DEAR DATA DOG: Whatever happened to the automated house?

By Published on .

Most Popular

Over the past few decades, the march toward home automation has been stalled on several occasions by consumer terror. First, in 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrated that the same intelligent technology which turns on outdoor floodlights could also kill our fellow astronauts and lock us into outer space. And in 1977's Demon Seed, audiences were horrified by the possibility that automated systems would sound like Robert Vaughn. Then, in 1999, there was that Y2K thing (remember that?). Now that Y2K has come and gone without programmable garage door openers coming to life and crushing their owners, home automation should proceed apace.

Right now, home networking seems to mean being able to share the deskjet. A 1999 Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) survey of homes with networked computers found that 93 percent of them had the facility primarily to share a printer (www.ce.org). A full 70 percent set up a network to enable their computers to use the same Internet connection — and that's the practice that will lead us all into a glorious automated future.

It's the need for speed that will drive home automation — specifically, Internet access. The Strategis Group predicts that the number of U.S. households with Internet access will double from 49 million today to more than 90 million by 2004, and by 2005 the number of broadband (cable modem and DSL) residential Internet connections will outstrip dial-up access (www.strategisgroup.com). A recent survey of broadband users by Parks Associates found that connection speed was the most important factor in ordering broadband service (www.parks-associates.com). Once you've got broadband capability (and the speed and versatility that comes with it), the natural next step is linking your computers, televisions, music systems, Nannycams, printers, scanners, and every other digital device you haven't a clue how to use.

According to a Ucentric/Roper Starch online survey released in January 2001, people who already have broadband connections demonstrate a marked interest in networking home electronics (www.ucentric.com). Some 52 percent of respondents express a desire to make content available on any and every screen or speaker in their homes. Twenty-six percent of what Ucentric calls their “tech-savvy� respondents believes that home networks will simplify their family life — which just shows that “tech-savvy users� and “wishful thinkers� aren't mutually exclusive categories. Forty-two percent want to be able to access home security systems while away from home, and 46 percent wish to use the Internet to look in on their home cameras while away. This will no doubt prompt burglars to begin break-ins by stealing the security camera.

According to a 2000 RKS Research and Consulting survey, 19 percent of U.S. homes have more than one computer (www.rksresearch.com). And once those home computers and their peripherals are yakking, getting your appliances to do the same is the next move. The Yankee Group reported in 2000 that 37 percent of computer households want to control their heating and cooling systems through a home network, and 36 percent want to be able to control appliances from anywhere in the home (www.yankeegroup.com). Whether the latter would improve or detract from home life is debatable. How many brothers would be able to resist turning on the blender from the basement as their sister sneaks into the kitchen in the dark for a late-night snack?

What else do people want in an automated house? The 1999 CEA survey revealed that 63 percent of U.S. adults want lighting that turns itself on when someone approaches their home, 55 percent want to be warned as they leave home that an appliance hasn't been turned off, and 54 percent want to be able to play music throughout the house. Not exactly Jetsons material. And there are limits to what we want automation to do: While 43 percent were interested in appliances that announce when they need servicing, and 37 percent like those that could prepare shopping lists, a whopping 74 percent didn't want those same appliances to schedule servicing or do the shopping for them.

A 1997 CEA survey found that 67 percent wanted the lights to go on and off automatically while they were away on vacation, which indicates not just a fear of crime but distrust or contempt for the neighbors.

Despite the obvious current consumer interest in automation, the “smart house� is still a thing of the future, since most existing homes have stupid wiring — and there is, as yet, no industry standard for wiring new homes. They'd better hurry up, because the sequel to The Matrix is just around the corner.

In this article: