Heating up

Hi house, how are you doing? We are seeing a growing number of initiatives that aim to promote home automation using natural language voice technology rather than buttons or keyboards as the user interface.

This is an exciting development although, let’s face it, past attempts to promote connected homes have not made much impact beyond a few showcase projects.

The enticing vision of homes full of interconnected appliances and gadgets is now moving much closer to reality and natural language is the missing ingredient which will make it happen, I believe.

In October, Amsterdam will host the Smart Homes 2012 convention, which over the past three years has tracked the evolution of smart home technology from EU-led trials to real deployments. Trailblazers such as RWE and T-Systems argue that today there is a business case for smart homes and the market is now taking off.

RWE, Germany’s second largest utility, last year launched its SmartHome range of home automation devices. It includes a €379 energy-saving starter package that lets consumers control radiator thermostats remotely using special wireless switches and a central control unit.

The control unit is connected to a router, so it can also be controlled via the internet — you could reprogram the heating remotely from your smartphone for example.

The approach promoted by RWE is much simpler than that promoted by traditional IT vendors such as Microsoft, which typically require a substantial investment in hardware and networking gear to create a “smart home”.

And using wireless rather than wired connections is a huge advance over past connected home initiatives, which required the installation of lots of cabling. But are these advances going to be enough?

A large part of the reason why the smart homes are still relatively rare is, I feel, down to the user interface.

Let’s take a typical example — you want to reprogram the heating because you will be back late this evening. In most homes, you do that by pressing a button on a wall-mounted thermostat just as you are about to leave the house.

The thermostat’s user interface is usually far from intuitive, but once you mastered the operation, it’s relatively quick and simple to repeat.

Now let’s try the same operation in a typical “smart home”, which has a home server controlling the heating.

Before shutting the door, you have to go upstairs to the home office, start up the PC, access the heating control application and click through various screens to reprogram the start time. Meanwhile, your partner has got the car waiting outside and is wondering why you are taking so long.

Given a choice, I’d opt for the old-fashioned manual programming every time. The PC was not designed for home automation – it is clear that the simplest way to do humdrum tasks like control the lights or heating is using your voice instead of keyboards, keypads and control panels.

If the smart home can understand natural language voice commands — so eliminating the need to memorize a limited set of key words and phrases — voice technology is much more likely to succeed.

This is one of the many possible consumer applications of natural language interaction that Artificial Solutions is targeting and, as a sure sign that the smart home market is heating up, there are several other less well-known contenders. Take for example, iSpeech, a US start-up, which recently introduced a voice command “platform” specifically for the connected home.

When start-ups decide to focus their attentions on a new technology, it is usually a sign that the market is poised to grow rapidly.

Then of course, we have the 800-pound gorillas of consumer electronics, Apple, which is rumored to be looking at using Siri to control TVs. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has its own Smart Home vision.

While the smart home has been a long time coming, the growing activity in this area centered on natural language interfaces suggests that those who want to give orders to their TV — or refrigerator — will not have much longer to wait.

More on RWE’s SmartHome technology here.

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