February 22, 2013 7:31 pm

The new role of wallpaper

Cutting edge technology now allows walls and floors to block mobile phone and WiFi signals
A woman waves at a wall with clocks and other information displayed on wallpaper designed by Think Big Factory

Think Big Factory’s vision of waking up in an Openarch home

This year some of the most creative household innovations won’t be in the handheld gadgetry usually associated with the smart home, but rather in adaptations to the home’s surfaces – cutting edge tech hidden in the walls, floors and countertops that usually go un­inspected.

This year’s most remarkable advancement has to do with the wallpaper roll. In partnership with La Centre Technique du Papier, the Grenoble Institute of Technology is creating wallpaper that blocks mobile phone and WiFi signals. Not only can the new paper stop your neighbours from stealing your bandwidth but, more seriously, it protects your bank details and other sensitive particulars from would-be thieves. It may also put an end to the type of passive-aggressive WiFi names noted in a recent BBC article, one of the best coming from the English West Country and imitating the area’s accent: “Get orf my LAN”.

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The paper is being developed for the market by Finnish materials company Ahlstrom, and is set for release within the year. Coated with a silver ink organised in crystalline snowflakes, the shapes block certain electromagnetic frequencies in the 2.45-5.5 GHz range (so that’s the GSM and UMTS used by mobiles and all WiFi frequencies). Liisa Nyyssönen of Ahlstrom says the paper will allow emergency, television and FM radio signals to pass through unhindered.

Selective shielding is great for people who cherish their work-life balance but a new technology coming out of Madrid is set to merge home and office. Openarch, a project from design firm Think Big Factory, is set to make every surface in the home a computer interface. Using a combination of projectors, webcams and Kinect motion-sensor technology, our bodies will be the controllers of an array of digital services such as e-shopping, social media and diary organisation. Currently in development, Openarch is designed to connect the entire house to the internet, making it possible to call someone via Skype from anywhere in your home, and have them appear full-length on the wall. This sounds intriguing now, but it may not be so welcome when work colleagues try to videocall you in bed because you haven’t replied to their emails.

The hardware is complete but only 20 per cent of the software is finished. Ion Cuervas-Mons, director of Think Big Factory, says products from the Openarch project could be in our homes within one or two years. “I don’t think that [an Openarch home] is going to look revolutionary, though,” he says. “New technologies must be non-intrusive and natural – that’s the key to mixing digital with physical.”

An Openarch connected home, with everything from Twitter on the walls to advertising on the floor

An Openarch connected home, with everything from Twitter on the walls to advertising on the floor

There’s also technological advancement happening underfoot. At the Photon 12 conference last September, scientists from the University of Manchester, in northwest England, presented a “magic carpet” that maps walking patterns and can notify carers or family members if someone has suffered a fall. The design relies upon plastic optical fibres embedded in the carpet’s underlay that bend beneath your feet, sending signals to sensors at the edges that are then relayed to a computer. There, the information is analysed and can render an image of the footprint, monitor gradual changes in walking behaviour, and spot incidents such as trips and falls.

As around a third of older people in the UK fall each year – with injuries accounting for 50 per cent of hospital admissions for the over 65s – these carpets could make a real difference to people’s wellbeing. They are also sensitive to other dangers, and can detect chemical spillages or the early warning signs of fire. The university says technology used in the magic carpets could be commercially available by early 2014.

Although it might detect fire, the carpet won’t remind you to buy an extinguisher or check the batteries in your smoke alarm, so for that – and, in fact, for the total virtual management of your home – BrightNest is the innovation of choice.

BrightNest is a free online service based in Denver, Colorado, that reminds you to test your fire alarms, water the plants, bathe your pets and perform practically any other task related to domestic upkeep. Using data that you input yourself, such as the location of your house and information about your family and appliances, BrightNest creates a customised schedule to help you manage your home; you just have to follow it.

Justin Anthony, chief executive of BrightNest, co-founded the company in November 2011 as part of the 500 Startups development programme in Silicon Valley, California. Since launching the site at the beginning of last year, Anthony estimates that more than 25,000 registered users have created home profiles.

Another development that is – quite literally – generating a buzz is eCoupled, an innovation that integrates wireless charging technology with practically any surface in the home. This means you could charge your smartphone or tablet simply by placing it on or near an enabled countertop without plugging it into the mains – forever banishing the jungles of wires and cables that crowd around vacant plug sockets.

The company behind the project, Fulton Innovation, uses resonance induction technology that transfers a charge between two coils; a supply-side coil in the surface and a receiving coil in the device.

The use of wireless charging has been around for the past few years but until now you have needed to use plugged-in charging mats to transfer the power. Fulton Innovation aims to have the cable-free enabled countertops come on to the market sometime next year.

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