Author: Yogi Schulz

Computers and automation are about to change our home life experience. You may believe that teenagers, playing computer games incessantly, have already changed your home. I’m referring to cheaper hardware and more capable software that will invade our homes in an even more visible fashion. While similar predictions, which turned out to be false or at least premature, have been offered in the past, a number of recent developments suggest that the electronic revolution for the home is about to take off.

{Some sceptics may be convinced that these concepts are just for the techno-geeks among us. While the technically inclined are indeed the early adopters of home automation, I believe the benefits will have broad appeal.}  Consider these scenarios. Ever wonder what’s going on at home when you’re in the office?  Unsure what’s in your refrigerator to see if you need to go shopping on the way home?  Want to check if your children are home and ensure they’re not watching a movie that they shouldn’t be watching?  The home automation features now becoming available are addressing all these scenarios.

Advances in Technology

The advent of an economical wireless network for the home avoids costly and disruptive re-wiring. New low-cost, colour, touch-sensitive screens make individual room control units feasible. A new generation of cheap sensors and actuators makes appliances more sophisticated and affordable. Easy accessibility to the high-speed Internet offers remote access and enables required integration.

Chad Dueck, the production manager at Holmes Theater and Automation Ltd. in Calgary, says, “We’re seeing significant price reductions in home automation components. This trend will significantly widen adoption among homeowners.”  The beginnings of the revolution are already visible on the control panel of the microwave, the thermostat for the furnace and the alarm system.

I recently visited Microsoft’s vision of the automated home of the future. The home technology enriches our home experiences. At the Executive Briefing Centre in Redmond, Washington, Microsoft has built a series of concept rooms, furnished to look like a typical suburban home, to illustrate how automation can enrich our home life. Let’s take the tour.

Outside Front Door

At the front door, the doorbell is a graphic button on a touch screen as shown in Figure 1. I wonder how visitors will react if a screen saver greets them?  Anyone, who answers the doorbell at one of the room control panels or at a PC, will see the image of the visitor and can unlock the front door remotely from any room.

Front Hallway

The front hallway, like all rooms, has a wall-mounted control panel. The device is a standard Pocket PC, as shown in Figure 2, whose visible feature is a small, touch-sensitive color screen. The menu describes the house control capabilities for identifying a member of the family, viewing individual and family calendars, sending or receiving e-mail and for controlling aspects of the house like temperature, windows and blinds. All the control panels, appliances and PC’s in the house are linked together in a wireless network.

Family Room

The dominant feature of the family room is the entertainment center. It consists of a TV with cable and satellite channels, VCR and CD/DVD player as shown in Figure 3. {The TV offers the feature-rich Ultimate TV that can record two programs simultaneously and pause broadcast television so that the viewer can answer the telephone or deal with some other interruption. While the program is paused, the signal is being recorded on a disk drive in a set-top-box.}

Jeff Bowen, the Residential Systems Manager at Apex Audio Visual Services in Calgary, is eagerly anticipating the introduction these improved entertainment appliances to Canada. He likes personal video recorders like Ultimate TV which record programs based on the owner’s personal preferences.

All the devices are controlled through the TV remote. The TV displays a menu similar to the one offered on every room control panel. A small blinking triangle flashes when the microwave has finished cooking dinner.

{Near the window, a puzzlingly small, shiny, black grand piano plays soothing classical music as shown in Figure 7. A closer look reveals that it’s really an electronic music player camouflaged to look like a grand piano. It houses a touch screen in the music stand for selecting tracks of music from the Internet or a CD player below the keyboard.}


The kitchen, as shown in Figure 4, includes a microwave oven with a bar code scanner that reads the bar code on items to be cooked. The microwave then reaches out to the manufacturer’s Web site for cooking instructions. The homeowner simply places the food container in the microwave and pushes the Start button.

A flat monitor on the counter can be used to access the images of the video cameras from selected rooms or send a broadcast message that dinner is ready. The kitchen is fitted with microphones that convey verbal instructions to a voice recognition system. Like talking to Hal of 2001 fame, anyone can say: “Advance to the next track on the CD, please” and the music in the room will change.

Dining Room

A large flat-panel TV is prominently mounted on the wall of the dining room, as shown in Figure 5. The TV and a camera can be used for virtual dinner parties to include family members in multiple locations. When not in active use, the TV displays art from a library that the homeowner owns or has selected from an art gallery on the Web. With this device, the art on the wall never becomes stale or boring.

{Two Internet-connected digital picture frames sit on the buffet server. Their images are refreshed every half-hour by the Ceiva service that makes it possible for family and friends to send their photos to you for display.}

Child’s Bedroom

The desk beside the bed in the child’s bedroom houses a multi-media PC with large speakers and a CD Writer. In addition to providing entertainment and homework support, this PC can control the house functions that the child’s security profile allows.

Home Office

The home office contains a PC, printer and a scanner. A Web interface can be used to perform system administration functions such as defining the rights of a visitor who’s here for the weekend.

Entertainment Room

The entertainment room features a large, rear-projection screen, as shown in Figure 6. You can use the remote control to show available programs from the VCR, cable, satellite, DVD or the Web.

{A tablet PC is perched on its stand on the coffee table. It offers all the functionality of a desktop PC except that it uses a stylus instead of a mouse and a keyboard. It’s linked to the wireless network for access to home control functions and the Web. Tablet PC’s are wonderful for reading e-books, writing or just doodling while seated comfortably on the couch.}

We end our tour in the entertainment room, snuggled on the couch, dreaming of the possibilities. We’ll soon be able to buy similar devices at our favorite appliance store. Then we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy a movie while the appliances cook dinner, wash the dishes and help Johnny with his homework while foiling any burglar who may be lurking in the bushes.

Want to See More?

If you’d like to see home automation technology up close, visit the show homes in one of Calgary’s e-communities like Panorama Hills and Evergreen that are furnished with advanced appliances and pre-wired for high-speed access to the Web via DSL or Cable. The show homes in these communities demonstrate the state of the art in home automation today.

Learn more by surfing to these web sites:

Text for a possible side bar.

Complete system suppliers:

Apex Audio Visual Services –
Future Home Systems –
Holmes Theater and Automation Ltd. –
Home Director –
Interactive Media Systems, Inc. –

Industry Associations – educational resources:

Continental Automated Buildings Association –
Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA) – –
National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Research Center –
Home Automation & Networking Association (HANA) –

Trade Magazines – extensive product catalogues:

Electronic House –
Home Automation Magazine –

Products mentioned in this article:

Internet-Connected Digital Picture Frame –
Microsoft –
Pocket PC –
Tablet PC –
Ultimate TV –
Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) –
Van Koevering Piano –

Picture Captions – Recommended Pictures

File: MSHomePorch.tif  60 MB

Figure 1.

Description: View of the front door area. The touch screen for identifying yourself to unlock the front doors is on the right. The rectangle above the screen houses the video camera that makes the image of visitors available for viewing on all displays in the house. The small rectangle below the screen houses the microphone that makes it possible to converse with the visitor from any room in the house. A motion sensor turns on the two lamps.

Caption:  At the front door, visitors and members of the family can identify themselves. The image of all visitors can be viewed at any screen in the house. The front door can be remotely unlocked from any control panel or PC.

File: Compaq_Pocket_PC_on_Desk.jpg  362 KB

Figure 2.
Description: Compaq Pocket PC sitting in its cradle on a wooden desk.
Caption: The Pocket PC, with its touch screen, is used to control the appliances in the home.

File: MSHomeFamilyRoom.tif  60 MB

Figure 3.
Description: Angled view of family room with television at back together with DVD player, CD audio player and VHS video player located in wall unit. Picture of elk displayed on the screen.
Caption: The television in the family room can show programming from satellite, cable or video players or control the house from a web-based application. All functions are accessible from the remote control shown on the coffee table.

File: Digital Home Kitchen 01 MS_01_2000.tif  14 MB

Figure 4.
Description: Angled view of the kitchen showing the Web-enabled microwave, the refrigerator and the PC with touch-sensitive screen at extreme left. The other display is an Internet-attached device to display a changing set of images.
Caption: The kitchen offers a Web-enabled microwave that retrieves cooking instructions from the web site of the food manufacturer. The PC can control the home and run PC applications.

File: Digital Home Dining Room 01 MS_01_2000.tif  16 MB

Figure 5.
Description: Diagonal view of dining room showing large table, chairs lamps and flat panel television.
Caption: The flat panel television on the wall of the dining room shows the menu that can be used to control lighting, temperature or the TV channel playing.

File: MSHomeEntertainmentRoom.tif  60 MB

Figure 6.
Description: Slightly angled view of the large projection screen in the entertainment room. Three sofas arranged in U-shape. Great subdued lighting. Beautiful picture of a lake displayed on the screen. Large flower arrangement on coffee table.
Caption: The large projection screen can show television, VCR or DVD movies, control the house or act like a large screen PC. Its operation is controlled from the multi-function PC tablet lying on the coffee table.

File: Van_Koevering_Piano.gif  14 KB

Figure 7.
Caption: The Van Koevering Electronic Piano can play music from an internal CD or from a file downloaded from the entertainment centre.