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News Feature: Do androids dream of electric bar glasses?

Home networking threatens to get sexy

Smart bar glasses and talking washing machines were some of the ideas mentioned at the Connections 2002 home networking conference. Discussion focused on home networking and products that exploit the technology, with the key question being what products and services customers would actually buy.

It has been a difficult year for most companies in this fledgling sector. Many have failed or been bought as the market has struggled and funding has dried up, and the service providers — the only companies left with any money — have been slow to partner up.

Delegates at the show seemed to divide into dreamers or pragmatists. Siemens Energy and Automation's Richard Buzun, falls firmly into the former category, believing a smart home is more than just clever, it is downright sexy — well that's if you find clever sprinklers a turn on that is.

"Soon, our homes won't just be smart, they'll be sensual," explains Buzun. "Our sprinklers will know the ground is dry and turn on. Our dishwashers won't turn on until all in the home have showered, saving energy."

But the time-honoured combat between love and money was close at hand. Party poopers from AT&T Broadband, brought up the 'P' word, questioning the profitability of irrelevant, silly network technologies.

In her keynote address, AT&T Broadband's Susan Marshall, picked out two examples of what she sees as pointless products: Electrolux Kelvinator's Washy Talky, a talking washing machine, and iGlassware, a technology that senses the liquid level in a bar glass and sends a wireless message to waiting staff letting them know the customer's glass needs a refill.

"How do you get consumers to actually adopt these technologies?" Marshall challenged the audience. "Do I really need my washing machine to tell me to 'Drop in detergent, close lid and relax’?"

Well we're not sure we agree with the sensible Ms Marshall. Why does technology always have to be functional and never fun? There is no point in developing over complicated devices with too many superfluous features, but giving products a personality and enhancing how users relate to everyday devices can be an effective way of persuading consumers of their advantages.

Who hasn't chosen a stereo because of the extra flashing lights, or that funky remote control, that lets you switch it on from the bathroom? Maybe you never use these features, but were enough to influence your purchase.

Marshall doesn't restrict her scorn to the eccentric fringe of network technology. She is just as unconvinced by the concept of TV/PC convergence, stating, "We don't expect you to watch movies on your PC or surf the web on your TV."

But we'd beg to differ on this point too; Marshall's attitude shows little understanding of how people use technology. The DVD-ROM drive's succession to the CD-ROM was inspired not by the introduction of software on this media, as this is still in short supply, but by the growth of movies on DVD which users were keen to watch on their PCs.

In fact standalone DVD players came about as result of users first watching movies on their PCs, and then looking for the same quality on their TVs.

Conversely, PC literate users may be happy to email and surf the web on a computer, but for those without a PC, or without the training to understand these technologies, the advent of email via the TV has opened up a hitherto closed book for them. True, these services aren't available to all, but it is their inherent limitations which have hindered their unmitigated success, rather than consumers' unwillingness or inability to use the TV to view the web.


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