The house that a boffin built

Welcome to the digital home, in which every gadget from the fridge freezer to the garden sprinkler is controlled from a brain in the cellar. Geof Wheelwright introduces a three-page guide to the ideal home of the 21st century
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The boiler room is already the engine room of many British homes. But in the house of the future it will be more like a nerve centre - for there will be another box next to the boiler, not to generate heat but to control just about everything else. It will be a powerful computer, and it will be the hub of the house's central thinking system.

This computer will be the brain of the house, switching the oven on and off, programming the video to record Match of the Day, redirecting or answering phone calls, or receiving faxes or e-mails. The computer will be linked up to your home security system and you will be able to give it instructions wherever you are. In short, it will be a genius.

This is not pie in the sky. It is a vision that computer companies are seeking to realise today, as they cast around for ways to make the extraordinary leaps in digital technology useful - and therefore profitable.

The front runner in this race is the American software company Novell and its NetWare Embedded Systems Technology (Nest). This allows devices such as fax machines, office photocopiers and handheld computers to talk to each other and to other gadgets in a network. Unlike many other grand strategies for achieving such tasks (notably Microsoft's "Microsoft at Work"), Nest requires relatively little computer power, is compatible with a wide variety of microprocessors, and, says Novell, is cheap for manufacturers to add to their equipment.

Although the system is initially being sold for office use, Frankenberg's dream is to see Nest in everything from smart credit cards to cars and fridges. Novell has released a Software Developer's Kit so that manufacturers can make their products compatible with Nest, and 75 companies - including Canon, Hewlett Packard and Xerox - are developing Nest products this year. It is all part of a vision of a "smart global network", where networks are crucial not just in business, but in every area of life - in the home, for entertainment, education and travel.

In order to take advantage of Nest-enabled machines, they would all have to be linked together on a network, so that they could be told what to do from a distance. Already, any Nest device can be hooked up to a Novell Netware network, which is the most popular type of computer network in the world, used by about 50 million people. But Novell has also developed Powerline technology that uses electricity lines to transfer information. This means that a Nest device could be connected to the network simply by plugging it into the mains.

"Nest means that we can dramatically extend the reach of the network," says Frankenberg. For example, a motoring organisation using Nest would be able to diagnose the cause of the unpleasant sounds in your car engine while you are still on the move and have the necessary parts ready at your next stop. Your washing machine, toaster or lighting could be networked and controlled from the "brain in the cellar".

Frankenberg rejects suggestions that his ideas are too futuristic. "Most new cars today already have eight or 10 microprocessors in them and many new luxury cars are coming equipped with cellphones," he points out. "Connecting to a network would also give access to information on traffic, weather, directions on how to get somewhere."

In the US, Novell has struck deals with General Instruments and Stellar One Corporation to build television set-top boxes with Nest technology. These could be the first of many truly smart consumer electronics products to hit the home.