PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

The Home of the Future

June 2003

Who remembers Red Dwarf's inimitable Talkie the Toaster? Such is the cult status of Talkie that you can easily search the internet and download clips of the demented rantings of this advanced domestic appliance as it tries to persuade anyone within to ear shot to have a piece of toast.

There's a rich history of oddball ideas and attempts to promote gizmos ranging from robot lawn mowers to mechanical dog walking devices, many traceable back to the age of over-optimistic post-WW2 innovation during the 1950s. Various "men in white coats" have been doing their best to peer into the crystal ball and decide where the home of the future and home automation is headed, and most of the dafter concepts seem to result from misguided assumptions concerning the scope of artificial intelligence.

After a lot of hype in the eighties, artificial intelligence has generally failed to live up to early expectations, and the home of the present continues to fill up with more predictable and desirable dumb gadgets – mostly aimed at entertainment.  Computers now appear embedded in all sorts of domestic products, but mainly to try and simplify the user interface – not replace the user altogether. By way of a reality check on the uphill struggle that faces anyone attempting to introduce new technology to the home, it’s worth noting that many homes still have mechanical cam-based central heating timers and bimetallic strip thermostats. Understandably, there is tendency to follow the oldest and best advice in technology: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The awful truth of computing technology is that it goes wrong rather a lot, and the more complex it is, the more often it goes wrong. Those who read magazines like Computer Shopper represent a fraction of the population that cares about how computing works, most normal people are only interested in the results. The average consumer will not be fascinated by the core dump of the microcomputer controlling the garage door that slammed shut as the car was halfway out.

Home automation is far from mainstream in new houses; it is still mostly an enthusiast pursuit, catered for by portals like Moreover, the use of electronics is largely restricted to simple switching functions – home security devices may claim to be microcomputer controller – but even the most sophisticated security system is only a fancy set of switches of relays. The moment an intruder alarm attempts to try and work out the difference between a genuine intruder and a cat on the prowl, the complexity of set-up, and scope for cock-up, escalates enormously.

A house full of disparate intelligent electronic systems requires maintenance, so perhaps it’s not surprising that recent initiatives now seem to be agreeing that the next big thing for domestic automation is not AI, but the use of ever more pervasive presence of the network. Connecting the devices together so that the overall system and the various components can be continuously monitored from a central control facility is a no-brainer; however, the mention of persistent and pervasive networking with DSL is guaranteed to draw snarls from the many people for whom the lack of DSL in their particular corner of the UK is still a very sore point. Nevertheless, the idea that you will soon be able to surf into your home automation system from any web browser has an air of practical possibility that is bordering on the inevitable.

Martyn Gilbert, founder of Amino Communications (, is also a board member of the Application Home Initiative (TAHI), a UK government backed initiative ( that is dedicated to accelerating the uptake of services to the connected home. TAHI has facilitated various activities, including The Living Space Consortium, of which Gilbert is the Chairman.  The Living Space is taking a radical look at pervasive broadband exploitation.  He is a firm believer in the importance of networks, and has an interesting take on broadband:

“Although broadband is always desirable – the issue for any domestic control network is the “always on” connection that keeps everything from your toaster to greenhouse online and capable of being monitored continuously. You don’t need 512k to do that – less than 9600 bits per second can provide remote control and management – but you do need the always-on element – dial-up polling simply doesn’t enable the same range of possibilities.”

But however worthy and narrowband they may be, precision central heating timers and intruder alarms are not going to catch the consumer’s imagination, There needs to be a killer application, and although the TAHI project members are in broad agreement that a bandwidth gateway device will be a common denominator, there is no clear consensus yet about a killer application for this bandwidth. Most participants feel that there will be a range of applications combining to achieve an overall lethal status, but experience suggests that some sort of catalyst is generally required to get a technology bandwagon to roll.

A home gateway is a grandiose name for a network switch with a DSL or cable interface; so the spread of affordable WiFi (802.11) wireless Ethernet systems has upped the ante considerably. The possibility of domestic voice-over-IP telephony is starting to be taken seriously – a VoIP connection to a home gateway from a combined GSM and 80211 handset is not far away.

With bandwidth now permeating the home, companies like FF Automation  ( can introduce extremely small web servers aimed at "web enabling" any device that contains a microprocessor. This type of technology provides the potential to address and interrogate any device to check its status and change the settings, in a coherent and integrated home network.

Just as the internet has succeeded through its commercial neutrality – despite the best efforts of companies like AOL and Microsoft to make it a proprietary environment – the home of the future will support and enable a vast array of suppliers through the widespread adoption of common standards.

So then, anyone for a muffin?