The market for the equipment to turn houses into intelligent homes could turn out to be a big one. Proponents want to make it possible for you to calculate your gas and electricity bills for the quarter as a graph on a screen, turn your heating on and adjust the setting on your deep freezer – and all without lifting more than a finger on a button. Certain parts of the plan have already been mastered – the telephone, mains electricity and television for example. It is now only really a question of linking existing and potential communications media together. One Japanese body estimates that the market could be worth as much as $1,000m in Japan alone by 1990, but then the body concerned is the Japan Society for the Promotion of Machine Industry. We don’t know how much of this will really be useful, said one Matsushita employee, but we as engineers want to see how far we can go with it.
The one thing hindering the development of intelligent home systems apart from good old-fashioned mistrust of new-fangled ideas and scepticism about their usefulness is the recurring problem of standardisation. The developed world is expected at best to agree on a standard in 1988. In Japan electronics companies view home automation as vital to their survival in conventional home appliance markets, according to the Wall Street Journal. While automation is familiar in the office and factory, it hasn’t yet made its way into the average home. But with the price of computer chips falling and with the variety and utility of telecommuncations services increasing, Japan’s electronics wizards see a boom for intelligent homes just around the corner. Future profits, according to the Japanese, will lie in systems that link computers and electronic applicances. Matsushita has sold some 3,000 systems so far and projects home automation sales, including peripherals, could come near the $1,000m figure by 1990. Some systems, costing as little as UKP80, which are fairly simple but can control up to 256 appliances from one hand-held control unit, and they use the existing house wiring, which means construction costs are eliminated. But these systems are prone to interference from mains and other noise. What is being aimed for worldwide is a home bus – a set of cabling, which will carry computer and video data to wall plugs, which will easily interface to the forthcoming broadband integrated services digital network standards. This type of system is more likely to cost UKP1,000 to UKP2,000. Sanyo has built a $1m test intelligent home in Nagoya, wired with a home bus prototype. A computer monitors all electric outlets, acting as a master remote control for everything from electrical appliances to blinds and lawn sprinklers. A computer screen in the kitchen is tied into utility meters and can calculate gas and electricity bills and flash them up as graphs. If – as may well happen in Japan or California – a tremor hits, an earthquake sensor automatically turns off the gas and all but a few lights and unlocks the doors for the occupants to flee. A computer upstairs ties into the grocery store or the town hall to buy groceries or take care of legal business. In the kitchen, another computer helps the cook: type in what’s in the refrigerator and the computer offers a choice of recipes, gives cooking instructions and will set the oven. Once an international standard is settled, says Sanyo’s Mr Hatano, of course we’ll be looking to export. Japanese and US companies are generally acknowledged to be further ahead in the intelligent home market than European companies, but if European companies are not to fall prey, as is their wont, to the Japanese strategy of polishing a mass product at home and then exporting it, they will also have to get their act together. Europe does have several projects underway under the Race and Esprit research programmes as well as Eureka. Seven European firms have come together under a UKP12m Eureka project, called Integrated Home Systems, IHS, to develop their own set of standard protocols, interfaces and media – a
home bus for an intelligent home, which may or may not be compatible with forthcoming US and Japanese standards. The seven companies are Thorn EMI, which leads the UK participation, GEC, Philips and Philips’ Mullard subsidiary, Thomson, Siemens and Electrolux. The project is not limited to domestic premises, says director of GEC Telecommunications, Martin Ward, We’re looking at automating supermarkets to link them up to electronic funds transfer networks and electronic data interchange networks as well as business premises. Each of the companies in IHS aims to produce a trigger project as demonstration of whatever standard emerges and as early products on the market. The other part of the project is geared to producing a standard set of protocols and media for communications, involving cordless media, radio frequency or infra-red, mains electricity and cable. GEC’s guess is that the media standards will evolve as a mix of coaxial and twisted pair cable. Those parts of the home applicable to data and voice will be compatible with the broadband ISDN standard being worked on by various projects in Europe.