Home of tomorrow

Robots that look after both children and pets, and intelligent furniture that knows our schedule and monitors our health – the digital revolution doesn’t stop at the front door.

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Smart Homes are the future. (Picture: DEKRA)

Built by Aldebaran Robotics for the Japanese market, the robot “Pepper” welcomes, chats with, and provides information to customers – all in a friendly and conversational tone. Its creators, however, have loftier ambitions. In Japan’s rapidly ageing population, the purpose of this humanoid computer is to supervise, entertain and automatically seek help in emergencies. Whilst Pepper is obviously a machine, Toshiba is looking to go one step further with their robotic companion – Chihira Kanae. Her inner workings are concealed by a realistic human shell of silicon skin and real hair. She recently appeared as a hostess at the travel trade show “ITB Berlin”. Even today, robots vacuum our floors and mow our lawns. The future could see them preparing meals with fresh ingredients, ready for when we arrive home – enabling us to eat healthily despite stress, finally banishing the frozen pizza. Sereniti Kitchens has collected the capital necessary to develop such a maching – their robot chef “Cooki”.

Artificial intelligence is growing

Somewhat less futuristic are electronically controlled windows and blinds, which use sensors to detect rain and wind to open and close themselves without human input. Whether it be automatic heating controls, alarm technology, or atmospheric lighting that changes according to time of day and season, “smart” networked technology is flooding into our homes and cars. The phrase on the lips of all producers and engineers nowadays is the “Internet of Things”. This has implications for the home of the future too. A well known example is the fridge with internal cameras, which allows the owner to view what they need at the supermarket straight from their smartphone. The next generation will even be able to order top-ups online automatically.

The connection between smart home technology and intelligent mobility is another area of current focus. Networked cars could conceivably report traffic on the daily commute to the driver via the bathroom mirror as they brush their teeth. BMW revealed such a concept in early 2016 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Manufacturers demonstrated how cars and homes could cooperate in the future. An intelligent mirror acts could act as a display, compiling and presenting relevant information including the day’s agenda to the user. The “Mobility Mirror” could display appointments, tasks, and further information tailored to the user. It could also act as a control panel for technology across the home. The Open Mobility Cloud could, for example, connect with the BMW i3, thereby connecting mobility and life in a smart home.

Only time will tell whether such a vision of the future is attractive enough to be adopted by the consumer. One thing is for sure – this fascinating vision is available today, or will be in the near future. An example can be found in house B10 of Stuttgart’s Bauhaus-inspired Weissenhofsiedlung. Created in 2014 by a consortium under the direction of architect Werner Sobek, the house features a plethora of intelligent systems, including solutions for energy generation and storage, as well as a charging station for an electric car. Furthermore, the project is entirely sustainable; the building materials used in its construction are 100% recyclable.

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Room and water temperature sensors provide more comfort in the bathroom. (Picture: DEKRA)

So what are we waiting for?

If, in 2016, such a comfortable and low-stress life is possible, why are people not raiding stores and kitting their homes out with all the technology they can carry? Well, there’s one simple reason: some things are just too expensive for the general population. However, as Pepper has shown, many technologies are becoming increasingly affordable. A further stumbling block is that many firms are working on their own insular solutions. After all, it isn’t just automotive companies that wish to build technology empires. Corporations such as Apple and Google are also investing in self-driving cars, as well as technology for smart homes. This has been demonstrated by the high-profile acquisitions of “HomeKit” and “Nest”. They want users to use their products and services and noone else’s. It remains to be seen whether customers will be willing to invest in and tie themselves to such proprietary systems. Open interfaces would certainly accelerate the rate of development. This goes for both the automotive sector – where car-to-car and car-to-x communication requires standardised systems – and the smart home industry in equal measure.

Here too is an opportunity for robots to prove their worth. A Kickstarter project called the “Autonomous Personal Robot” recently sought funds to develop a home assistant, fully kitted out with cameras and environmental sensors. In addition to WiFi and Bluetooth, it would also comply with Z-Wave and Zigbee radio standards – widely used in smart building control.

The Allseen Alliance – initiated by mobile communications chip producer Qualcomm – was founded in 2013 with the goal of creating a network protocol for all different types of device, regardless of manufacturer. More recently, the Linux Foundation launched Project Zephyr, which should give birth to an open kernel for devices in the Internet of Things. The kernel will have modest hardware requirements and be optimized for device control.

The security of said systems is also of great importance, whether four-wheeled or four-walled. Over five years ago, teams of the University of California in San Diego and Washington State University in Seattle (united in the Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security) demonstrated how it was possible to take control of cars remotely. The combination of the sat-nav and mobile network connection provided an attractive point for the researchers to attack. They discovered a loophole which could be exploited to take complete control of the car via the GSM network. They were also able to use the hands-free system and sat-nav of the Chevrolet Impala – the car selected as target of the experiment – as a listening device and movement tracker.

There have been similar reports of loopholes in intelligent building controls. In some instances, the systems were as open as the proverbial barn door, in others user error was to blame. Hackers would have been able to carry out far more than mere pranks – there was potential for serious damage. Just like computers connected to the Internet, networked homes also require an effective firewall.

Despite all this, the attraction of the comfort that technology can afford remains strong. Individual needs and wallets will determine who will end up sleeping in a smart bed – measuring blood pressure, body fat, pulse, breathing rate and other data, and storing it in the Cloud. Of course, not every household requires appliances with voice recognition or heads-up display units. Nevertheless, the home comforts that the digital revolution promises offer to make up for all the stress it may cause in the workplace. The stress, perhaps, of making all this new comfort technology secure…

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