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News feature: Bring on the networked home

Endless beer and rice makes life ever so nice

A Japanese government-led team is showing off the possibilities of home networking by connecting all the appliances and electronic devices in a rented house.

The project was started by Japan's Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications in 1999. Jeita, the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association, oversaw the project.

Aided by Matsushita (aka Panasonic), Hitachi, Sony and Sharp, among others, Jeita has spent the past year hooking up 50 home networking appliances.

The rented Jeita house is a typical two-storey Japanese home, complete with a traditional Japanese tatami room, a living room and kitchen on the ground floor and bedrooms and a study on the first floor.

But visitors to the house quickly notice some not-so-typical features. At the front door, visitors are greeted by Sony's pet robot Aibo. And from the living room, visitors can take it in turns to use a mobile phone to issue commands to automate watering the garden and feeding the dog outside.

"Every device in the home, even a small light, has a private IP address," said Yoshinori Sugihara, general manager of the Special Project Promotion Office of Jeita. "Technically speaking, the systems adopted here are fairly simple. While engineers might not be especially proud of them, we tried to build this house from the users' point of view."

Other special features of the Jeita house include:

  • no keys are required to unlock the front door. Instead, the house relies on a fingerprint scanner to identify the person who wants to open the door. The fingerprint ID data can also be sent to Aibo, which can perform a unique "welcome dance" to greet different members of the family.

  • no more waiting at home for the delivery of a parcel. A box for parcels is located just outside the front door. A family member can check on the arrival of package using a mobile phone and open the box remotely. The box is able to recognise the identification of the delivery and issues a signed receipt to the deliverer.

  • everything from opening curtains to turning on lights or the air conditioning can be controlled from the plasma-display television in the living room using a single remote control.

  • the house never runs out of beer. When there are only three cans of beer left in the refrigerator, an email order for more will be sent to a store. The house can also order more rice - an important daily staple in Japan. A censor attached to a rice container detects when supplies are running low and automatically orders a new bag via email.

  • the garden is equipped with a mobile phone-controlled system that waters plants and feeds pets, allowing family members to take care of plants and pets while away on holiday or out shopping.

  • for elderly family members, the house incorporates censors to monitor health conditions in a specially modified bed. When the censor detects something unusual, such as an irregular heartbeat or breathing cycle, it automatically sends a message to other family members' mobile phones.

  • a clothes line on the balcony monitors changes of weather. When it starts raining, it automatically pulls a covering sheet over clothes that have been hung out to dry.

  • each room in the house includes a handsfree speaker/microphone with voice-recognition capabilities that allows family members to stay in contact. For example, instead of a mother having to yell for the kids when dinner is ready, the system can make a phone call or send email using a voice command.

  • the house can adapt to the habits of each family member. For example, if one family member often goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the system soon recognises this habit. When that person gets up from bed, the house automatically warms up the toilet seat and lights the way to the bathroom. The house will also turn off the toilet-seat heater and lights as the person returns to the bedroom.

    All the home networking technologies incorporated in the Jeita house will soon be commercially available. The project team aimed to keep the cost of fully networking a home as low as $37,450, Sugihara said.


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