Homing devices

Andy Davey looks at which products will be commonplace inside households of the future

I’ve never really considered my fridge to be particularly dumb, a bit of a monofunctional lug maybe, just minding its own business, happily humming away in the corner. However, from now on, we should rate a fridge as much on its IQ as its ice-maker, or its communication skills over its capacity.

The somewhat benign, noncommittal relationship we have with fridges and other products around the home is about to change forever with the long-promised arrival of the smart appliance. These masterful machines will communicate with you and their colleagues the oven, the dishwasher and the washing machine; interacting with as many other aspects of your home as you specify, and will even self-diagnose, indicating any faults to your home hub PC – even calling out a repairman if necessary.

It’s like the advent of the ‘appliance of science-fiction’ to counterphrase the famous Zanussi ad slogan, with the delivery of technology finally catching up with our imaginations. And while ‘You are low on semi-skimmed, Andy’ is not a million light years away from ‘You don’t want to do that, Dave’, having intelligent appliances around us will become as familiar as the VCR or PC.

So if you aren’t already tired of hearing the words convergence, connectivity, and networked thrown around, then you soon will be. These and others like them will soon be part of our everyday lexicon – along with Internet, texting (and technophobia).

Le Corbusier’s famous and prescient quote of 1923, that ‘a house is a machine for living in’ is more relevant now than at any other time. In fact, a contemporary adaptation of that quotation could be ‘a house is a place for machines to live in’, such is the plethora of precocious products waiting to populate our homes.

Novelists, film-makers, architects, futurists and visionaries have fantasised about homes for the future before, from Buckminster Fuller to the Bauhaus and the Ideal Home exhibition. But more recently, in our increasingly fragmented society – where people seemingly prefer to talk to, or into, machines rather than face-to-face – the time has come for technology to truly enter our homes.

Until now, only the disorganised nature of technological development has prevented a coherent and concerted effort to enhance our home life with seriously useful machines. Manufacturers and service providers are still unsure how best to generate revenue on these developments, and the cornerstone – a common architecture or protocol around which all technologies can operate, has yet to be fully established.

Already, over one million households have broadband in the UK, and by 2005, 50 per cent of all European households will have access to broadband services. Apart from the entertainment and communication opportunities that broadband offers, it also throws open the front door to intelligent products previously only dreamt about.

Enter the Konnex Association, not a 1960s spy film, but a group of member manufacturers that are working towards the best available technologies and combining them into a single standard for intelligent home networking. The aim is to provide joined up domestic management via a home server, a domestic radio network or even the domestic internal power wiring around the home. And a broadband Internet connection will enable owners to interact with their home devices from wherever they are in the world. The product line-up would extend to lighting, heating, air-conditioning, safety andsecurity, as well as device fault-diagnosis if anything breaks down.

These ideas are by no means new – a glut of smart home magazines groan on the newsagents’ shelves next to fantasy kitchens and toys for boys – but our everyday experience of them still is. And all this technology needs cables, kilometres of it. So fully enabling Britain’s crumbling infrastructure and crumbly housing stock will mean a lot of dust and disruption. However, it would be mad to build a new-build house without the necessary cabling for these technologies.

When this near future finally appears, home owners will be able to enjoy a subtle, but increasingly powerful feeling of control over their environments, communications and entertainment, quickly consuming it as an essential rather than a luxury; knowing that their homes and products are interconnected, secure and controlled.

All these developments bring our changing relationships with products into a sharper focus. Originally mobile phones and the Internet were hailed as liberators in the pursuit of flexible communications, but have latterly been blamed for a growing breakdown in established forms of expression between individuals.

In the same way the emergence of intelligent appliances may require or stimulate greater human interaction far beyond existing notions of appropriate behaviour between man and machine.

Predictably, Japan is the spiritual home of artificial intelligence and robots for the home has been a development route for decades. In an ageing society, Japan needs to find ways of helping and caring for the elderly and infirm. Hence, projects like Honda’s Asimo, an intelligent bipedal robot designed to assist with menial tasks.

Whether we have individual linked products, or a wired home that collectively controls these appliances and other services, the thinking is the same: a united, co-ordinated, customised environment for the future. The difference between a fridge that was Internet-ready a few years ago and the smart appliances being touted today is that these brighter nephews are able to do things like decide how dirty your laundry is and act accordingly, adjusting wash temperatures and cycle times.

While appliances that could literally talk to us would eventually become both boring and annoying, current iterations of smart appliance communication are based around softer forms of messaging – suggestions or reminders – to check items like levels of supplies or consumption via a PDA or mobile, or even using subtleties like environmental lighting to indicate that something needs attention.

Control is the key, and considerable simplicity and flexibility will be needed in programming systems to ensure each user can create a home set-up that is useful and relevant to their lifestyle and domestic needs. As no-one wants to become a domestic IT manager, any system that suggests an overpowerment of technology or an invasion of privacy will fail, and a simple on/off switch should always be available.

For years, manufacturers from previously unconnected fields have collaborated as cosy-sounding ‘intelligent home partners’ to pursue the ideal where appliances, products and services are networked and always connected with our busy lifestyles.

Electrolux and Ericsson (e2 Home), and Whirlpool and Nokia (wireless, networked intelligence in the home) are both examples of such pairings. The European Community is promoting this type of thinking through the Competitive and Sustainable Growth Programme and the Orange at Home experiment of 2001 included features such as room temperature controlled by shouting at the walls, this is just before you start climbing them presumably.

Uni Home in Singapore is a test platform for Philips to explore the intelligent use of Internet technologies and broadband networks that consists of 30 trial homes integrating products, services, Web portals, digital TV, home security and surveillance, home automation, electronic programming and so on, all in a single user interface. ‘You cannot ask people today what they will like tomorrow,’ says Philips Design Singapore design director Gavin Proctor.

Uni Home allows visitors to gauge the impact that diffused connectivity will have on their lives and to feed Philips with recommendations and improvements or changes of direction. This kind of research is also twinned with conventional ethnographic research and focus groups.

All this technology costs, of course, and its gradual adoption will provide further evidence of the widening gap between the techno haves and have nots. It goes without saying that manufacturers are keen for this technology to take hold, and just as 3G phones are being hyped to us right now, whether we feel we need video phones or not, so expect to be able to lease these products and systems rather than buy them. A pay-as-you-use system is clearly possible; a new millennial Radio Rentals anyone?

Andy Davey is creative director and principal at TKO Design

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