TCS Daily

The Network For Living In

By Edward B. Driscoll - April 7, 2003 12:00 AM

The concept of home automation has been around for years-the "smart home" that The Jetsons of the early 1960s lived in was simply the logical extension of the myriad of labor saving devices that had been developed throughout the 20th century.

Home automation began to take off for hobbyists in 1977, when Pico Electronics, located in Glenrothes, Scotland debuted their standard for controlling light switches and power outlets via remote control, motion detectors and computer. Called X10, the standard exists to this day, but X10, along with the concept of home automation in general, remains the largely in the domain of hobbyists. Two factors will cause that to change in the 21st century: broadband and the rapidly aging baby boomer population.

The Broadband Connection

The first factor contributing to the development of smart homes is the growing popularity of broadband, which in turn must be connected to a home LAN (local area network) that's either hard-wired or connected wirelessly via 802.11, if the broadband will be shared by more than one computer.

Home networks are emphasized strongly by Danny Briere and Pat Hurley, in their book, Smart Homes for Dummies, now in its second edition. As I wrote when I reviewed the title for recently:
while it's original edition was retired after nearly three years on the shelf, it actually aged quite nicely. Perhaps because Beire and Hurley focused on concepts and technologies rather than products, perhaps the most important of which is focus on the infrastructure of the home--you can always change the endpoints, and what gets attached to them later. As Briere says, "that's really what the goal of the book was: to put together a big picture view, and almost a design paradigm for people when they were trying to approach the topic of a home for 20 or 30 years. You know, people will put a 20 or 30-year roof on their house, but they don't think about that when they come to do their wiring, or things they put in the wall. Put something into the wall that will last 20, 30, 40 years, and worry about what you put on the endpoints later on. Because once the infrastructure is in the walls, you can change the endpoints and you can have all sorts of flexibility in the endpoints. But if you rip out walls later on, it gets really expensive."

The idea of building a computing infrastructure into a house isn't only theoretical. Several model homes were built in the late 1990s by very disparate sources to illustrate the idea of using home networks to control automation. Microsoft has built model homes in both Seattle and New York. These homes serve as both advertisements and demonstrations for Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play technology, their software for cable TV providers, and their Windows OS.

Cisco Systems has built a similar model home on its campus in San Jose, CA, with high-speed broadband access to practically every household appliance and device, including lighting, heating, video, security systems, all controlled by a single wall mounted control panel.

Putting a Human Face on Technology

The second main factor that will help spur the popularity of smart homes in the 21st century is a rapidly graying population. As baby-boomers age, they'll have no difficulty using technology to improve their quality of live.

And studying the health benefits of the smart home is what possibly the most advanced of these model smart homes is all about. The "Aware Home of the Future", located on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology, was built to put a more human face on smart home technologies, and surprisingly was not geared towards techno-savvy geeks and propeller-heads. Rather it was designed specifically for the benefit of the elderly and the handicapped, with technology that goes far beyond most of the model corporate smart homes.

Elizabeth D. Mynatt, the director of Georgia Tech's Everyday Computing Lab first suggested that the focus of the Aware Home should be on the aged. Eventually, the rest of the research team agreed, and concluded that those who need the home of the future the most are the elderly and the infirm, not the typical Silicon Valley gadget nut.

One of the people that Mynatt convinced was Dr. Nikil S. Jayant, the Director of Georgia Tech's Broadband Institute. He sums up the house by saying, "If you can combine lifestyle computing, context awareness, with always-on connectivity, wireless, smart antennas, and what have you, to get you to that point, wouldn't that be nice?"

When the Aware Home members mentioned their concept to Intel, they quickly became one of the project's corporate sponsors, along with Motorola Labs, Andersen Consulting and Mitsubishi's Electric Research Lab. Jayant hopes to also add members of the building industry, and home-health care industry to the list of sponsors.

Like most prototype smart homes, the Aware Home is packed with technology. Every wall has at least six jacks to an Ethernet LAN. There is also a wireless network for cordless devices. Both networks flow data to computers in the home's basement, and then into a two-gigabit-per-second connection to the university and the Internet (via four DSL lines and an optical-fiber link). The system is fast enough to transmit several channels of full-screen video and audio, generated by the approximately 25 cameras and microphones on the first floor. Additionally, A radio-locating system can pinpoint any tagged object to within 10 feet.

All of this technology is there so that "the system knows where you are," Jayant says. "If an older citizen falls in the kitchen by accident, the system knows that the older citizen is in the kitchen, and perhaps he is not cooking, but he has fallen."

While a two-gigabit-per-second Internet connection is great for sending out HDTV signals from the Aware Home, such a high-speed isn't necessarily needed "for practicing reliable tele-medicine on demand", according to Jayant. "If you want the heartbeat to be conveyed to your doctor, it does not take 2000 megabits. It only takes a few hundred bits per second, and that would be extremely reliable, private, robust and free from interference and jamming," so much of the Aware Home's monitoring could be done with conventional broadband connections.

Digital Picture Frames

In the late 1990s, several firms debuted commercially available picture frames with microprocessors and LCD screens to display digital still photos in handsome wood or brushed metal frames on the mantle, and rotate the photos via a modem or USB connection.

It's a nice concept, but the efforts of the Aware Home members have gone way beyond it. Gregory D. Abowd, the director of the Aware Home Research Initiative, designed software that will automatically construct family albums from the video collected by the house. The frame is also smart enough to recognize who is in a photograph, and then automatically dial a phone call to a relative when you talk to her picture, but only after checking with her smart house to make certain she is awake.

Of course all of these special capabilities in the Aware Home only serve to remind us how useful existing technology can be to the elderly and handicapped. Being able to communicate with doctors and pharmacies at any time of the night or day; staying in touch with relatives, instantly, without having to go outside to mail a letter; being able to see newborn grandchildren within minutes of their birth, all serve to reverse the isolation that age and infirmities can impose on all of us.

Jayant sums up the home by saying that his fondest dream is that five years from now, the efforts of Georgia Tech will be viewed as "a strong story, where the technology and the human centered pieces grow together."

While its emphasis is clearly on health care, Georgia Tech's Aware Home has virtually everything that could be desired from the technology of a smart home. And it could show the way to the next huge market in smart homes beyond home-based business owners, home automation tinkerers, and home theater owners: the elderly, the infirm and the handicapped, proving that technology can not only makes the world faster and smaller, but more human as well.

The Computer Network For Living In

The first round of machines to enter the home, in the late 19th and early 20th century changed domestic life radically. The early modernists were so enamored of those early labor saving devices that in the 1920s, Le Corbusier, the French modern architect, coined the phrase "A house is a machine for living in." If Corbusier were alive today, he might well call a smart home of the early part of the 21st century "The network for living.

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