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Sweet RoboHome
By Robotics Trends Staff - Filed Sep 22, 2004
More Consumer and Education stories
Life in the 21st century was always supposed to be awash with technology. From robot housemaids scrubbing floors to wall-size televisions entertaining the kids, the home of the future was somewhere everyone wanted to live.

Now, in the first decade of the new century, many of those early visions have become reality. No longer the stuff of science fiction, the digital home has arrived.

Already the average family house boasts more computing power than the space craft that first carried man to the moon. Silicon chips have found their way into everything from televisions and games consoles to washing machines, air conditioners and even toasters.

A short visit to an electronics store is all that’s required to find proof of the progress. There’s a bewildering array of equipment and gadgets already on the market and even more waiting in the wings. Whether the job is entertainment, security, gardening, cleaning or home working, chances are there’s a technology that can assist.

For those looking to embrace the techno-filled lifestyle with both hands, the ultimate step is installing a home automation system. Available in a variety of configurations and levels of sophistication, these systems can make running a house literally as simple as pushing a button.

At their most basic level, automation systems can assist with tasks such as turning groups of lights on and off at pre-programmed times, or allowing all lights to be controlled from a single switch.

Other more complex systems can be linked to everything from air conditioning and motorised window blinds, to door locks, garden sprinklers and pool filtration pumps. Virtually any electrically operated device in the home can be connected to the system, allowing it to be controlled or operated remotely.

One example, from Australian company HPM Technologies, is the iCONTROL system. A fully programmable computer system, iCONTROL can be used to automate many functions within a home in a variety of ways. Going on holidays? Simply instruct the system to randomly turn lights on and off, open and close blinds and operate the garden sprinklers and no one will know the house is vacant. If someone does enter, the system can dial a preset phone number - such as a security company - to alert them of the potential break-in.

Perhaps you’re heading home after a long day at the office? Using the system’s remote control facility via a mobile phone or Internet-connected PC, it’s possible to turn on the heating, unlock the front gate and even have your favourite music playing when you arrive. Some configurations even allow commands to be sent via a wireless-enabled key ring controller as you approach the house.

Another system, HomeMinder from electrical manufacturer Clipsal, offers a series of modes to simplify use. For example, selecting “away” mode before leaving the house can dim lights, turn security equipment on and lock external doors. Other modes include “welcome home” and “holiday”. When away from home, users can dial into the system, enter a code, and control any connected device as though they were in the house. Installing such systems currently requires the services of a professional electrician, with extra wiring, controllers, monitors and touch control pads needing to be placed throughout the house. However, an emerging technology could make the installation process considerably easier and cheaper.

Called ZigBee, the technology allows users to wirelessly operate almost any piece of electronic equipment in a home using a single, hand-held device. The days of juggling multiple remote controls will be gone forever. A growing group of companies is working to incorporate the necessary microchips and batteries into kitchen appliances, lights, air conditioners, televisions and computers.

Eventually it is planned that all home electrical equipment will come with a ZigBee chip pre-installed. The underlying technology will allow each device to be quickly identified by the central controller, making remote control easy. Some home products are already being fitted with the chips, however, widespread availability is not expected until late next year.

Another area of home technology growing in popularity is remote monitoring. For some people, it’s a desire to see what their dog is doing while they’re at work. For others, it’s the piece of mind that comes from being able to check their home while travelling.

A range of monitoring cameras that can be connected to the Internet are readily available and easy to install. While some need to be connected to a PC, others can simply plug into a phone line or broadband Internet connection. Users access the camera by logging on to a personal Web site to see live images of wherever it is located. If Fido decides to dig up the vegetable patch again, you’ll be able to watch the whole show.

High-end monitoring cameras, such as the NS4540 from networking company NetComm, can even be remotely controlled over the Internet. Incorporating pan, tilt and zoom functions, the camera can be moved as required giving more detailed coverage of a location. The NS4540 also incorporates its own Web server, removing the need for it to be connected to a PC.

Intelligent devices are becoming a permanent fixture in our homes. Robotic helpers can mow the lawn, clean the pool and amuse the kids. Topping the list in this final category is Sony’s amazingly popular Aibo robot dog. Now in its third generation, Aibo boasts a wireless network connection and improved artificial intelligence capabilities.

Image and sound sensors in the dog’s head allow it to recognise its owner’s face or voice and respond accordingly. Sophisticated software allows the dog’s personality and behaviour to evolve over time depending on how it is treated. Speak nicely to it and be rewarded by a well-balanced, loyal robotic friend.

Aibo can also act as a video monitor for its owner. An e-mail request can be sent via its wireless connection asking the dog to take a photo of its surroundings with the digital camera built into its nose. The dog can then e-mail that photo back to the user, showing what is happening in the home.

Technical innovation is also alive and well in the kitchen where Internet-connected refrigerators are poised to transform the way families cook and communicate. Released as novel concept devices in the late 1990s, Internet fridges are now on the market and offer an impressive range of features.

Essentially a regular fridge with a personal computer and a flat touch-screen monitor built into the door, the devices can be connected to either a dial-up or broadband Internet connection as well as to in-home wireless networks. Users can watch television, listen to the radio or play MP3 music files.

A simple user interface allows easy access to recipe Web sites and applications that can suggest what to cook based on the ingredients in the fridge. By calling up an on-screen keyboard, users can also visit other sites or send and receive e-mail while waiting for their meal to cook.

Some models, such as the Internet fridge from LG, incorporate a video camera. Family members can record video messages for other members of the household or conduct two-way video conversations with camera-equipped PC users anywhere in the world. The fridge’s wireless connection also allows files to be swapped with other PCs in the home.

The Internet fridge is the first in what will be a growing range of intelligent and connected appliances. A number of different manufacturers are working on technical standards that will allow everything from the microwave to the toaster to be connected and share data. Though just what the toaster would say to the microwave is yet to be made clear.

The technical revolution will touch every part of the home. In the lounge room, video recorders are already making way for a new generation of hard drive-based recorders than can store hours of material and burn favourite shows onto DVDs. Wi-Fi technology (wireless fidelity) has made setting up a wireless home computer network fast and easy and the spread of broadband Internet connections is allowing more people to lead connected lives.

It’s no longer a case of waiting for the home of the future to arrive. With enough time and money, you can create your own today.

The Digital Home: Technologies to Watch

Wireless Networks - With data speeds rising and equipment prices falling, a Wi-Fi network can form the backbone of a connected home. It can connect multiple PCs, enable the sharing of music and photos, and allow control of automated appliances.

Artificial Intelligence
- Improvements in AI technology are leading to a range of home appliances that will be capable of operating without direct human intervention. Lawns will be mowed and floors cleaned whenever they need it.

Broadband Internet - Having a high-speed electronic pipe to the outside world will revolutionise everything from entertainment to home working. Movies-on-demand, two-way video calls and online shopping will all become part of everyday life.

Robot Assistants - Still little more than a novelty, robots will become increasingly valuable as assistants in daily life. Able to carry out mundane tasks, they will become an essential member of the household.

Digital Entertainment - Wide-screen televisions and media servers will become the entertainment hub of the home, offering everything from digital photos to high-definition video.

Copyright 2004 Nationwide News Pty Limited

Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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