[LINK] Digtal Homes and Not Necessarily Smart

Tom Worthington tomw2@ozemail.com.au
Thu, 06 Feb 2003 12:10:59 +1100

At 5/02/03 10:40, Chirgwin, Richard wrote (was: "RE: [LINK] Internet Fridge 
>... For the world of Ubik according to Microsoft, read the Toronto Star's 
>tour of the Microsoft

The Microsoft home of the future almost makes the Sydney iHome 
<http://www.tomw.net.au/2001/sa/bauhaus.html#What1> look sensible in 
comparison.  ;-)

I am giving a talk at the Press Club on my Smart Apartment, so I thought I 
would start by writing a response to the Microsoft home article in the same 
hyped up style:

The Digital Home of Today
Tom Worthington
7 January 2003

CANBERRA - The house of the future still has keys and light switches.

It's not that this apartment's owner couldn't afford computer controlled 
lights and biometric door locks, its just that they are not worth the trouble.

The Smart Apartment <http://www.tomw.net.au/2001/sa/> is not a mock-up in 
the PR area of an IT corporation, this is a real dwelling in an inner 
Canberra suburb. The city recently was under a state of emergency and 
subject to fire storms, with 400 homes destroyed and four people killed. 
While well away from the fire ravaged areas the Smart Apartment's computer 
equipment still had to cope with power loss and degraded of the 
telecommunications system.

The IT marketers ideal for the digital home can look impressive to the 
casual visitor, but is rarely subject to practical tests of what is 
affordable and can be lived with.

The Smart Apartment was established in 2001 in the City Edge development in 
O'Connor Canberra. Tom Worthington, a Canberra based computer consultant, 
decided to set up the brand new apartment as a usable but hi-tech living 
and working area: "I live in Canberra but work in Cyberspace" Tom says. "I 
got the idea for the Smart Apartment when the real estate agent said the 
complex would have a broadband connection, but he clearly had no idea of 
what that was".

The apartment complex is serviced by Transact, a Canberra based broadband 
service provider, as well a Tesltra and satellite TV. Transact provide a 
direct fibre optic connections direct to the basement of the building. "The 
broadband service to the building provided 90% of what was needed for a hi 
tech home and I just had to add some extras. The hard part was to decide 
what wasn't worth having." Tom said.

As an example, the front door. The home has a computerised security system, 
with wireless encoded remote controls. It would be possible to link the 
security system to unlock the front door. But Tom decided this was not 
worth the added cost and the worry of what would happen if the system failed.

"Designers of hi-tech systems rarely think of what happens when the system 
fails", Tom said. "Opening the door with a key is a slight inconvenience, 
but being locked out of your home or having the door left open all night by 
a confused computer is not worth the worry".

One cheap (less than $200) and useful extra was a wireless smoke alarm. 
This looks like a regular home smoke alarm, but is connected to the 
security system and alerts the fire services in an emergency. "I know this 
works as I programmed the bread maker wrongly one night and had a home 
filled with smoke at 2am", Tom said. "The alarm woke me and then the phone 
rang. It was the alarm monitoring company asking if I needed help."

Automation doesn't require central or expensive computer control. There are 
several movement activated lights in the apartment. Enter the hallway or 
open the pantry and the light comes on automatically. This is done using 
low cost (less than $50) movement sensors.

Many of the home's functions are available using a low cost (less than 
$200) hand held infrared remote control. The one unit controls the air 
conditioning, TV, VCR, digital set top box, DVD, CD player and radio. As it 
uses infrared light, the unit only works in the living area, in range of 
the equipment. "I tried out a lot of remote controls and found the more 
expensive, more computerised ones were harder to use" Tom said. No 
modifications were required for the equipment controlled, as they all come 
standard with IR remote controls. Even so the system is not perfect "I 
occasionally raise room temperature when I trying to turn the TV up", Tom says.

The home has a Transact digital set top box (STB) providing digital and Pay 
TV as well as broadband Internet access. While the TV could be used for 
Internet, Tom uses a normal laptop computer plugged into the STB. "Reading 
more than a few lines of an e-mail on a TV screen is not practical" he says.

There is a conventional VCR plugged into the wide screen TV. "I really 
should get a digital recorder, but why let TV dominate your life?" Tom asks.

There is a case for more automation in the home to assist the disabled. 
Several apartments in the same complex as the Smart Apartment are specially 
adapted for the disabled. These use some simple technology, such as an 
adjustable height kitchen bench with the mechanism from an ergonomic office 
desk and a powered front door operated by a garage door remote control.

The kitchen is one area where low technology rules. "My charred bread shows 
that automation is not necessarily a good idea in the kitchen" Tom says. No 
Internet fridge, or bar scanning oven in this kitchen. There is an 
intelligent microwave oven which detects steam coming from the food and 
adjusts cooking time. "Recipes have supposed to have been one of the killer 
applications for home computers ever since the PC was invented decades ago. 
But do you really need thousands of dollars of bar code scanners and 
Internet fridges to tell you how to put a few ingredients together?", Tom asks.

The Smart Apartment coped well with the power problems of Canberra's fires. 
A small uninterruptable power supply (UPS, less than $300) kept the 
electronics running during brief power failures. The security system has 
its own battery backup, as does Transact's fiber optic node in the 
building's basement.

The home office is another area where the smart apartment is minimalist. 
When starting on the smart apartment project, Tom had architecture students 
at the University of Canberra design him a home office. "They turned out 
amazing designs which would look good in a fashion magazine, but it would 
have been like living in a hairdressing salon", Tom said.

In practice Tom just drops his briefcase, laptop and the cordless phone on 
the dining table and plugs in to the Internet. Space is an premium in the 
modern home, as is leisure time and there is no room to clutter it with the 
work place. The laptop and papers can be packed away in a cupboard when not 
needed and the broadband cable drops out of sight behind the sofa.

Tom doesn't spend a lot of time in his home office, preferring to be out 
meeting clients in their work places, or at one of Canberra's many cafes. 
Between consulting jobs he is a visiting fellow at the Australian National 
University Computer Science Department, a 15 minute walk through parkland 
from the Smart Apartment.

The ANU is researching technologies which may find their way into future 
homes and offices, including the next generation of high speed Internet, 
wireless access and high definition 3D digital video conference rooms. But 
for the moment much more modest technologies will be adequate for the Smart 

Tom Worthington FACS tom.worthington@tomw.net.au Ph: 0419 496150
Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd ABN: 17 088 714 309
http://www.tomw.net.au PO Box 13, Belconnen ACT 2617
Visiting Fellow, Computer Science, Australian National University
Publications Director, Australian Computer Society