours on the outside, but is ultra-modern inside. The five-bedroom, six-bath, three-level, 5,000-square-foot home is wired like a Christmas tree. Or wireless, to be exact. "Every new home should have this technology," says Van Vliet on a tour of the house. "I have it installed in my own home. The price of installation has dropped so much, and it's user-friendly. You can control everything on one pad. Realtors have always known that landscaping helps sell a house. Well, digital installation is just interior landscaping." The home is divided into eight zones, with three master control panels set on three floors. When you enter the front door, a wall connection in the library allows your iPod to function as a music connection for the whole house.
Individual controls in each room allow the music volume to be modulated. Motion sensors detect your movement and lights emerge as you walk throughout the home. In the basement, a gigantic home theatre is connected to the central control panel under the stairs. The whole house talks to itself via an Ethernet5 wireless system. "Everything in the house is expandable, so you can easily add on to it," says Van Vliet. "The world these days has become a much smaller place than it used to be. People are flying everywhere. It's important to be able to communicate home, and to control your home from a distance. All high-end buyers expect it. I would never build a home without it. It's very practical." Over in Coal Harbour, Vancouver's resident futurist has been playing with wireless technology for so long that touch pad systems seem quaint. Frank Ogden, aka Dr. Tomorrow, used to greet visitors to his houseboat (floating cyberden) with robots. The good doctor had a satellite radio receiver mounted on his car roof a decade ago; he's on to bigger things now. "Did you hear about this Spanish ceramic tile company that has created a smart floor tile that helps you diet?" asks Ogden. "It's installed in front of the refrigerator and incorporates a weight scale sensor and a microchip that measures how much time you spend on the tile, the time and the weight of the user. The tile recognizes when someone of a particular weight spends too much
time in front of the refrigerator. In other words, the tile knows if you are snacking between meals. The tile activates a speaker that voices a reminder message about the commitment you have towards following a diet." "There is a home being designed in England that uses the latest smart technology to give people with dementia and other serious long-term health conditions greater independence," continues Ogden, himself 87 years old and recovering from a bad back. Developed by the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, the technology has been designed to help people readjust to living
on their own after a stay in hospital. It also reduces the risk of users being readmitted to hospital or going into long-term care. This house uses special sensors that wirelessly "talk" to the stoves, taps and light switches in response to the behaviour of the resident. By monitoring movement within the home, the system can respond to different situations without having to contact care staff, often using simple voice prompts initially recorded by family members. If the occupant is detected opening the main door at inappropriate times he or she is given a prompt to let them know the time and encourage them to go back to bed. If they continue to go out, care staff is alerted. When the occupant
gets out of bed at night, the bedroom lights gently fade up. If the occupant gets back into bed and leaves the lights on, the house then gently fades the lights off. If taps are accidentally left running, they are turned off. If the stove is left
on, the occupant is prompted to turn it off. This is done twice but if there's no response, or if smoke is detected, the stove is turned off automatically. Then there is MIT's Oxygen Project, a multi-billion dollar research project, a collaboration between MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the U.S. federal government and six major corporations. Soon, thanks to the development of nano-technology, miniature computers will be ubiquitous. We will not need to click or point or learn computer jargon. Instead, we will simply speak. Computational devices called Enviro21s will be embedded in our homes, offices, and cars to sense and affect our immediate environment. All digital devices and appliances in the home will be connected to the E21. There will be no need to answer the telephone or door; microphones and speakers in the walls will do so. Sensors and actuators in the bathroom will make sure the bathtub doesn't overflow and that the water temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. The Enviro21 knowledge system even keeps track of which television programs you
enjoy and will alert you when the program is due to start, and when similar programs will be shown. If you forget simple chores, you can jog your memory by asking simple questions out loud, such as "Did I take my medicine today?" or "Where did I put my glasses?" The E21's vision system, using cameras in the walls, will recognize and record patterns in your motion, and when you visit your doctor you can bring the vision system's records to see if there are changes in your behavior that might indicate the onset of medical problems. You can also set up the vision system to contact medical personnel in case you fall down when alone. Forget Blackberries; handheld devices called Handy21s connected to the Enviros will empower us to communicate and compute no matter where we are. The prototype for Project Oxygen is based on a handheld Compaq iPaq with a 200Mhz StrongArm processor, extended by a custom BackPAQ sleeve developed
with the aid of Project Oxygen and its partners. The BackPAQ contains a digital CMOS camera, an accelerometer, an FPGA, an audio codec and headset jack, and two PCMCIA slots (for wireless connectivity and disk storage). Oxygen
software runs under Linux on the H21. Did you understand any of that techno-jargon? Of course not, but you can simply ask your Handy21 and it will be happy to explain it all to you. Coming to an intelligent design showroom near you, soon. Meanwhile, at Deborah Jones' West End condo, she's happy enough with her one-touch tablet sitting unobtrusively next to the phone in the bedroom. She picks it up, touches the screen with a finger and the drapes close as a gorgeous
sunset shines outside her window. The lights come up slowly, and the TV mutes and music swells. "Works very well," she says. "No problem at all. Once you get used to the convenience, you'd never want to go back to the old-fashioned way."