Looking inside the homes of the future

Fridges that tell you what to cook for dinner, beds that monitor and improve your sleeping patterns, and mirrors that let you watch movies and TV, will all be in the house of tomorrow, says Jessica Kelly.

THE iconic movie Back to the Future predicted that by 2015 we would all be riding around on hoverboards and travelling in flying cars. While we are still some time away from that, we have unquestionably entered a new technological era.

This is the age of the “Internet of Things” and while that concept may have sounded vague and far-fetched ten years ago, the reality of our daily lives illustrates a transition as seamless as the move from a TV with rabbit ears to the smart TVs of today. And this is only the beginning.

The “Internet of Things” is a phrase coined by Kevin Ashton who explained it rather beautifully back in 2009: “Today, computers — and, therefore, the internet — are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the internet were first captured and created by human beings — by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code. Conventional diagrams of the internet include servers and routers and so on, but they leave out the most numerous and important routers of all: people. Today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things.”

With the aid of this definition, the value of the “Internet of Things” suddenly becomes visible. By turning the devices we use on a daily basis into small computers, they themselves generate data, without the need for traditional human input. This data is then used to track and count every movement and activity, with the overall aim of reducing waste, loss and cost. Ashton rounded off his explanation by saying, “The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the internet did. Maybe even more so.”

The concept of the “Internet of Things” has seen our use of technology change and over the next decade as our technological habits develop, so too will our homes. Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, electronics company LG unveiled a template for smart-homes of the future. Randy Overton of LG said: “We are texting friends and family throughout the day. Why not do the same thing with your air conditioning system or your vacuum? You can have your refrigerator tell you what is in it or your kitchen range text you when a roast is almost done.”

So, how far away from smart homes appearing on every street are we? A solid picture of what we can expect has arrived; moving through the rooms of a house, it is easy to see where the technology can and will slot in.

Kitchen:

Once connected to the internet, fridges will be able to tell their owner what products they have, their use-by dates and even suggest recipes which can be made with the contents. The information provided by the fridge will unquestionably make the food shop much easier.

Following on from the fridge’s recommendation of what a user should cook for dinner, they will be able to preheat their oven from their phones/tablets — and receive notifications when dinner is ready.

Smart kitchens will be able to monitor calorie intake and eating habits too.

The traditional kitchen table over is set to change too, becoming a “Minority Report-esque” device which allows residents to view their diary and other content stored on their smartphones or tablets.

Living Room:

The living room is at present the smartest room in many homes. Televisions are now entertainment hubs, allowing users to stream television shows and movies from around the world, without the need for a VHS, DVD or even computer. The ability to sync smart products with the largest screen in the house means the television is once again becoming a core feature in many homes.

The design of living rooms will change to incorporate bending screens — which aim to provide better viewing capabilities, larger screens and even “invisible screens”. These screens will be embedded into mirrors and the picture will be delivered via ultra laser projectors.

A new technology, which has entered our homes in recent months, is app-controlled temperature gauges. Some companies allow users to switch on their heating and alter the temperature from their mobile phones, ensuring the house is warm upon arrival. We will see more of this kind of technology in coming years.

Google recently purchased a company called Nest, which has a small range of home products that monitors data usage. The purchase of this company indicates that tech giants are going to try and gain access to more and more of our habitual data. They will use this information to see not what we use, but how we use the technology and services in our homes.

Bathroom:

As water charges loom, homeowners will care more than ever about their water usage. Smart homes will monitor and inform how much water is being used, at what time of the day and from what source.

Hygiene habits of the house will also be under scrutiny. Smart homes will feature bathroom sensors identifying when the soap is picked up, the toilet is flushed and how often the toothbrushes are used.

The information from these devices will be pushed in graph form to smartphones for analysis; a handy tool, no doubt for parents looking to keep an eye on their kids’ hygiene habits.

These sensors will, along with the smart kitchens, make doing the shopping list easier as they will send notifications when the soap is running low or the toothpaste is empty.

Bedroom:

Sleep patterns, room temperature and lighting are all going to be managed and monitored from our phones and tablets.

A new product launched at CES gave an insight into what the smart-bedroom of the future will be capable of. The Aura Smart Sleep System from Withings is a device which sits on the bedside locker and monitors factors in the bedroom including noise, room temperature and light level, before customising light and sound to ensure a better night’s sleep. This works, in principle, the same way some of the more advanced baby monitors do.

A small sensor pad is placed beneath the mattress and monitors the user’s breathing cycle, body movements and heart rate. This information is then displayed on a smart device, illustrating the user’s sleep cycle.

Car:

Driving is set to become a whole lot easier, thanks to smart cars. Up until now, the car has been a place of function rather than fun but if Google and Apple get their way, the car will move into the digital space.

Earlier this year Google announced their intentions to launch an Open Automotive Alliance alongside Audi, GM, Hyundai and Honda. This will see a common set of standards for the placing of technology in cars. Apple has had similar talks with Honda and Hyundai with the hopes of placing an iOS structure into vehicles.

Theo Koslowski of technology analysts Gartner explained the thought process behind this:

“Once you have a car that you do not have to pay attention to any more, then it becomes a rolling sofa. That will mean you need content and a lot of that will be digital and come from the cloud.”

So as cars learn our preferred routes and automatically park, we can focus on the latest playlist on Spotify.

There have been many concerns about the safety elements of smart cars and so they are being strenuously tested before going on public release.

One feature of a proposed smart car is “self-parking”.

A French firm named Valeo has invested in this type of technology, which allows a driver to leave their vehicle at the entrance of a multi-storey car park while the car finds a space, parks itself and shuts off. When the driver is ready to set off again, they contact the car via their smartphone and the car moves itself back to the owner.

Daily life:

With the data collected from every room in the home, shopping lists will write themselves. As our reliance on cloud computing escalates, special offers and discount codes will be pushed to our email accounts meaning we will no longer have to scour around looking for the best deal on products that we use — the deals will come to us.

The point of this era we suddenly find ourselves in seems to be to cut out the menial tasks of our day-to-day lives. If, by monitoring our habits our devices can “learn” how we live and cut out the need for human repetition, then why not?

Technology we jump up and down about today will be so far outdated in two years, it will be laughable but the trend of everything from household appliances to how we order a taxi becoming digitised will continue to grow rapidly.

There is a wide selection of products available on the market right now for those looking to jump the gun on smart living.

Smart watches will become more affordable and a wider selection will be available before the end of 2014 — meaning users will no longer have to grab their phone to answer calls, tweet pics or even cheat in a table quiz. Samsung are leading the way in this arena so far with the Galaxy Gear.

For those looking to monitor their sleep habits and movements during the day, the Jawbone Up bracelet tracks steps, calories and sleeping patterns. The bracelet then syncs the data gathered daily with the user’s smartphone and illustrates the performance on graphs.

Everyone knows that watching TV has changed with on-demand services and the TV recording boxes; but 2014 will see TV evolve even further.

At present Smart TVs allow users to download applications onto their screen and avail of web-based streaming services. Netflix, RTE and TV3 are now app-based, giving users the option of accessing content whenever they want, removing the need for the recording box. We will see an increase in app-based viewing with integrated “pick up and play” technology.

The cheaper alternatives to the very flash smart TVs are most certainly worth checking out. The 4IFE Smart Stick gives the user Android on their TV once connected via HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). This device costs less than €100 and has all the functionality of a Smart TV.

An interesting statistic bandied about in November 2013 stated that worldwide shipments of 3D printers would grow by 75% in 2014.

This is certainly eye-catching, but at present, 3D printing is complex — to put it mildly. A video featuring a gunshot fired from a 3D printed gun went viral in 2013 — which is great, but again the practicality from the customer’s perspective is questionable. The fact of the matter is 3D printers are very cool but are for industrial use at this moment in time.

Technology will be further integrated into our daily lives; whether we like it or not. Cookies and Cloud are the “c’s” that will feature in our vocabulary as naturally as “pen and paper” once did.

From the consumer’s point of view, this means that it’s time to swot up on digital safety and privacy.

* Jessica Kelly is a technology reporter with Newstalk 106-108FM and is on Twitter: @jesskellynt


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