Coming soon: the refrigerator that thinks

For the past year, labor-saving devices that provide remote-controlled household services have been available in Greece. Refrigerators that automatically check shopping requirements, a sofa that recognizes the person sitting down and adjusts itself accordingly, a coffee percolator that turns itself on just a few minutes before you wake up, a water heater that turns on at a signal from your mobile phone, a television with Internet access and a sound system that chooses music according to your mood. These are just some of the things that are currently available for the «smart» home. For years, many high-tech products were out of reach, but these days researchers and technicians are focusing more on technological developments that are more human-centered and solve a number of complex situations in the home. They include smart household appliances that take the initiative, smart furniture that is sensitive to its environment, security circuits that can be controlled from afar, and household appliances that pick up on your mood and act accordingly. In Greece, the Hellascom firm, owned by the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE), and other technology companies are already providing these services and products. The Greek version of the smart home provides the following: – a remote-controlled security system, operated by mobile telephone or laptop computer. – kitchen appliances linked to and controlled by means of a mobile screen incorporated into the refrigerator or some other appliance. – a refrigerator that reads product bar codes and compiles a shopping list accordingly. – a television, stereo and DVD linked to a network controlled from a central point. – curtains that open and close automatically and by remote control; the same applies to lights and air conditioning. – a television that is linked to the Internet and functions as a server for a music archive. – operational systems controlled by a central computer accessed by Internet from various points around the house. «The total number of services include a high-speed Internet infrastructure that can accept all these new services without difficulty,» said Giorgos Maniatis, Hellascom’s managing director. The cost of these pioneering services for a newly built home amounts to 2-4 percent of the total budget. «It is not a lot of money. If one chooses cheaper tiles for example, one can enjoy the comfort of a high-tech home. Soon these teleservices will become part of our lives, a necessity, irrespective of their cost,» he added. A smart home naturally calls for household appliances that can operate on a network, as well as wiring to enable communication between all individual appliances and the central control system. «Upgrading an existing home is technically possible, but usually creates too much upheaval for the residents, and of course it is more expensive,» said Maniatis. A guide to the leading researchers and anyone else inspired by the idea of a smart home is the inHaus project in Duisberg, Germany. This is a model home demonstrating all the new technologies that can add to the comfort of a modern household. The inHaus experiment, which could continue for five years, includes researchers from major electronic appliance companies around the world including Miele, Volkswagen and Sony. It is the only house that can automatically adjust the lighting according to whether it is time to go to bed, read or watch a film. «The goal of the experiment is to develop technology that will be aware of people and provide real help in the home,» said inHaus staff. Kathimerini was recently in Seoul to see another of these homes, Samsung’s «Home Vita,» basically a huge game machine that provides most of the abovementioned services. Kathimerini discovered that the appliances operated on a network and were controlled by a screen built into the refrigerator door; lights and air conditioning were operated by remote control and there was a central access control system. It also had a «family doctor,» a pioneering experimental appliance that can carry out a medical test at the touch of a button. Yet the innovation does not stop here. Other inventions include a paint for the exterior of houses that changes color according to the outside temperature, developed by Chinese researchers of the University of Shanghai. The paint can also cool the building in summer and maintain the temperature in winter, by absorbing solar radiation when the temperature goes below 20 degrees Celsius, but automatically reflecting the radiation in higher temperatures. In Britain a plan is under way to construct homes from a new type of compressed clay which has the ability to maintain temperatures and humidity inside the house, a hopeful prospect given that global warming appears to be a reality.