Networked home becomes a reality

A Japanese government-led team has completed construction of a network that connects all of the appliances and electronic devices in a rented home to showcase home networking technologies.

The house is the result of a three-year project started by Japan's Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (MPHPT) in 1999. The Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) was assigned to oversee the project.

Over the past year, JEITA has deployed 50 home networking applications in a rented home. Companies that participated in the project include Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., Hitachi Ltd., Sony Corp., and Sharp Corp., among others.

The rented JEITA house is a typical two-storey Japanese home, complete with a traditional Japanese tatami room, a living room and kitchen on the first floor and bedrooms and a study on the second floor. Visitors to the house quickly notice some not-so-typical features, however. At the front door, visitors are greeted by Sony Corp.'s pet robot Aibo. And from the living room, visitors can take turns watering the garden and feeding the dog outside, using a cell phone.

"Every device in the home, even a small light, has a private IP (Internet Protocol) address," said Yoshinori Sugihara, general manager of the Special Project Promotion Office of JEITA. "Technically speaking, the systems adopted here are fairly simple. While engineers might not be especially proud of them, we tried to build this house from the users' point of view."

Other features incorporated in the JEITA house include:

-- no keys are required to unlock the front door. Instead, the house relies on a fingerprint scanner to identify the person who wants to open the door. In a personal touch, the fingerprint data can also be sent to Aibo, which can perform a unique "welcome dance" to greet different members of the family.

-- no more waiting at home for the delivery of a parcel. A box for parcels is located just outside the front door. A family member can check on the arrival of package using a cell phone and open the box remotely.The box is able to recognize the identification of the delivery and issues a signed receipt to the deliverer.

-- everything from opening curtains to turning on lights or the air conditioner can be controlled from the plasma-display television in the living room using a single remote control.

-- the house never runs out of beer. When there are only three cans of beer left in the refrigerator, an e-mail order for more will be sent to a store. The house can also order more rice -- an important daily staple in Japan. A censor attached to a rice container detects when rice is running low and automatically orders a new bag via e-mail.

-- the garden is equipped with a cell phone-controlled system that waters plants and feeds pets, allowing family members to take care of plants and pets while away on vacation or out shopping.

-- for elderly family members, the house incorporates censors to monitor health conditions in a specially modified bed. When the censor detects something unusual, such as an irregular heartbeat or breathing cycle, it automatically sends a message to other family members' cell phones.

-- on the balcony, a clothesline monitors changes of weather. When it starts raining, it automatically pulls a covering sheet over clothes that have been hung out to dry.

-- each room in the house includes a hands-free speaker/microphone with voice-recognition capabilities that allows family members to stay in contact. For example, instead of a mother having to yell for the kids when dinner is ready, the system can make a phone call or send e-mail using a voice command.

-- the house can learn and adapt to the habits of each family member. For example, if one family member often goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night, the system is able to adapt to this habit. When the person gets up from bed, the house automatically warms up the toilet seat and lights up the way to the bathroom. The house will also turn the toilet-seat heater and lights off as the person is going back to the bedroom.

All of the home networking technologies that are incorporated in the JEITA house will soon be available commercially. The project team aimed to keep the cost of fully networking a home as low as ¥5 million [m] (US$37,450), Sugihara said.

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