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The automated home concept has been doing the rounds since at least the 1920s and has been a staple ingredient in sci-fi and futurist movies, TV sitcoms and documentaries ever since, but maybe it’s closer to reality than you think. A brief trawl on the net for ‘home automation’ brings up hundreds of web sites, advertisements, magazines and articles, many confidently proclaiming that it has already arrived, for a fortunate few it has but for the rest of us the truth is a little more complicated.


Even something as apparently straightforward as defining what home automation actually means is difficult. Everyone involved has their own ideas but once you eliminate the hype and wishful thinking it boils down to this: it’s the facility to control – either centrally or remotely -- a wide range of household appliances and environmental, entertainment, communications and security systems.


In home automation nirvana lights switch on when you enter your climate controlled rooms, the kettle talks to the toaster to prepare your breakfast, the fridge knows when you’ve run out of eggs and milk and orders up new supplies and you can listen to music, watch movies, surf the net and see who’s at the front door from every room in your house.


Whilst it is possible to do all that and more right now, it is still a very long way from being a convenient, one-stop, off-the-shelf technology. Moreover it is likely to remain that way until every electrical and electronic gadget -- and that includes those kettles and toasters -- can be linked together and communicate with other devices, but we are getting there!


The history of home automation is littered with lots of clever (and plenty of plain stupid) attempts to establish a set of common technical standards and protocols to connect household appliances together but almost without exception they have failed through a lack of interest, commercial rivalry, general flakiness and the scary big one, cost! Nevertheless tens of thousands of homes around the world testify to the fact that it can be done, along with countless others that are either partially or semi automated. The good news is that with every passing year it’s getting easier, and cheaper, but anyone considering automating their home would do well to learn from the mistakes of the past.


Over the years numerous highly automated homes have been built but until fairly recently it was only for the rich and famous. Back in the 70s and 80 the high-tech homes of the likes of Paul Newman and Stirling Moss became showcases for what was possible at the time. Footage of tellies emerging from wall panels, and automatic lighting and heating systems were regularly aired, but these were outrageously expensive, custom built, high-maintenance installations and not the sort of thing the average Joe could aspire to. More recently we’ve been treated to occasional glimpses of Bill Gates’ futuristic new home and this is even further removed from the reality of the average three-bed semi.


Home automation technology for the masses was first touted in the mid 1980s when several companies drew up plans for a so-called home ‘bus’ system. A bus in this context is simply a cable network, running throughout the home, carrying telemetry and control signals to and from connection points and a mysterious central black box that looks after the whole shebang. Just about everyone who’s anyone in the electronics industry had a stab at it. Philips, Thomson and Sony devised a system called D2B (Domestic Digital Bus), several Japanese companies, including Matsushita (the parent company of Panasonic and Technics) created HBS (the Home Bus System) a consortium of Europe and electronic companies tried their luck with something called Esprit and not wanting to miss out on the fun the Americans came up with CEBus (Consumer Electronics Bus).


By the early 90s it was apparent that no one system was going to prevail and the cost of adapting everyday consumer products to this kind of application was prohibitive. There were several half-hearted attempts to make the rival technologies compatible with one another but one by one they fell by the wayside. Only one has survived, albeit in a highly modified form, CEBus, and the communication system it uses, CAL (common application language) has been adopted as an international standard for controlling ‘Home Network Products’, but so far it has attracted little attention in the wider world.


The big turn off with any bus-based system is all the cabling involved and the difficulty in ‘retro-wiring’ older properties. This undoubtedly explains why so many of the most successful home automation projects are in newly built houses, where the cabling and control systems can be incorporated into the design at a very early stage, preferably long before the first brick has been laid.


So where does that leave those living in older homes that may not be amenable to being laced with several kilometres of cables? The truth is cabling, and lots of it is still a prerequisite of any current home automation system, but maybe not for much longer. The wired bus network is on the way out and there’s no longer any need to have a dedicated cable running from room to room, carrying control signals, (though many purists maintain cable installations are simpler, cheaper and more reliable).


The most successful alternative method so far is ‘X10’, which uses household mains wiring to distribute control signals to remote switching and sensing modules. In a little over three years X10 has grown from a relatively simple gadget for remotely switching mains appliances on and off to a highly sophisticated system, with dozens of compatible devices available for controlling lights, central heating systems, home theatre or indeed any mains powered device. X10 setups are comparatively cheap and can be easily expanded to include computer control, telephone and Internet access plus integration with a wide range of security and video surveillance devices.


The next generation of products, now just starting to come on to the market does away with wires altogether, for the distribution of control and telemetry signals at any rate. Wireless networking is the new flavour of the month after the initial flurry of formats two standards have emerged, known their friends as 802.11b (or ‘Wi-Fi’) and Bluetooth.


Wi-Fi began life as Apple’s Airport wireless networking system for laptops and PCs; it’s capable of handling moderately large volumes of data (up to 100 megabits per second) over distances of between 50 and 100 metres. The band of frequencies used for Wi-Fi (2.4GHz) is also used by a range of audio and video distribution gadgets, enabling picture and sound signals from a single source (TV tuner, DVD player, home surveillance system, etc.) to be sent around the home to TVs and monitors, and all without wires. Incidentally although these devices share the same frequency band they are supposed not to interfere with one another, though problems can arise if several systems are in close proximity; if you are thinking of going down the wireless route check what the neighbours are up to…


A Wi-Fi local area network or ‘LAN’ allows PCs to exchange files and share printer and Internet connections. From there, it is a very short step to use a PC to operate or respond to wirelessly controlled remote switches and sensors within a home automation network. By the way, the original 802.11b standard is due to be phased out within the next couple of years and replaced by 802.11a (don’t ask…), which allows even higher data transmission speeds – suitable for streaming high quality video -- plus improved security and better immunity to interference. 


Bluetooth is also a wireless system but it differs from Wi-Fi in that it’s short-range (typically 10cm to a metre) and a good deal slower (up to 1mb/sec). It is designed to allow small portable devices to communicate with one another; so far it has mostly been used by things like cordless earpieces for mobile phones and enabling laptops and PDAs to exchange data. However, it’s relatively easy to add Bluetooth connectivity to almost any product at the design stage and this would overcome one of home automation’s most fundamental problems, namely a simple and standardised, plug and socket free communications link.


There’s absolutely no doubt that wireless control and networking is the way forward but right now most home automation installations are still heavily dependent on cables, and will remain so for some time. But whatever the technology planning is vitally important, to minimise disruption, now and in the future. A system should be able to cope not just with your current need, and all of the other gizmos that you’re planning to buy, but also with technologies still to come. Experts in the field use a trick called  ‘cable flooding’, which basically means providing capacity and mains sockets – don’t forget them -- for everything you are likely to have in the next ten years, then doubling it!




Ó R. Maybury 2002, 1810






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