Conversations between the fridge and the toaster
Shutters that close incrementally with the setting sun and air-conditioning that you turn on with an SMS - the smart home is more attainable than ever before.
Giora and Ronit Kochavi like light, but as soon as the sun crosses the middle of the sky and begins to head down into the west, it warms their apartment too much. Another couple might have hung curtains, getting up every so often to adjust the shutters or close the window and turn on a light, but the Kochavis don't have to do a thing. Once every hour, in accordance with a command that Giora programmed into the small computerized system mounted on the wall of their laundry porch, a little buzz is emitted from somewhere near the window, and the electric shutters slide down a few centimeters, in such a way that they precisely block the direct sunlight but leave enough of an aperture for the light to come in.
"I can program the hot-water heater to turn on every morning at 7 A.M. for half an hour. With the press of a single button, I can turn on all of the lights in the house, or I can activate the "Good Night" setting, in which all of the shutters close, one by one," says Kochavi, a 31-year-old software engineering technician from Haifa, while his apartment is being hermetically sealed as the result of a command transmitted by the universal remote control in his hand. "There isn't a single thing that I would want to do in this apartment that I cannot do now with the press of a button."
The remote control isn't the only thing that makes things happen in Kochavi's house. Seated below a sparkling star-shaped configuration on his living room ceiling, Kochavi demonstrates how he can turn on and off the bedroom light by sending an SMS text message from his cell phone. He explains how he can even control the house via the Internet, by connecting the closed-end system to a computer that is hooked up to the Internet.
"For instance, I can send an SMS to my house to turn on the air-conditioner before I get home," he says, expressing a fantasy harbored by many Israelis. "If I'm out of the country, I can create scenarios for the house in which shutters and lights go on and off so that it seems from the outside that there's someone at home. And if some switch goes off that is not part of the pre-set scenario, I can see that by remote, too."
Several months ago, Kochavi turned his house into a sort of model home through which he demonstrates to his potential clients the advantages of the "smart home." To create it, Kochavi connects a thin red wire to any switch that he wants to control. The wire leads to a small control box that is linked to a cellular phone, and which can be linked via modem to a computer on a desk in the dining nook. The principle is simple: dispatch of an SMS, giving an order by Internet or pressing one of the pre-programmed buttons on the universal remote control will open or close circuits that are connected to the various switches in the house.
Even actions that seem relatively complex - dimming the lights, for example, or tracking the trajectory of the sun with the shutters - are performed through time-lapse control of the on-off switch.
The only significant change in the technology, which existed five years ago, during the bubble, is the added possibility of controlling a house with a cell phone. The main difference is the price; installing a "smart home" is much cheaper now than ever - about NIS 12,000 for a large home, as opposed to tens of thousands of shekels a few years ago. Prosperity in the sector is visible; apart from the company founded by Kochavi a few months ago, there are about 10 other companies in Israel that install smart homes.
The vision of a smart home has in the past few years become one of the jokes of the high-tech industry. For the past decade, futurists have been telling us that any minute now we would be walking into completely computerized homes that would not only turn the lights on and off, but would also know what we want and would do what needs to be done even before we were aware of it. In fact, a wide variety of "smart" products are now available on the market, such as palm scanners, electric eyes and voice detectors that connect to door locks, refrigerators with a brain that regulate cooling on the basis of type of food, its quantity, and its location in the fridge, and there are surveillance cameras that can tell if the caregiver is abusing a baby. But each of these devices is stand-alone, and is unable to speak with the other. In Japan, there are refrigerators that can hook up to Internet and order fresh food when they receive an indication that the freshness date of an item is about to expire (based on data inputted by the home's occupant. The appliance has internal scales to determine the weight of items such as a carton of milk and when it has has fallen below a certain threshold. But they have not quite become big-selling items.
As in other areas, including instant messaging programs, media files and flash memory cards, the big problem preventing the hi-tech industry from taking off into full realization of the vision of a truly smart home is the lack of standardization. Every self-respecting multinational would like to make a nice long-term profit from every "smart" device communicating with other devices in that company's language, and because there is no one standard that could currently be considered dominant, manufacturers are not ready to produce devices in mass quantities.
Perhaps consumers are not yet ready for the idea of a totally computerized home. But they have learned the lesson of the Beta and VHS videotape war of the '80s, and are waiting for an accepted standard to be set. No one wants to buy a refrigerator today only to find out two years from now that it cannot communicate with the toaster.
An article in the latest issue of Scientific American, however, offers precisely such a standard, and proposes that its most basis principles be based on the architecture of the Internet. The protocol, to be called "Internet-O" - to emphasize the relatively low speed required to operate it, as opposed to the ultra-fast "Internet 2" - would be based on seven fundamental attributes: every device linked to the network would have a unique IP address; the software would be simplified in that it would implement the communication protocol in a unified and unparceled manner, as per current practice; two Internet-O devices will not require a third device to function, but will operate without reliance on a central server that would only reduce the reliability of the system and raise its operating costs; every "Internet-O" device would be responsible for maintaining its unique identity (including the global IP name, the name in the local network, and the encrypted name that enables secure communication) even without a central server; Internet-O will use longer energy pulses to permit fast, uninterrupted communication between devices; the long pulses will enable the data to be displayed similarly on different devices, for example like Morse code, which looks identical in every medium; and lastly, "Internet-O" would use open standards so that, for instance, a package of medicine bearing a cordless ID tag (RFID) that would be placed in the medicine cabinet of the smart home, would send a unique ID code that would instantly become part of it without it needing to be identified first by a "reader" of some sort.
According to Neil Gershenfeld, Raffi Krikorian and Danny Cohen, the scientists who developed Internet-O, the factor standing in the way of their idea turning into reality is the fear of communication engineers that networks that would link household devices would need an especially broad band. Internet-O, claim its inventors, makes the trend of fast networks antiquated. It is not meant to replace the existing Internet. Rather, it is intended to create a layer that operates below it. In the future, the three believe, the difference between Internet-O and the rest of the network will be reduced, and elements in the architecture of Gershenfeld, Krikorian and Cohen's network will be able to serve as a faster and more efficient channel of information for the larger network, the Internet.
It is still too early to tell if Internet-O technology will in a few years become the invisible infrastructure on which the smart home will be based. However, the mere fact that it is being developed at a time when huge corporations like Microsoft and Sony are beginning to sharpen their swords for the battle to control the computerized home hints that the idea that has until now been ridiculed is in fact closer than ever before to being realized. When that happens, when it is clear to all which technology will drive the smart home, consumers will have to be convinced that they simply cannot do without an oven that downloads recipes from the Internet, a refrigerator that beeps when the milk goes sour, and a toilet that orders toilet paper on its own.
Some people might be panicked by the idea, but you can bet that there will be a few big corporations that will be there to explain to the confused masses that there was once a time when it wasn't obvious that every 12-year-old needs a cell phone.