Way back in the early 1980s, around the time CDs were being touted as the future format of recorded sound, I went to see a movie called Electric Dreams, a rom-com vision of home technology gone awry.
It concerns a young man who automates his entire apartment, wiring everything up to his powerful new home computer. This innocent-looking PC controls his music, lights, heating, telephone, doors and windows - even his credit card account. One day, he spills champagne onto the computer, and as the bubbly works its way into the microprocessors, it suddenly becomes self-aware.
When a comely, cello-playing maiden moves into the apartment upstairs, the young man falls for her, and gets the computer to help him woo the lady with some digitally-created music. Things turn nasty, however, when the computer gets jealous, and sets about sabotaging its owner’s life to prevent him from getting the girl.
But that was only a movie - and a pretty terrible one at that, with an awful theme tune by that guy out of The Human League. Twenty years later, the fully-automated dream is becoming a reality, but so far no one has complained about their house attempting to kill them just for dating the girl next door.
Today’s intelligent home integrates entertainment, lighting, heating and security, but generally doesn’t fall in love with your new girlfriend. Many people, however, are still daunted by the idea of home automation, worried that the whole thing will go out of control and spiral into a costly, inefficient disaster.
We’d love to live in the suburban equivalent of the Starship Enterprise, where the doors open and close automatically, the room lights up with just a flick of your eyebrow, and, if you fancy a nice chicken cordon bleu, you just ask the computer to simulate one up for you. But we’re also worried that the technology might suddenly go wrong, and we’ll find ourselves trapped on the Holodeck with an attack party of Klingons on our heels.
In the post-war baby boom of the 1940s and 1950s, American families chased the dream of the automated home, eagerly buying up gadgets and gizmos that promised to make their domestic lives easier.
The animated TV series The Jetsons, with its typical space-age suburban family, fuelled the fantasy of a home where every appliance was programmed to obey your every command. The reality, though, was a little more down-to-earth.
Beds that vibrated, Laz-e-boy chairs that reclined at the touch of an armrest, Teasmades and Coffee-mates - all were easily assimilated into modern households. The automatic garage door negated the need to get out of the car and pull the garage door open, and the arrival of remote control created a generation of couch potatoes who have never had to walk across the room to change the TV channel. And what did the gizmo-crazy baby-boomers watch? Science fiction programmes about robots who did all the housework, then went a bit wonky and killed everyone.
These days, we won’t even have to get up off our exercise bikes to turn off the lights, activate the alarm system or put on a CD. The automatic coffeemaker and the electronic armchair may have long ago been shipped off to the flea market, but they’ve been replaced by far more practical and far less conspicuous gadgets.
In the automated house of the real 21st century, everything is neatly tucked away behind the walls or in a cupboard until needed. Using strategically-placed touch-screen units, you can control your lighting, heating, security systems, television, music and home cinema.
You’ll still have to dress yourself, and there are no androids available to bring you breakfast in bed - you’ll just have to get your other half to do that (what, they don’t already bring you breakfast in bed?)
Automating your home can be a costly business, but it can also greatly increase the value of your home. Earlier this year a new development, Auburn, was launched in Clontarf, comprising apartments and houses fully wired for sound.
As prospective buyers walked around the softly-lit rooms, music wafted from discreetly placed speakers in the ceilings - the soothing airs and calming lights may well have smoothed the sale of these units. The multi-room sound systems were built into the plans for these properties, and if you’re thinking of having an automated home, it’s probably better to start with a new-build.
If you’ve bought a second-hand house that needs refurbishment, then you should consider automation before work begins. The wiring has to be run into the walls and ceilings, alongside your regular electric wiring. Even if you’re not sure about automating your house, it might be prudent to get it wired up before completion, so that if you decide to automate in the future, it’ll be less costly (and less messy).
As a music critic, I’m naturally drawn to the idea of multi-room sound systems, so I’d probably get that done even before putting in the cooker or the washing-machine. Multi-room systems don’t just pump the same tune into every room - they allow for multiple musical choices.
Different tunes can be played in different rooms or, better suited to more open-plan houses, different “zones” can be created, with their own programmed light levels, heat settings and musical style. Working in my home office, I’d play upbeat rock and soul by The Killers and Joss Stone, just to keep me alert at my PC.
Relaxing in the living/diningroom after dinner, I’d have some nice ambient loungecore soundscapes by Air, Goldfrapp or Ellis Island Sound. And in the bedroom? Well, that’s my business.
The automated house needs a central hub where all the components are stored in a cool, insulated place. You need a central closet, about two foot square and seven feet high, just like a hot press, except that, instead of clothes, you’d have your CD player, DVD changer, MP3 hard drive, digital receiver, radio and other hardware.
Next, you need to decide where to put your control panels, because this will be your daily interface with the system. Some people choose to place their touch-screen in a central location such as on a diningroom table, where it looks a bit like that yoke Captain Kirk always talks into. Others prefer a wall-mounted control panel, neatly placed beside the light switch, so you can turn on the lights, the music, the TV and the heater before you’ve fully stepped into the room.
For home TV and cinema, you need to decide where the main viewing areas will be. If you’re lucky enough to have a big gaff, you could convert a small room into a mini-cinema, with a giant flatscreen and surround sound.
If you like relaxing in the bath with a movie, a water-resistant screen can be mounted into the wall. Don’t watch three-hour epics like Lord Of The Rings, though - you’ll get very wrinkly and annoy others who want to use the bathroom. You can also have a screen in the kitchen.
Many people fork out a fortune to buy a beautiful home, only to cheapen it with bad lighting. In an automated home, the lighting scheme is carefully thought out, with the goal of showing each part of the house at its best. It’s all about setting the right mood, whether it’s in the kitchen, study or bedroom. Even the hallways and returns of a house can be transformed by clever lighting. Different times of the day call for different moods, so lighting schemes can be programmed to fit the hour.
With the average house having almost a television screen in each room, it makes sense for the screens to be hooked up to your security system. With CCTV cameras mounted inside and outside the house, you can monitor activity from anywhere in the house. Apart from the sense of safety it offers from outside intruders, it also allows you to keep an eye on baby, and check on the kids playing in the back garden.
The arrival of Broadband Internet has brought added options for the automated homeowner. It’s possible to access your home system from a remote location, by using a secure website as your portal. So, while you’re wrapping up in the office, you can check your system status, and change the settings so that the house is warm, cosy and softly lit when you arrive home.
What’s to stop someone else accessing your website and messing with the settings in your home? It’s a remote possibility, but if you’re relaxing at home with the lights dimmed and your favourite ambient album playing, and suddenly the lights start flashing and the guy from The Human League starts warbling the song from Electric Dreams, you better start worrying.
Copyright 2004 The Irish Times
Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.