Power to the people

If you thought the TV changer was an inspiration, the 'smart home' is really going to impress. Lisa Sykes on the remote control for your entire house

THE LAST THING most people need round the house is another remote control. It's confusing enough now we have separate handsets for everything. But what would make life easier is a remote control for our entire home.

It sounds a bit like science fiction but the reality of the "smart home" that can be manipulated while we are still at work, stuck in traffic or even on holiday is almost here. And we will save money and energy by making our homes more efficient and secure.

Scottish Power, a multi-utility company, has put together a prototype Smart Home in East Kilbride. The Smart Home gives householders control over their home environment. On the way home from the airport you call up a program on your laptop and, via a modem and mobile phone, you can switch on lights, disable your security alarm, draw the curtains, set a CD to play as you arrive, select the level of heating in different rooms, and even run a bath so it is ready when you get in.

The full prototype, developed by Dallas-based computer group AMX, costs around pounds 12,000, including solar activated blinds and a sensor-activated TV that follows you from room to room. But the Scottish Power Smart Home isn't yet available as a package.

"It is still too expensive," says a spokesperson, "we aren't sure how many people actually want or need to program their bath temperature while they are on their way home. But there's definitely room for more use of smart panels to control the electric system.

"We believe that deregulation of the UK energy markets, together with the wave of e-commerce that's coming over from the US will create a market for home control products that isn't there right now."

As usual, Germany is way ahead on this. A German market research company estimated in 1996 that by 2000, 10-20 per cent of new German homes would have "home automation" , and electronics company Siemens has already developed a Home Electronic System (HES) that goes some way towards creating the smart home.

"Drivers can use a remote control to automatically turn off the inside light, lock all the doors and arm the alarm when they get out of a car," says Gunter Seip from Siemens. "But when they leave their home they have to individually switch everything off and set the alarm. And then worry all day wondering whether they really did remember to turn off the iron."

The HES links all electrical appliances by a cable called the "instabus". They can be controlled remotely if they are connected to a telephone network. This includes the TV, phone, coffee machine, washing machine, oven, heating, door locks and lighting. If you happen to be absent-minded, a single switch by the door sets the alarm, lowers the thermostat, switches off all the lights and appliances and sets up an "absence simulation" to give the house that lived-in look while you are away.

Once the cable has been installed, new appliances can be added. Siemens claims 30 per cent improvements in energy efficiency in rooms where heating, blinds and windows are automatically adjusted to the temperature.

UK householders can choose who supplies them with power, and a number of key players such as BT and British Gas are expected to offer new home automation products to householders. British Gas is already taking its first steps towards home automation. It has introduced wireless programmable room thermostats, which reduce installation costs because they work by remote control and can be programmed for up to seven days in advance. And if you leave home and forget to set your house alarm, another product allows you to dial up and arm it remotely.

There's also a pager system linked to the alarm that can tell a working parent when their child is safely home from school. Once there's a phone link to the alarm system like this, "almost anything is possible" says a spokesman.

However, according to David Gann, professor of technology policy at Sussex University, "the gap has yet to be bridged between the gung-ho approach of the suppliers and what people will actually understand and want to use."

This is something that Dutch electronics company Philips has taken to heart in the design of its own solutions for smart homes. "We wanted to investigate possible developments over the next ten years," says Stefano Marzano, senior director of corporate design, "and explore what people will perceive as useful, desirable and beneficial in the future."

The massive increase of computing power, which is set to continue doubling every 18 months, well into the next century, and the way it shrinks and speeds up the world are key to these developments. Many homes now contain more computing power than was available in the whole world 50 years ago.

Philips predicts that technology will become less obtrusive, integrating into walls and furniture. There will be access to far greater amounts of information, including video-on-demand, home shopping, internet access and video telephony.

The company has set up a prototype of how this may look. At the centre is the electronic Heart, which controls all entertainment and information services in the living room through a touch-screen display or by using a control Wand (pre-programmed to personal media choices and voice activated). It also controls lighting, temperature and security. And as technologies merge and miniaturise, we will have flatter displays and sound systems; eventually a "living wallpaper" of sound and vision.

This would create a living room with less clutter, where there are no "black boxes". Small wireless video cameras for the home - remote eyes - will roam around the house so you can check on young children in the playroom or the progress of a meal in the kitchen while in the garden.

While they are still concepts, we will find these products entering our homes in the not too distance future. It's not sci-fi, it's reality.

Philip's 'Vision of the Future' web site is at www.philips.com/design/vof

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