The missing link that will allow your gadgets to speak a common language

All those web-enabled devices in your home are just a step away from becoming seamlessly linked together. All it takes is one more gizmo, writes Simon Clarke

The idea of the connected high-tech home has been with us for decades. But – aside from celebrity early adopters such as motor-racing legend Stirling Moss, who famously converted his Mayfair house into a remote-controlled headquarters worthy of a Bond villain – the fantasy “house of the future” of 1950s popular science magazines failed to materialise until the internet era.

Even so, the idea of the connected home, controlled by software and packed with interconnected gadgets, has taken a decade or so to really win over consumers. If you had visited the Philips millennial exhibition of new digital appliances, tools and control systems at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York at the end of 1999, you would have been treated to gadgets such as networked electronic clothing – like the apron with integrated power circuits and built-in microphone that allow handsfree operation of kitchen appliances.

At about the same time, Cisco created an Internet Home in Watford, Hertfordshire, that allowed residents to control the lighting, appliances and temperatures via a web interface. Inexplicably, these offerings failed to set the popular imagination aflame.

For some reason, we don’t seem that interested in spending our time programming our lighting or microwave to turn on and off automatically. It took digital media content, coupled with the broadband infrastructure to deliver it to consumers, to drive the change. As we cleared out our clutter and started to live online with ebooks, movie downloads and streamed radio, the connected home at last had a reason to exist. Homes now have an average of six connected devices, which will to rise to 10 by next year.

So what’s on offer? Most obviously, television and video-on-demand has seen a recent growth spurt, not only via television network services such as the BBC’s iPlayer and 4 On Demand, but also through DVD rental firms such as LoveFilm. Broadband capacity and speed has risen to the point where it makes more sense to download a film than to wait for it to arrive in the post – or even to bother setting the video recorder.

In response to the rapid uptake of online gaming over the past decade, consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation have become multimedia entertainment centres rather than just gaming devices, allowing gamers to download movies, play music, chat to friends and watch television, in between levels of Halo 3.

With the latest utility price increases due to send the average family energy bill soaring by £180 a year, electricity suppliers are now rolling out smart-grid technology. British Gas is offering a free electricity monitor with its EnergySmart package, as well as online graphs and tools to help customers manage and reduce their consumption. Meanwhile, First:Utility has partnered with Google to use its PowerMeter tool to display this data on a user’s iGoogle homepage Aside from saving money, arguably the single biggest driver for home connectivity has been the widespread adoption of smartphones – one billion of these are predicted to be in use worldwide by 2013. Millions of us are now happy to download apps to run all aspects of our day-to-day lives, from counting the calories to planning for a divorce.

It seems many of the elements for the connected home are now in place, but the device for making them work together is the “home gateway”. This technology helps connect the devices within the home and manages the digital information flow, for example by giving priority to media content that requires a high level of stability, such as video streaming or gaming.

“There is such a proliferation of video standards and digital rights management schemes that it’s a challenge for the consumer,” says Duncan Bees, chief technical and business officer of the Home Gateway Initiative, an industry body. “Can consumers take their high definition video and play it on a television or tablet? Can video-on-demand content be played on these devices? One solution is a more powerful home gateway box that can act as a translation device.”

Suppliers are diligently refining gateway devices for the ever-growing demands of the always-online household. BT’s latest Home Hub – Home Hub 3 – adds a function called Smart Wireless to switch frequencies automatically whenever it encounters interference in the broadband signal from other devices, thereby maintaining a clean signal and increasing reliability. It also promises easy setup and comes ready for BT’s 40Mb Infinity fibre-optic service.

Work on technical standards should also ease the consumer experience. The Digital Living Network Alliance has more than 245 members, including Cisco, Sony and Microsoft, and aims to develop a set of guidelines for gadgets to ensure they can talk to each other easily. The only notable outsider is Apple, which has developed its own standard – AirPlay – perhaps in a bid to single-handledly own the connected iHome.

As we become more reliant on our broadband infrastructure and networked home services, suppliers will be fighting to control the connected home – and our wallets. Already, fixed and mobile broadband suppliers are removing unlimited data tariffs, or pushing their price up. And content owners are constantly looking for ways to put content into packages that users have to pay for.

But there’s a difference between content that’s delivered to your home and digital files that you can move around within your home network. And according to consultant Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis: “It’s extremely unlikely people will be charged for data transmission within the home.” That is unless data, such as email, is routed out into the network and back to the home.

Connectedness has its drawbacks of course, as witnessed by recent data breaches at Sony, which compromised the personal details of more than 100 million online gamers worldwide.

Inevitably, the more data and digital files consumers keep online, the more risk they take on. But given the convenience of online access to content and entertainment, and the fact that a user’s personal hard drive is probably more likely to fail and destroy their files, it is unlikely most people will swim against the tide.

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