When an A-list Hollywood director recently decided to deck out his new home he modelled his vision on Tony Stark, the fictional billionaire playboy and razor-sharp engineer who is transformed into a superhero in the movie Iron Man.
“[Stark] is a billionaire inventor – his house is as high-tech as it can be,” says Eric Thies, founding partner of the California-based VIA International, a technology company that caters for the super-rich. “[The director] wants to be on the cutting edge of technology. This is his chance to be James Bond.”
VIA is installing all the latest must-have gadgets in the unnamed director’s bespoke Hollywood home. A total of 32 television screens hidden around the house will pop out of walls and cabinets. There will be an 18ft by 20ft screen streaming 24-hour video art. And when the director is doing some laps in his pool, he can listen to music from underwater speakers.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s former home in Belgravia, London, is now being fitted out with high-tech gadgetry. According to the developers, Leconfield Property Group, features will include a basement pool with a hydraulic floor that drops down when the pool is required. Alternatively, the floor can be raised and the space used as a ballroom with a bar.
Priorities for wealthy homeowners have shifted, it appears: today, open-floor plans and “a fully automated and ‘wired’ home environment” are the top features that consumers demand, according to a survey by Coldwell Banker Previews International and the Luxury Institute. This includes everything from iPad-controlled lighting and music systems to motorised blinds.
“Five years ago clients wanted to keep technology at a minimum,” says Thies. “Nowadays, they just want to whip out [their] iPhone and turn on their Jacuzzi from the comfort of their private jet so that it’s 40C when they turn up. Our clients can shut an entire 40,000 sq ft estate down with a single button press.”
In wine cellars, scanners and touch panels can be installed that allow clients to catalogue and monitor their collections. The software will inform them if wine is entering or exiting the perfect drinking window and it even offers a map to help them track down a particular bottle.
Gadgets must, however, fit seamlessly with the aesthetic – either so they are synchronised with the interiors or simply made invisible. Speakers and TVs are concealed behind mirrors, wall panels, and even artwork.
Five or 10 years ago the rich used “technology displays as a major design statement”, says Laura Pratt, head of creative design for London interior design house Candy & Candy. Today, smartphones and plasma TVs are commonplace. “There is now an increasing appetite for more discreet displays that are sensitive to the design and environment,” says Pratt.
Alternatively, the device itself can be turned into a piece of art. The Samsung S9 Ultra High Definition (UHD) 4K TV was inspired by a “canvas on an easel”: the sleek screen reclines on a frame crafted from precious metals.
With the Samsung Curved S9C OLED TV, two people can watch different films or TV shows on the same screen using 3D Active glasses as part of its MultiView technology. Both versions offer the Smart Hub, which includes S Recommendation software. This registers what you like to watch and, responding to your voice, searches for new shows tailored to your tastes.
Mirrors have also become personalised. Candy & Candy’s “intelligent” mirror remembers its owner’s past outfits – saving the hassle of trying on different combinations of clothes.
Technology can also help lift ordinary household items into the sublime. Dutch designer Angela Jansen and her father, mechanical and electrical engineer Ger Jansen, have created the Floating Lamps series for Crealev, their Netherlands-based company that specialises in “levitation products”. The classic Silhouette #1 Floating Lamp (€980) at first glance appears similar to an antique: it is made up of an old-fashioned, handcrafted wooden base with a high-gloss black finish. However, a middle part of the black fabric lampshade is missing, allowing the top section to float. This is possible due to “integrated levitation technology” made from electromagnetic components. The LED light uses less power too.
Futuristic designs have also found their way to the bedroom. The Cosmos Bed, released last year by Russian designer Natalia Rumyantseva (with prices available on request), looks like a white capsule – or a cracked-open egg. Made from fibreglass, it has LED lights dotted in the canopy like a blanket of stars, creating the illusion of sleeping outside. An interior audio system plays music or, if it helps you sleep, white noise, and the bed also releases sweet aromas. The slope and angle of the mattress can also be adjusted.
Al-fresco living is becoming more fashionable, with entertainment areas increasingly moving outside, according to Thies. Where the people go, devices must follow. Outdoor WiFi, open-air screens and speakers nestled behind bushes are all very popular.
Enjoying the silver screen in the home is also in vogue. For $2.35m IMAX will offer a bespoke private home theatre (with an individual numbered plaque to hang on the wall). Comfort is paramount: remote-controlled chairs convert into beds. And there is no point having a home cinema without the latest movies. VIA will install software that offers Hollywood films on the same day as their national release for $35,000 – with movies a further $500 per showing.
Such mod cons have made home security all the more vital. Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, former head of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, has designed a “digital doorman” instead. SafeRise, which is sold by his FTS21 company, works via a motion identification system. Using a blend of facial, voice and behaviour analysis it recognises you before you even get to your door. Homeowners “don’t need keys, card or a code”, says Ze’evi-Farkash. So far, SafeRise has been installed in three villas in the US and in the W Tower in Tel Aviv.
“I am a strong believer that this is the way people will enter their buildings in the 21st century,” says Ze’evi-Farkash. That may be but, for now, entering your home James Bond-style is a luxury afforded only to the super-rich. The rest of us will just have to make do with a key.
Smart homes – tap into the future
Home automation has traditionally been the preserve of the rich but soon a broader audience will be able to use smartphones as remote controls for their homes, writes Tim Bradshaw.
Later this year, Apple will launch “HomeKit”, a new technology that allows iPhone owners to speak instructions to Siri, its virtual assistant, to control their home. Simply telling Siri to “get ready for bed” will lock the front door, dim the lights and turn down the heating, says Apple.
That doesn’t mean that Apple is about to become a maker of door locks and thermostats. HomeKit will allow companies who already make “connected home” gadgets – many of which are already sold in Apple’s retail stores – to tap into the iPhone.
“There are a lot of great home automation devices coming on the market these days and they have companion apps,” said Apple’s software chief, Craig Federighi, at its developer conference in San Francisco this week.
Early HomeKit partners include Philips Hue lightbulbs, Honeywell thermostats, Haier air conditioning units and door locks from August and Kwikset, whose devices typically cost up to £200 apiece. By contrast, fully-fledged home automation systems from the likes of Crestron, cost thousands of pounds. “HomeKit will allow us to provide a simple and easy experience for our customers, with the ability to securely pair and control devices throughout the house including integration with Siri,” says Jason Johnson, chief executive of August.
Many consumers, however, are still confused about how to set up and use these products. They rely on a hotchpotch of different wireless networks, from the already common WiFi and Bluetooth to the more obscure Z-Wave and Zigbee.
“We thought we could bring some rationality in this space,” says Federighi, with a “common network protocol and secure pairing to ensure that only your iPhone can open your garage door or unlock your door”.
Sources familiar with Apple’s plans say that a forthcoming upgrade to its $99/£99 TV box will see it become a hub for coordinating different devices when an iPhone is not present.
Several other companies are vying to become the hub for our smart homes. SmartThings offers a box that acts like an interpreter for the many smart-home wireless languages and has recently improved its app to control them all. Yet, Apple’s entry into the smart-home sector could spur even more people to hand over their house keys to their smartphone.
Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent