"Five o'clock. The bath filled with clear hot water. Six, seven, eight o'clock. The dinner dishes manipulated like magic tricks, and in the study a click. In the metal stand opposite the hearth where a fire now blazed up warmly, a cigar popped out, half an inch of soft gray ash on it, smoking, waiting..."
Fifty years ago, science fiction writer Ray Bradbury's short story, "August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains," envisioned a post-apocalyptic world in which an intelligent house lived on, long after its creators had died. Bradbury was, so far at least, wrong about the apocalyptic part—but the fully-integrated "smart home" may be around sooner than even he predicted.
Driven By Data
The first part of the wireless integrated home has already arrived, in the form of computer networking. Wayne Caswell of the industry’s HomeRF Working Group notes that a drop in PC prices, which resulted in multiple PCs per household, has dramatically increased the demand for home networking options. "That brought in the big computing companies," he said. "It brought in big money and big hype, all because of data networking."
And already, pretty much everyone's got a product on the market. Apple’s AirPort is the sleekest of them all, with a UFO-like base station, a 150-foot range, and a speed of up to 11MBps. Others include the Proxim Symphony, Intel's AnyPoint system, and Lucent’s Orinoco Residential Gateway.
According to the market research firm Jupiter Communications, about 15 million home in the US alone already have two or more computers. And check out any web page on home networking, and you’ll find a significant portion of it devoted to wireless deployment. Both Smart Home Forum and Internet.com’s PracticallyNetworked cover the various solutions available for wireless LANs, as well as extensive news and advice areas.
Caswell notes, though, that hooking PCs together is really just the first step. "Next, and coming on strong, is phone networking and entertainment networking," he said. "The local telephone service provided to your house may soon be provided not by the incumbent RBOC but by the DSL provider or maybe even the cable company. As these access networks all move towards digital, they have the ability to carry any kind of content that can be put in digital form."
He contends that the experience of connecting their PCs will open consumers' eyes to what's possible in terms of home networking. They’ll see how easy it is -particularly with wireless technology - and they'll become more interested in exploring similar possibilities with their telephone and entertainment systems.
But first, there are some serious problems to be solved.
The Wireless Wars
There's an ongoing battle between the two conflicting 2.4GHz technologies for home networking, 802.11b (or "Wi-Fi") and HomeRF - and it's making things a lot more complicated. Each standard has the backing of dozens of major corporations: Apple, 3Com and Cisco are behind 802.11b’s Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance ; and Intel, Motorola and HP back the HomeRF Working Group . Added to the mix is Bluetooth, which is quickly working to buddy up with both sides.
Although each standard has both supporters and detractors, the specifics many not really matter. Like VHS and Betamax in the '80s, quality's unlikely to be the determining factor in the end. Currently, though, 802.11b is slightly faster, and HomeRF is slightly cheaper - then again, HomeRF is speeding up, and 802.11b is economizing. And HomeRF currently supports both voice and data, which 802.11b doesn’t handle so well - but 802.11b is improving quickly in that area too.
Todd Johnson, Product Manager for Home Wireless Networks, claims 802.11b has an unbeatable advantage thanks to the fact that it's already widely used in office networks. "It has a fairly strong presence in the enterprise market," he said. "You have people with laptops that require some portability so they can wirelessly connect in the home, but they can also wirelessly connect in an airport setting, as well as in their office setting."
Caswell, on the other hand, insists that the specific focus of HomeRF will help it to win in the end. "The uniqueness of HomeRF is that it was designed for the home marketplace," he said. "That means consumer price points, products that are affordable; products that are simple to buy and install; products that are secure, because I don’t want my next-door neighbors listening in; and products that are reliable."
Of course, one will eventually win out—and therein lies the problem. It’s hard to attract consumers to a product when they know there's a chance it'll be knocked out of the market at any minute. Mark Schmidt, Vice President of Marketing at Home Director, notes that such conflict is potentially infuriating for the average consumer.
"Unfortunately, the wireless technology world is in a state where I'll go buy a wireless device today and I'll go buy another two months from now, and I will not have any interoperability at all," Schmidt said. "So as a consumer, I've fallen into the Beta/VHS trap, but nobody told me about it. At least with Beta and VHS, I can tell the damn tapes are different - with this, you have no idea."
Keeping Up With Hollywood
There's another wrench in the works, too. Because HomeRF and 802.11b both operate at 2.4GHz, not only do they have to battle microwave ovens for bandwidth, but more importantly, neither is ever likely to support transmission of DVD or HDTV. So both groups are rapidly developing their own solutions for 5GHz, which will just start the battle all over again.
Johnson observes that the opportunities available for video distribution at 5GHz are excellent. "There might be some push a couple of years out to migrate to 5GHz," he said. "That band is a lot cleaner, too, because there’s not as much competition for that space. Bluetooth isn't there, the microwave oven isn’t there, so that's definitely a technology to keep an eye on."
Caswell even takes an optimistic view of the effect that such a shift might have on the battle between 802.11b and HomeRF, suggesting that it might prompt a compromise. "At 5GHz, if something like 802.11 could handle the home requirements, then hey—that's okay, we’ll adopt that, because that's all good for the market," he said.
Sharing the Space
In the meantime, wireless networks just aren't sufficient for all areas of the home. Schmidt contends that the home of the future will always have to combine both wired and wireless technologies - for one key reason. He suggests that every time wireless bandwidth capacity expands, the demands placed by entertainment media also continue to grow, and wireless will always be fighting to catch up.
"We're just now seeing the real penetration of DVD players," Schmidt said. "And TiVo and Replay TV are being integrated into digital satellite set-top boxes. I think we can all be secure in the fact that, for the time being, 100MBps seems to be enough bandwidth, but there aren't any wireless technologies that can deliver that today - or even in the next three years. That's why, in the entertainment space particularly, we believe that wire is truly a fundamental investment."
Nick Chaklos, Director of Product Development at Ucentric, suggests that it will take many different systems working in concert to create the integrated home. "There will be many networks occurring simultaneously," he said. "There isn’t just one solution that’s appropriate. They’re all good at different things."
In the long run, though, wireless bandwidth must eventually catch up with entertainment media, and issues of convenience and flexibility will most likely result in a purely wireless home network. Schmidt admits these issues are powerful factors in consumer choice. "If I'm sitting out on the deck, I sure would love to be able to have a wireless HDTV broadcast to my television so I can smoke a cigar during the big game," he said. "But we're just not there yet."
"Open the refrigerator doors, HAL"
Once computers, voice and entertainment are networked together, what will follow? A recent study commissioned by Motorola found that the three most popular product ideas for intelligent appliances all reside in the kitchen: an intelligent oven, one-button washing machine, and a wireless-linked smoke detector. The least popular idea? Ironically, it was a computer networked to the office.
Late in 1999, Ericsson and Electrolux announced the establishment of their jointly owned company e2 Home formed to develop Internet-enabled household appliances. The company offers Electrolux’s prototype Screenfridge as an example of where they see home appliances heading: the refrigerator has a built-in screen with broadband access to Internet, television and radio. But Ericsson isn't the only player in the game: in July of 2000, Nokia announced a similar agreement with Whirlpool.
And there's another area of home networking which neither HomeRF nor 802.11b have even touched on, and that's home control-security, lighting, garage doors, etc. The problem, according to Caswell, is cost. "Even if it was to get to five dollars for a chipset, that's still way too expensive for a ten-dollar smoke alarm or a four-dollar motion sensor," he said. "So in those control applications, we're probably going to see inexpensive, 900MHz or even some other lower-frequency technology where the chips are a dollar or two."
Chaklos notes that consumer attitudes have to change as well. "What has been on the market for the last ten years or so are little grab-bag parts, little bits and pieces," he said. "No one has made it a solution that consumers can self-install, flip a switch and have it work. It’s going to take some time before home automation and home security type solutions come on the market."
It's Kinda Cute, Too
You can catch a glimpse of quite how far this all can go, though, in iRobot Corporation’s iRobot-LE, expected on the market by the end of 2001. Controlled over the Internet through any web browser, the prototype robot uses a Proxim Symphony module to receive commands from any PC within 150 feet.
It can climb stairs using a front "flipper" mechanism, and an extendible "neck" allows it to see above most tabletops. At the end of the neck is a DV camera with a full 180-degree tilt and pan capacity. And fifteen sonar sensors keep the little guy from walking into walls.
Kurt Bauer, Proxim's Vice President and General Manager, suggests the concept has limitless potential. "Robots combined with wirefree technology offer incredible possibilities," he said. "Imagine being able to send the robot to keep an eye on your cat when you're at work, or allowing your family to teleport themselves into your home for a virtual visit."
It has more serious applications, too. Consider what it would mean to be able to check in on an elderly relative, interactively or not, at any time, from anywhere. You could monitor that teenage babysitter with whom you just entrusted your infant's life. You could check to see if the dishwasher that was making that weird noise is now working properly - or even make sure your drainpipes are clear while you’re on vacation in Japan.
Give it a few more years, and you could actually clear those drainpipes from your hotel room in Japan. Or hire a repairperson to remotely fix that whining dishwasher through the robot; they'd never have to leave their office. Or perhaps pay a service to baby-sit your kids from a remote location. Connect that robot into a fully integrated home, and you can begin to imagine the possibilities.
Mr. Bradbury, we're just getting started.
Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.