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Smart homes

The time is coming when items in your home will be able to alert your doctor to digestive problems....

Remember the Austin Maestro? Britain's first talking car told passengers to put on their seat belts, lock their doors and a host of other handy verbal tips.

It wasn't long before the passengers were telling the car to belt up, however, and in the intervening years we've been mercifully free of talking gizmos in and around the home.

That could change with a new washing machine introduced by Electrolux. Their Kelvinator model, which is only available at the moment in India, has an extensive vocabulary of English and Hindi phrases.

The chirpy launderer tells users to 'drop the detergent', 'close the lid' and 'relax!', accompanied by tinkling pianos or blaring trumpets. Whether it could catch on remains to be seen. But there's no doubt that we remain fascinated by the idea of 'smart homes' which attend to our every need.

Of course, our idea of what constitutes a smart home has changed a lot over the years.

"If you go back to the 1950s or 60s, it was all about automation," says Tim Venables, a smart homes researcher at the University of Sussex.

"The big thing was motorising everyday tasks, so you'd have automated curtains, lighting controls and that sort of thing. The classic example was Stirling Moss, who had a fully automatic house. You pushed a button and the dining table rose out of the floor."

But those dinky little motors packed up and the buttons jammed, and today levels of automation remain low in even the most up-to-date homes.

Which isn't to say that we've lost our way on smart homes - just that they've changed.

And as if you couldn't guess, the big thing these days is information and communication technologies - the stuff of the internet and the wired world.

"These days the typical home increasingly comes wired up with all sorts of data and phone lines, cables and networks," says Tim Venables.

"Meanwhile, our domestic appliances - from fridges to security and heating systems - have more and more memory and processing power.

"So the trend these days is towards using the networks to get appliances talking to each other in the home, and communicating with the rest of the world if need be."

How would it work? There are already plenty of examples being trialled by researchers and hi-tech firms around the world.

As an example, your central heating system might communicate with your personal organiser to find out what time you're home that evening. And if you were likely to be late, the personal organiser might tell the video recorder to tape your favourite programme.

"Another big application is likely to be in energy management," says Venables. "Central heating systems are becoming much more intelligent and can respond much more effectively to changes in the weather. They can also self-monitor, and let engineers know when a new part, or a tune-up, is needed."

The developments might not have quite the eye-popping appeal of, say, a robotic table or a talking washing machine, but their impact is likely to be far greater.

In fact, companies such as Orange, which is currently trialling a smart home, and Philips, which has just begun live tests of its HomeLab smart home, say that the market for intelligent home products is likely to outstrip the home PC market within four or five years.

"One in five homes will have this sort of technology by then," an Orange spokesman said.

And what might we see in our intelligent home by then? Here are some of the products currently under consideration.

Front door

Biometric technologies suggest the advent of iris recognition technologies may not be far off. The front door would take a look at your eye and if it recognises you, let you in.

Kitchen

The fridge may well emerge as the brains behind the family home. Connected up to supermarkets and internet recipe banks, it could monitor the condition and stock of food, ordering new supplies when necessary and suggesting recipes based on what's available. Cookers that 'sniff' what you're making and learn the types of food you like have also been mooted.

Bathroom

Those of a sensitive disposition should look away now. Japanese electronics giant Matsushita is developing a smart loo which could analyse what you leave behind and alert the doctor - or your dietician! - if anything's amiss. Philips' HomeLab smart home also features a bathroom mirror which can tell you if you're ill!

Living room


We already have all manner of multimedia and home entertainment gizmos. Watch out for smarter technologies which learn your preferences and suggest the evening's entertainment, delivered via giant plasma screens. Philips smart home features a chair which responds to voice commands to control the home entertainment system, and lights which can also be dimmed by voice.

Around the house

Smart security systems are being trialled, which could alert security services if anybody arrives at an unusual time. Connectivity means you could also control the security system from work, allowing you to let the plumber in when he finally turns up. Meters will be read remotely, ending the days of the meter man's visit. Energy management systems will cut fuel bills. Robo cleaners which tend to the hoovering all by themselves are already available.

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