How wired do you want it?

Written by Rob Waugh     14/02/2003 | 08:22 | Category: APPLIANCES

The first wired homes are being tested, and the first intelligent appliances are in the shops. But do we really want HAL 9000 living in our fridges?


Do you want your fridge to send video emails? Will a washing machine with a Net connection help to refresh your tired whites? And should you care whether your stereo can send streaming audio signals to your holiday house.

Yes, say household technology companies, for whom 'wired home' is the biggest buzz phrase since we all used 'digital' to death. Yes, say techno-gurus Mr and Mrs Posh-Beckham, who invested £8000 in a Net-connected fridge. Yes, say Orange and Nokia, who both recently trialled houses full of Net-connected tech-nology linked into a home network.

'Wired home', then. Translation? Future homes where electronics, PCs and white goods are all linked into an intelligent home network. Like in sci-fi films where people come home and go, 'Marmite on toast, my messages and a hot bath', and the house computer gets them all in while talking in an irritating voice.

The first of these appliances and networks are appearing right now. But are they really a taste of the future, or are Net-hooked appli-ances doomed to remain as tacky flim-flam for rich taste-bypass victims to adorn their palaces with?

These are early days, and wired appli-ances like LG's Internet Fridge at around $15,000 are seen as showcase products, not realistic consumer items. The technology companies are testing the water. LG is not worrying unduly whether it'll sell thousands of Internet Fridges. The Fridge is meant for people to peer at in Harvey Norman or for newspapers to coo over and say 'fancy that'.

But some of the uses they've found for their PC-on-a-fridge technology really are rather clever. For instance, the Fridge can notify a service centre if it's malfunctioning. It can count the days till your bacon goes critical. And it can work as a message board for family members, using a built-in webcam for video messaging - just like notes stuck to the fridge door, but 24,000 times more expensive.

The coolest thing, though, is how you can also control LG's other networked appliances (microwave, air con, washing machine) from either the Fridge or a remote website. The inbuilt modem allows users to adjust any of the networked appliances from LG's website. You can start the washer a couple of hours before you set off home, or click the air con to 'Siberian' if the weather turns hot.

But the Fridge and its little network are very much a work in progress. You need to hammer in sell-by dates if you want the Fridge to keep an eye on the foods within. And it isn't clever enough to send communications across the Web other than "I'm broken" - it can't order more groceries when the milk runs dry.

But the most glaring flaw is that the net-work will only work with LG appliances. And that applies to most efforts at creating 'wired homes' so far. Samsung, Sharp and many other electro-giants are working on Net appli-ances, but goods from different manufacturers are about as likely to talk to each other as the tribes of Man after the fall of the Tower of Babel.

Some use modems, some talk wirelessly, some chat through your house's power grid by minor adjustments in their power consumption ('con-veyor-wave' communications), some even use wires. And they all talk different languages.

It's a nice idea for LG or Samsung that we'll equip our houses top-to-toe with their goods, but it won't happen. People don't like being coerced into brand loyalty. Companies have to earn it. Someone needs to devise a standard way to get your microwave chatting civilly with your fridge and your stereo, or the wired-up household is going to remain a pipe dream.

Of course, your PC could be the answer. If you can link each individual gadget up to your PC, you've got a nerve centre to control everything from, and it's ready-hooked to the Net. Since home PC networks are increasingly common, this seems to make sense. And you can always upgrade your software to deal with a super-intelligent microwave or an air con with attitude.

But you needn't sit at your PC fiddling away with your network. In fact, you'll hardly notice that your PC is in charge. It'll handle all the network administration business quietly in the background, working like a home server, with information bubbling in and out to remote websites via your broadband hook-up.

It's all practical, workable stuff. The question is, how much do you want your network to do?



Like, as well as appliances handling the chores, do you want music to be pumped between rooms from a central server? Or do you want everything from your microwave to your toastie machine to be able to store programs, com-mands and - oh, why not - music files?

Naturally, the Internet Fridge already func-tions as a decent MP3 jukebox. But it can't send music any further than the kitchen table. With entertainment link-ups like Bang and Olufsen's BeoLink, you can pipe audio and video signals anywhere in the house across a home network.

And when we're talking entertainment, some appliances are crying out for a home net-worked operation. We'd love to be able to set the video recorder rolling with a text message, or with a command from our PCs upstairs.

That's the essence of a good 'wired' appliance: it should do something you actually need. Of course, this has been the last thing on the minds of technology companies as they scramble to pump more 'intelligent' and 'networked' appliances into the market.

Consider for a second the usefulness of Web-enabled microwaves. Appliances des-igned to download and store recipes to cook things … with recipes on the packet. Appliances that you can remote control from your work PC, ensuring that a five-minute-cooking-time ready meal is stone cold by the time you get home.

Someone will have to work hard to convince us that downloading brand new programs into a washing machine is going to revolutionise our laundry.

But whether these first wired appliances are absurd is not really the point. The fact is it is useful to have appliances that can call a ser-vice centre when they feel Death's cold touch on them. It is useful to turn on appliances with your mobile phone. And it is brilliant to be able to send entertainment - whether computer, video or music - to any room in the house using smarthouse technology (see image, top).

The intelligent house is here to stay. And this is good news. The only thing is, we've all seen this movie - and after an initial honeymoon period, doesn't it end with the house computer turning on its human masters and stuffing them down the waste disposal?

Orange's vision, 2002

Orange's wired home outside London started life as a 'home of the future' where the day began with the house computer making your coffee, filling the bath, turning your music on and generally kick-starting the day, like HAL 9000 crossed with an automatic tea-maker.

Then Orange had various families live in the house to try out the technology. People just didn't like the house computer timing their morning routine with cyborg efficiency. They were also hacked off with the fact that everything from the heating to the lighting was controlled via the house's wireless network.

To their credit, the people at Orange were not into force-feeding the future to their guinea pigs. They pulled out any technologies that proved un-popular. They put back the light switches.

What they were left with is interesting, but not that futuristic.

A wireless network, with tablet PCs giving access to the Web. Home security systems accessible from a remote website. Networked entertainment systems. Big screens. An AIBO for the kids. Touchscreens. In short, a load of very cool gear, but not exactly Deep Space Nine.

Naturally, there's one big blooper, in the form of a half-deaf robo-kitchen that reads out Internet pages in the voice of Steven Hawking, but other-wise the future looked very much like the pages of SmartHouse magazine. Fine by us.