In the late ’90’s, with the popularity of Microsoft reaching an asymptote, Bill Gates invited the average home automation enthusiast into his home to view, what he believed, would be the wave of the future. He presented a total home automation package, not unlike Star Trek.
Since then, the demand for home automation devices is increasing rapidly. Consumers are beginning to appreciate the advantages provided by advanced home automation solutions and increasingly are calling on builders to incorporate “smart-home” technologies into their homes and workplaces. The benefits of energy efficiency, security, and precise environmental control are becoming mainstays of leading-edge construction projects.
Strangely, while being a mature technology, home automation technologies have yet to achieve their promised ubiquity. This begs the question: if the demand for home automation is increasing, why are these technologies not standard in all new construction projects?
The answer, unfortunately, appears to be that many manufacturers continue to view the home automation market in terms of a service industry, forcing consumers to select a manufacturer to provide a homogenous end-to-end solution. While there are a number of after-market solutions, these largely remain novelties and are of only limited value to home automation enthusiast. Before the market can begin to realize its full potential, manufacturers need to understand and embrace a business model wherein their devices, like standardized PC components, are merely nodes in a larger heterogeneous home automation solution.
Individuals such as Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Bits and Atoms(1), recognizes the need for this paradigm shift; that’s one of the reasons why he and his team are working to develop inexpensive, standardized devices. Such devices could help reduce the total cost of ownership by reducing not only the initial construction and installation costs, but also the maintenance and management costs as well.
While inexpensive, standard devices are necessary; they represent only half of the equation. Current embedded control system interfaces are inadequate for mass consumer applications. Fundamentally lacking is a standardized and intuitive control system interface. Initially this is a good design decision however the consumer is still left without a good choice and still has to wrestle with issues such as which home automation hardware do I use and subsequently which interface do I use. The dilemma still remains how do I build the home automation system the meets my needs? This is, in our opinion, the single most restrictive factor retarding the wide-spread adoption of advanced home automation technologies.
Because of the exponential increase in computational power, the personal computer has emerged as the de facto standard platform for control systems. Regrettably, this has not yet eliminated the problem of proprietary, cumbersome control system interfaces; it has simply transferred the problem to the application-software domain. Fortunately, this also allows the considerable accumulation of software engineering and human-computer interaction (HCI) research to be brought to bear upon the problem and advance the control system interface.
HCI research has resulted in a variety of control system interfaces being developed. Often each of them developed only for a specific protocol or standard which still leaves the compatibility issues unaddressed. However these hardware issues can be solved with a software solution. This solution puts new demands on the control system interface. The need is now there for an interface that can control multiple hardware protocols and standards rather then one specific one.
This is not a simple problem to solve. The development effort to create an interface that supports each protocol is extremely large. However the alternative to creating an all encompassing interface is to create a pluggable interface. Developing a pluggable interface allows the software manufacture to quickly tie into existing protocols and standards and with time adopt these standards and protocols into their own project.
The second major battle is the actual HCI interface design is what should it look like and how should it function? The age-old look-and-feel questions now become a significant issue as various software vendors wrestle with these questions as they develop more and more sophisticated systems. Some of these interfaces are to the point where the end user can no longer easily interact with the software.
Typically HCI interfaces have been confined to the 2D environment. New initiatives are now exploring the 3D realm. Many universities and industry leaders are exploring new HCI concepts. The University of Alberta which recently hosted the Man & Machine Forum (2) has explored a variety of virtual environments that can be used for HCI. The virtual environment provides many features that the end user can leverage to their advantage including being easy to learn; the ability to model their own environment; and interact with home automation devices. The ability to model their own environment and map the virtual 3D objects to real world devices allowing them to spatially recognize what it is they want to do.
One current project that explores both the pluggable interface as well as the virtual environment is RealDesk?. (3) RealDesk? blends the traditional control system interface with the world of virtual reality. The end user can easily link existing interfaces to 3D objects in their virtual environments. RealDesk? is also compatible with a variety of protocols and is on the fore front of interfacing with the latest technologies.
(1) Neil Gershenfeld project can be found at http://www.media.mit.edu/physics/projects/IP/bldg/bi/
(2) The Man & Machine Forum can be found at www.ualberta.ca/ict
(3) More information about RealDesk can be found at www.realdesk.com
Jeremy Teeuwsen is the technology manager for Bay Equities Inc. with experience in software management, design, and development with a focus on 3D user interfaces and java technologies. Mr. Teeuwsen has a desire to see a unified user interface for home automation devices and has recently given a presentation on 3D interfaces during the Man & Machine forum at the new Advanced Man Machine Interface (AMMI) Laboratory at the University of Alberta,
Joe Robinson is a Senior Software Developer for BEQ Technologies Inc. with experience in information security and embedded systems development. Mr. Robinson would like to see the emergence of a robust, secure, and open standard for home automation. Mr. Robinson is an Alberta Society of Engineering Technologists (ASET) Certified Engineering Technologist (CET).