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The Wireless Home of the Future
The Wireless Home of the Future

Many different companies, from PC and white goods manufacturers to telecom and consumer electronics firms, have started to develop and market products for the home automation market. A report on connected home services, by Cahners In-Stat Group, estimates the U.S. market will multiply by over 27 times the 1999 figures by 2004. Technologies within the home, such as broadband, Bluetooth, Wireless LAN, and HomeRF, will help fuel this growth. Orange is already exploring technologies and working with a number of different companies to turn ideas into reality. But in this newly emerging market, it will be interesting to see which way the trends will go.

As an example of what such a connected home might be like and to trial the effects of the technologies involved, Orange decided to take an ordinary family home in Hertfordshire, UK, and turn it into a blueprint for life in the future.

Once the overhaul of the house was complete, three families in succession spent time in the house. The University of Surrey (UK) and Orange, in a Big Brother style research project, wanted to see whether new technologies and devices made home life simpler or just took up more time and became a hindrance.

Overall, the families' experiences were said to be positive. There was special praise for the home's wireless approach. All of the occupants stated that the jumble of wires associated with most entertainment products such as music systems, computers, and game consoles were annoying and ugly at the best of times, but to have these replaced with wire-free products created a much cleaner and neater living environment.

Other technologies all of these families particularly liked included broadband Internet access, in particular, being able to download video from the Web. Another positive response was to the digital photographic technology that allowed the occupants to take real-life pictures, or ones downloaded from the Web, and have them displayed on electronic photo frames around the house. These could even be alternated in each room according to moods or time of day. The families also liked the voice-control systems in place, which allowed them to control the television and manage other environment and climate controls.

On the negative side, there was a universal dislike for the home's wall panels, which enabled occupants to control everything in a room at the touch of a button. Such items included climate, entertainment, and lighting. The fact that a simple light switch was not present seemed to frustrate some members of the families. A comment made by one occupant was that "High tech is nice but I want to feel in charge."

Since these families have left the house, work has begun to compile their feedback. Orange was recognized last year for this research at the World Communications Awards by winning the Technology Foresight Award.

All this is great, but unless you're Bill Gates and happen to live in a multimillion-dollar house that is outfitted like the house of the future, how accessible are these gadgets and systems going to be to the average home owner? Who will manufacture them? The home automation market has historically promised a lot, but thus far has failed to deliver much. Lack of standards, expensive solutions, and industry fragmentation have stunted the growth of the industry.

However, there is now renewed conviction that this market will see strong medium-term growth due to key factors. The unprecedented impact of the Internet will mean a change in system designs and business models. The Internet is creating a paradigm shift that is leading to home automation solutions becoming IP-aware, and in the process, opening up greater possibilities for service providers and appliance manufacturers to create new revenue streams. This will be aided by the emergence of wired broadband connections.

So, the question is, how long until we see some semblance of a stable, lucrative market? Answers on a postcard please.

About Tom Dibble
Tom Dibble , a wireless entrepreneur, is a cofounder of
Global Wireless Forum, a forum dedicated to dealing with commercial, strategic,
and
technical issues on the evaluation of the wireless age in Europe and
the U.S.

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