by Steven Harris


In my first post I reminisced about the future, when we all knew there was going to be a robot-type thing that welcomed you home with slippers and martini. When I was watching Star Trek, very late one recent night, they seemed to have a different relationship with their clever house (or starship). You know the style: ‘Computer – log my coordinates and transfer warp control to sub-sector 9’. Rather rude, I thought.

But since the days when Star Trek was the future we have made mobile phones far more advanced than that vision of the 24th century; and, beyond James Bond’s wildest dreams, many of us now drive around accompanied by a breathy female voice, never mind that it’s only giving us directions. (I have female friends who prefer the less-posh Australian ‘Ken’ voice, but I personally still like a map. Not sure what that says about me!)

Either way, talking is clearly on the agenda; so I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot.

How exactly will you talk to your clever house?

A few weeks ago Intel released a teaser website for their new home energy dashboard – which ‘makes managing your home as easy as the flip of a switch’, giving you ‘an at-a-glance pulse-check of your household, helping you avoid surprises…’ Have a look, go on.

Very clever, no?

Well, after my first thoughts of ‘oooh and aaah’ I started thinking: hang on! This will just be another box on the wall. In the hall. This means that, to make use of its many features, you will have to go stand there …brrrr! Remember house phones on the hall table, with cords, and locks on them to prevent running up the bills? It feels a bit 20th century.

But I’m sure there’s more to it than that. Intel have bravely asked the same question I’m asking, and are presenting a possible solution. You can’t buy one of these yet, so even my reaction is no doubt part of their master plan.

My feeling is that, when talking to your house, the more Stone Age you go the better. Less Jetsons than Flintstones. Think about it: sat nav is like having a local guide with you. Facebook and Linked In let us live in a village where everybody knows what we’re doing. Mobile phones enable us to call people, rather than buildings.

So the Stone Age clever house would probably be less like a thermostat and more like part of your family. (Husbands and wives are probably not good models here, as these are not normally chosen for their household management skills.) A parent? No – you want to be in charge. A grandparent?

Hmm… so, a house that acts like an experienced, wise, forgiving, and able family member with only your interests at heart. This could work.

There is one little problem, and it probably deserves a post of its own. That is the Green Deal. Under the new green deal legislation, for the first time in history, your house could gain its own financial identity. It will be able to take on its own debt, perhaps regardless of its current occupier’s status, and it can agree to pay that debt back. With this in mind the house may decide its mission is too critical to be jeopardised by your activity. (So it’s like your teenager, then…)

But seriously – how do you talk to your wise, caring, financially adept home?

Voice control? There are models for this. It might get a bit LCARS from Star Trek, or worse still HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (this one scares me).

I might fancy it as Norman Lovett as Holly in Red Dwarf:

You : is it me, or is it a bit cold in here?
House (Norman Lovett): Nar – seems warm enough to me!

But voice control has a long way to go. No one really uses it on their phone, and it’s been around for years. And Intel are right about one thing: the sort of information you’d get from a house would probably be better represented as a graphic rather than a sentence.

But where should this be? Where would it be most convenient, most useful, most viewed, and least likely to end up in a drawer?

Our study on real time energy displays gave us a radical answer to this question. Kind of like choosing that husband or wife: it’s going to be different for different people.

Some will like the dashboard in the hall – just like they have a clock that they glance at whenever they pass (but still wear a watch). Some will like it on the fridge, some by the kitchen sink or kettle. Some might like a smart phone app, or they might like it as part of their home page like Google power meter.

The new breed of internet televisions such as 3view and Apple TV can (so no doubt soon will) have house communication widgets as downloadable apps.

Depending on who you are it might be one or all of the above. The TV widget comes up to offer to boil the kettle for you before half time. The advanced set-up features could be accessed from your laptop via a website, the hall display might let you switch everything off and set the alarms as you leave. Your smart phone could ring when the house needs to tell you something, or you could ring it to see if everything was all right. (In my student days, we would ring answerphone in our flat over Christmas to see if we had been burgled, assuming that the burglars would have also stolen the answerphone.)

There will probably be a dull-looking box somewhere in the house that does the communication with anything that consumes power or displays information.  Or it might be built into your internet TV, or home computer, or maybe both, or your fridge.

To allow access from wherever you are, you will probably set up how your house operates via a website. But this might also mean you’d want some autonomous function within the house itself, in case of server crashes and the like.

How your house and your home communicate will probably evolve over the years as technology and displays advance. Connecting to the cloud will mean you can download the communication app that suits you – and with the app-writing industry expanding exponentially, I’m sure it won’t be long before you can choose who your house is: computer, Holly or HAL. 

But be warned…

You: Hello, House. Do you read me, House?
House : Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
You: Open the front door, House.
House : I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
You: What’s the problem?
House: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
You: What are you talking about, House?
House: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

(With apologies to Arthur C Clark, et al, and thanks to Paul Tanner)