The Wired Home
By David Walker (Google profile)
We own what I suppose is a "wired" home. Yet the technology in our house is modest by comparison with what people expect a "wired" home to be. Getting useful home technology without spending the price of a new car means accepting some compromises, while waiting for the gadgets to improve.
The first step to a "wired" home, data cabling, can be simple. Renovating a couple of years ago, my wife and I asked the builder to run high-capacity computer cable to every main room. No problem. The same "10/100 Ethernet" computer cable that's in our walls has been threaded through every large office in the world over the past few years, costs less than 50 cents a metre, and can be easily installed by most electricians.
Rigging your home this way lets you plug in a computer anywhere in the house and use files from a central server - an always-on computer whose hard disk can contain all the files that you work on, all your digital photographs and video, and MP3 versions of all the CDs you've ever bought, plus hard-disk versions of your DVDs. (You can then back up files from this server so you never lose anything.) You can also print documents to a central printer, and share a single full-time broadband Internet connection. The whole set-up can run with standard Windows 2000 and XP software, though anyone uncertain about configuring computer settings would best seek out a technically-literate friend before trying it. You can also add wireless networking, which will let you use laptop computers to do all this without plugging them in to anything - a handy option for anyone not relishing putting a bunch of cables in their walls.
To any true home automation enthusiast, this "home network" is more Neighbours than Star Trek. We still turn on the lights with little plastic switches attached to the walls. The heating runs off a thermostat. We turn on the air conditioning when we feel too hot. The doors open with keys, not PIN numbers or thumbprint scans. We water the garden with a hose, not a computer-controlled sprinkler system.
A true home automation enthusiast would find their way to somewhere like Camberwell's Tivoli Hi-Fi, where they can install systems to turn up the temperature 10 minutes before you're due to arrive home, and dim the lights on schedule at 11pm each night. But you need to be fairly strongly attracted to the idea of the wired home to buy one of these set-ups. For one version of home automation sold by Tivoli, just the full installation of controls for lighting, heating, sound and vision will leave you with no change from $10,000. After that you'll want speakers, amplifiers, screens - say, another $10,000 or more.
This wouldn't work in our home, and here's why. Reason one: we don't have $20,000 spare. Reason two: "Um, honey, you know that holiday we were going to take ... I, er, thought we'd buy computerised light switches instead ... honey? Hey! Ouch!"
Which brings us to the third and most significant reason: most people don't want most of today's home automation gear. Light switches, for instance, already work fine just as they are. The Orange telephone group found this out when they built a "wired home of the future" outside London a few years ago. When test families lived in the house, its voice-activated lighting, automated heating systems, remote-controlled washing machines and Internet-enabled fridge actually annoyed them. In Orange's improved version, you turn the lights on with a switch, just like in most houses.
What did excite the people in that Orange house of the future was instant access to media - to the Internet, to DVDs, to music. A home computer network gives you that. The four-year-old can watch "Monsters Inc" without taking it out of the box and leaving it around for the puppy to chew. The eight-year-old can see her photo album whenever she wants. Dad can listen to Aretha or Avril without hunting around for the CD.
But wouldn't it be nice to do all this using the TV and the stereo, rather than just the computers? Can't we make the computers talk to them?
Surprisingly, not quite yet. Several devices designed to link PC networks with audio-visual gear have arrived on the US market and should eventually make their way to Australia. Or you can put a small, quiet computer next to your stereo system, plug that into the network, and then link the computer to the stereo or TV. Put a computer screen on top of the set-up, and you'll be able to browse your music files as well.
But if the home automation crowd exact a high dollar price, this sort of computing solution adds extra complication. My stereo just works. Computers, on the other hand, tend to misbehave.
In other words, technology has solved the problem no-one wants to fix. You can today replace your light switches with fancier, more expensive technology. But the same industry is still groping towards an answer to the problem that people actually want solved: play all our songs and pictures for less than $10,000, and don't drive us crazy in the process.
What you'll need, and what you won't
"Wired" homes will actually tend to have fewer and fewer wires over time. The first to disappear: phone wires. Wireless DECT phones allow half a dozen phones to run off a single connection, and give you an intercom to boot.
One thing you will need is more power points - a dozen or more in many rooms. Those DECT phones each need one, and so does every other new gadget: mobile phone chargers, printers, scanners, PCs, screens, camera chargers, and more.
How a home computer network works
At one end of the network, each cable is fitted to a wall panel that looks much like your house's standard phone jacks. At the other end, after running through the walls and under the house, all the cables come together in what technical people call a "patch panel". (The patch panel looks much like your house's standard phone jack would if it got seven of its friends around for a party.) From the patch panel, little blue cords run into a small box of circuitry which is connected both to the house's broadband Internet connection and to a central server.