Zach Beauvais

Smart stuff

Written by Zach Beauvais

Dec 8, 2008

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog:

I was listening to the Today Programme on Radio 4 the other morning, and heard that the vast majority of computers in the world are not part of PC’s. Most processors are thinking away in non-computer items like washing machines, cars, and mobile phones. OK, so this isn’t really that new, but the piece made some good points. I reckon if most people thought about it, they’d realise it’s not that surprising. Your watch has a little computer chip in it that you programme using an obscure ritual of holding down impossibly small buttons—if you don’t recognise this, it may be that you spend a lot on watches, and yours isn’t so much a processor as a series of cogs and springs doing the calculating. Your fridge “knows” when it’s too hot or cold, and your latest mobile is blatantly a little computer with a funny ring-tone.

Alongside this has been discussion, much of it stemming from Nokia (news), about pulling many of these computers together to do some more impressive processing for us. Nokia in particular wants to organise these computers by providing a platform on which people can interact from their mobile phones. So, you get a hugely customised data-set from your home and access to an open platform and so you can programmitacally access lots of these currently-isolated computing processes, right from your mobile handset. It’s pretty exciting, but I don’t understand the angles from much of the news coverage.

The Telegraph and the BBC coverage, for example, both tell this story as a really, super-cool system that lets you turn on your heating with your phone!

My reaction? “Whoah, no way! I can turn on my boiler without a match and that fear-for-your-life worry that I might have let too much gas out to get the pilot lit?”

It’s been dubbed “the stuff of science fiction,” but I can’t help wondering if the sci-fi stuff might be a bit more exciting than a remote-control for your boiler? If you think about home-heating for a moment, it’s not difficult to realise you already programmitacally interact with the system, and have for decades. The break-through came with the use of thermo-dynamic bi-metallic coils which expand one way when it’s warm and contract the other when it’s cooled down, tripping a switch. Adding this to a timer-switch, and you got a programme you can control for both time of day and ambient temperature. More and more sophisticated versions of this system have come out every year since the middle of the last century. When I was a teenager, my dad built our boiler system with about 10 different “zones” each with its own thermostat, and this was in a single-story ranch-style house in the middle of Colorado! Not even high-rise, exclusive, city technology really.

So, if the magic isn’t in the remote for the boiler, where is it?

Well, to me, the exciting stuff happens where you can connect all the different processes going on in your house, and getting… DATA! If these data are all accessible through the WWW, you have instant, personalised network-effect-enabled technology for your house. It’s Home 2.0 from here on out!

Why? Because you can suddenly interact with every feature of your personalised environment. Want to write a programme to help cut back on CO2? No problems, this app can let you choose how cold your food really needs to be, how hot your boiler needs to get, and which rooms don’t need to be warm at all times—and, it can tell you which appliances are using the most energy and compare them instantly with more cost and energy-efficient models. Have a higher-than-expected utility bill? Well, now the operator on the other end of the phone can get a real-time request from your own home metre telling them exactly what’s been used.

How about combining some of this with external datasets too? Why not have an anonymized “my street” view of CO2 emissions and maybe work out frost-traps in your community. Plot intruder-data from home security systems from an entire region? Get an accurate quotation from your geological location, current housing materials, and plumbing configurations as part of your plan to build an extension.

This is the stuff of science fiction (from the 1950’s, that is). Homes that can be programmed, data that can be used to make our habitat more efficient and comfortable. Saving money, saving emissions, etc.. All we need are the robot butlers to make us breakfast and press our twill trousers, and we’re set!

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