Dumb smart houses

Originally published 2005 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


The "smart house" is one of those cool old sci-fi ideas that hasn't quite managed to break through into reality.

Here we are in the 21st century, yet we still don't have flying cars, sentient robots, or houses that greet us by name when we come home and then present us with a perfectly cooked dinner five minutes later.

We've had the technology to do all sorts of smart-house-ish things for a surprisingly long time. Actuators and sensors are easy - a 1950s smart house would have things like selenium photocells and field coil motors in it, rather than CMOS cameras and rare-earth-magnet linear actuators, but either would work.

(And today's valve-amp brigade would, of course, prefer the old gear.)

You don't need a whole lot of computing power for a smart house, either, provided you're willing to do without stuff like voice recognition and image processing. We've had enough computing power to completely automate all kinds of household tasks ever since it was cool for products to contain a "silicon chip".

Communications capability is more important. Ubiquitous, preferably wireless, reasonably speedy networking allows lots of smart-house things to happen that weren't possible at any price in the olden days, unless a room full of secretaries and teletypes was involved somewhere.

But we've got that now, too.

And yet, home automation is still practically unknown, if you don't count burglar alarms and, for the wankers out there, powered curtains in their home cinema rooms.

Yes, there are robot vacuum cleaners, but they still need a lot of human interaction. They don't just wait for you to break a glass, then zip out of the skirting board, suck up the fragments and scoot away again to empty themselves and clean their filters.

Stuff like this is going to improve. IRobot aren't going to stop with the floor-washing "Scooba". And you can already get car-style keyless entry systems for your house's doors - automatic doors are a bit over the top, but not if you're in a wheelchair. And we've got commercial (and DIY) pet doors that'll let your beasties in, but not anyone else's, or possums.

That's all kid stuff compared with the old World Of Tomorrow promises, though.

Where, dammit, is the home-automation equivalent of the flying car?

As it turns out, the place where most of those promises ended up was in the Bad Ideas basket.

The automatic dinner-preparing fridge/oven, for instance, is a major process-control problem. Industrial robots are getting better at dealing with things that aren't all precisely the same shape, moving at precisely the same speed, and lit precisely the same way, but right now you'd still pretty much have to buy a whole new auto-kitchen for each type of meal.

Something that just sucks frozen dinners out of the freezer and nukes them for you wouldn't be hard, but neither is doing it yourself, and the results reflect the effort invested. You can already get a combination chiller/oven that keeps an object cold until a given time, then cooks it - most modern ovens with a clock can do the second part, but it takes something like Whirlpool's Polari Polara combo to do both. But the list of Michelin-hat meals that can be prepared in this way is not long.

And then there's the Internet washing machine, which can, uh, automatically call the repair guy when, like all washing machines that don't have a simple mechanical timer and also like every super-expensive kitchen appliance that installs in a specially sized cabinet that can accept no other brand of appliance, it breaks the hell down.

It takes skill, these days, to make a fridge or oven that isn't extremely reliable. The cheap whitegoods brands just can't seem to do it.

The European companies that prefer stainless steel to white enamel, though, have unreliability nailed. Bravo.

These sorts of devices can, often, be controlled over the Internet. Leaving aside whether this is very useful for most people (OK, perhaps it would be nice to be able to make sure the iron wasn't still on while you went on holiday), I refer you to j0hnny and his hacked stuff.

I don't know about you, but I love the idea of some kid in Norway torching my dinner as easily as he can make someone's Net-connected printer spit out 1000 test pages.

And, as is normal for new communications protocols, the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standard that's supposed to interconnect smart-house products is being implemented in gloriously incompatible ways by different manufacturers. And, in some particularly laudable examples, by different departments of the one manufacturer.

And then, there's the thrice-damned Internet refrigerator, the second-stupidest thing with a screen on it in the world.

(Number one, of course, is this.)

Internet fridges have been plaguing the world since 1998. Not the actual world of real kitchens, of course, since no sane person wants to spend big bucks on a fridge that lets you browse the Net and play MP3s while trying to remember what snack you got up for, even if the thing is the hub of your new home-automation network or whatever the heck it's meant to be.

But LG are still putting their darn fridge-with-a-screen in their advertisements, as if it's an exciting flagship example of their unbeatable innovation, and not like a motorcycle with a DVD player.

(Yeah, I know, give 'em time.)

Perhaps megacorporation R&D departments just can't stand to see so much bare space on the front of a mains-powered box. And, sure, maybe in the future there'll be RFID tags on all of your products (but what about vegetables?), and the fridge will make it easy to auto-order groceries you're running out of, or just tell you when stuff (including medicine) is approaching its use-by date.

Though, ideally, I'd also like to see an amusement-arcade pusher bar in the fridge, that ejects ghastly furry things that once were food into a small high-temperature incinerator on the side of the appliance.

The real smart-house advances have come in unexpected areas. There's the recent development of surfaces, including transparent glass coatings, that reject and/or break down dirt, for instance. And simple alarm system sensors that can tell if your hot water system's sprung a leak.

Some of this stuff also looks likely to save more power than it consumes, by opening and closing curtains and vents to minimise heating and cooling expenditure (maybe not opening the curtains while you're sitting in the front room naked...), and stopping people from leaving lights on unnecessarily.

(Yes, those sensors can tell if there's a person in the room who just isn't moving - though the lights will probably go off, respectfully, if he dies.)

All this is still pretty weak sauce, though.

Perhaps we'll actually have decently smart houses before the advent of fully programmable matter.

But I wouldn't bet my flying car on it.

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