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June 29, 2005 11:23 am

Keeping an eye on domestic appliances

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In the 1970s Gordon Moore, co-founder of chipmaker Intel, went round his house looking for places where the company’s new microprocessors could find a use. He came up with 85 and repeating the exercise a few years later found another 30, from home computers to monitoring hot water tanks and detecting burglaries.

Thirty years later, the prices of microelectronics have fallen far enough to make large parts of this vision commercially viable. Slowly, around the world, companies are starting to explore different ways to network and automate the home. In April, for example, US company Control4 launched a remote control device which talks to lighting, heating and entertainment systems, and potentially anything else in the house.

The same devices can be monitored and controlled remotely, using a web browser. A user could check whether the iron has been left on or whether the children are watching too much TV, and in either case, switch off the offending device from their office computer.

In South Korea, the government is keen to promote home networking as part of its nationwide technology strategy, dubbed IT839. Two consortia of companies, each led by one of the country’s large telecoms groups, SK Telecom and KT, have been developing pilot programmes.

The first commercial systems are already being deployed in newly built flats, automating everything from security and energy billing to feeding pets. The hard part of building these systems is not automating the individual appliances but linking them in a cheap but effective way.

Radio seems an obvious way to do this as it avoids the need for messy cables. Both Control4 and SK Telecom use a new wireless technology called ZigBee, a low power radio communications protocol which runs in the same unregulated 2.4 gigahertz waveband as other popular wireless technologies, such as Wi-Fi, cordless phones and bluetooth.

“We’ve used Ethernet and power line technology, but ZigBee seems to be the way to go,” says Eugene Yoo, vice-president of Lucent Korea, which was part of the SK Telecom consortium.

ZigBee is a “mesh radio” system, where all the elements form a self-organising network. Devices can be added, moved or taken away and the network will automatically redesign itself to handle the change.without the homeowner having to reprogram it.

The technology has some powerful backers. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Bob Metcalfe, inventor of the now-ubiquitous Ethernet networking technology, are both investors in Ember, a company which has established a lead in making ZigBee chips.

In the business world, this kind of technology has been widely trialled in factories and industrial settings. Intel’s manufacturing division used a technology similar to ZigBee to monitor the performance of the air pumps and scrubbers which eliminate dust from the air in the clean rooms where its chips are made.

“Sensor nets are, in a sense, the final step in the IT revolution. What it does is connect the physical world with our information technology world, and that will mean an enormous increase in productivity,” says Hans Mulder, associate director of Intel Research.

“You can have many more data points, and you can visit these data points much more frequently. Over the next five to ten years more and more equipment will have these sensor nets built in,” he says. However, for Ember, the early applications will be closer to home.

“Some of the bigger markets will be industrial and commercial. But the home segment has moved much quicker,” says Jeff Grammer, chief executive officer of Ember.

One of the main reasons for the rapid uptake of ZigBee in home devices, he says, is the fact that the chips are becoming cheap enough to build into consumer devices without greatly affecting the cost.

“The reason that it is really starting to take off in the home is that the cost of a ZigBee solution is under $5 (£2.70),” says Mr Grammer. He expects to ship one million 1m units this year.

In the home networking market, however, it has a powerful established competitor. Danish company Zensys produces an alternative system to ZigBee, which it calls Z-Wave. “We have quite a mature protocol and tech at the moment,” says Chris Johnson, vice president of business development at Zensys. “Our second generation chip launched a few months ago. We’re currently about half the price of a ZigBee solution – $2.50 to $3.”

Like Ember, Zensys hopes to ship about one million 1m chips this year. Its technology is already used by some of the dominant US home automation companies, including Wayne-Dalton garage doors, and Leviton light controls.It also has investment backing from Intel.

Mr Johnson questions whether ZigBee can really be as effortlessly inter-operable as its proponents claim. “For Zigbee it is going to be very difficult to co-ordinate. They have different suppliers of silicon and software stacks.”

“With that best will in the world, it is going to be very difficult for them to deliver that interoperability,” he says.

Overcoming these technical problems may not be as big a challenge as finding compelling reasons to buy these wireless systems. Turning on the jacuzzi with a mobile phone may appeal to the geek fraternity, but for wireless home automation to become a mass-market technology, it will need to find more widely compelling applications.

There are three likely possibilities, says Nick Jones, vice-president at research group Gartner: security, healthcare and energy conservation.

Intelligent metering, alerting users to wasted power, and scheduling tasks such as washing to use cheaper night time electricity have obvious financial benefits, particularly in areas where electricity is expensive such as California.

In healthcare, discreet remote sensing could help frail or elderly people stay in their homes and remain independent.

Questions remain. Securing home sensor networks will be difficult, as nodes may not be powerful enough for sophisticated security software. Building a user interface which makes it simple enough for the homeowner to manage a 100-node home sensor network will also be tough.

But if they can be answeredsatisfactorily the potential market could be enormous. “You can do a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation,” says Mr Jones. “If every household did have 100 or so of these devices, then you get up to billions very quickly.”

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