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News feature: The real smart home

Couch potato's dream abode or faulty techno-future?

It's all very well having a myriad of whizzy entertainment gadgets and labour-saving devices in the home, but the real benefit from today's technology is networking them all together.

That's supposed to be what the Smart Home at the Electrical Retailing Show in Birmingham this week was about: the house of the future made from today's technology.

If this had been Japan or the US, the Smart Home would have been truly astounding, a slick multimedia sci-fi experience worthy of George Lucas. But this is Birmingham and the Smart Home is tucked into one corner of Hall 1 of the National Exhibition Centre, a series of fake 'rooms' roped off from the rest of the stands. In terms of props, it looks more Crossroads circa 1968 than Star Wars.

Nevertheless, the Smart Home contained about £18,000-worth of gadgets connected on a £12,000 network supplied by Tech Haus.

At the hub is a Sony Vaio with broadband internet connection to which all the other devices are connected, from the Bearbox – an armoured fridge into which deliveries can be deposited – outside the front door, to the lighting in the bedroom. There was even a smart blanket with thermostatic control, but this was a standalone device: not even the most optimistic futurist can find much requirement for an internet-controlled thermal blanket.

To be fair, some of the applications for a networked home were pretty useful. Imagine being able to let in the plumber without having to be there; you can if your front door intercom and lock is linked to your mobile phone. Imagine being able to see who is at the front door from the TV – very useful when the licence inspector calls.

Imagine an SMS intruder alert. The infrared sensors pick up movement, and you check the CCTV pictures broadcast to a website from your work PC, or an internet café. If it's your large stripy cat, you can relax; if it's a large cat burglar in a stripy jersey, call the cops.

Telediagnostics, in the shape of domestic appliances that contact their manufacturer before they break, is another valuable use of networked homes.

Other applications sound useful until you look at the practicalities. I'd like to switch on the heating an hour before I get home. Yes, I have a heating timer, but I also work irregular hours: sometimes I get home early; sometimes I get home late; sometimes I get home squiffy; sometimes I get home sober. With a networked home I could switch on the heating from my mobile. Nice.

But does this remote operation lend itself to the microwave and the washing machine? Not unless I've loaded them first in the morning before I go out. And in that last-minute rush for the train, I’m likely to come home to microwaved socks and chicken kiev on the delicates cycle.

Switching on the kettle from the TV is the ultimate in laziness, but also quite handy — provided you've filled it with water first.

And some of the applications, you can just see going wrong from the start: the networked fridge, for example, which includes a barcode scanner and is linked directly to the supermarket online shopping system. Take the milk out of the fridge, it's scanned, put it back and it's scanned. Leave it out and the fridge automatically orders more. You've used it or — if you left it out too long — it's gone off, so that could be handy

But what about that lemon ice cream you got on special trial offer? You threw it away after the first spoonful because it was foul. Hey presto, another litre will be delivered in your next grocery order. Welcome to automated supply chain management.

There's also the question, 'what if it all goes wrong?' Software frequently fouls up; we learn to live with that because we can still go home and have a hot relaxing bath. But supposing you have to download the latest patch before you can fill the tub?

And what about power cuts? I guess in the Smart Home you'd have a Smart Car in the garage that would double as a generator.


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