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Networking Home Appliances

By Andrew Mullen

Two of the major phrases that have been used around the electronics industry over recent years have been home networking and convergent technology. Although there are distinct differences between the two, in the minds of the consumer, they have the same meaning. Views on what these new concepts mean are confused, particularly in the area of convergence, and there is an expectation that this will lead to a range of very different technologies.

Experience shows that the mass-market of consumers will not adopt technologies that take them outside the scope of products they fully understand. The consumer is wary of investing in a new technology product that may not have a long-term future, and history is littered with formats that have launched and then vanished without trace.

The compact disc is a good example of convergent technology. Although its initial take-up was slow, once it became established, the basic concept could be expanded. The same software is now used to hold data for audio (CD), video (DVD) and data (CDROM). The take-up of DVD was much faster, because the consumer was already familiar with the concept of the 12cm silver disc, and many products can now cope with two or all of the above formats. This in essence, is convergence - taking technologies that consumers understand and bringing them together.

Networking Options

Networking the home uses the same basic principles as convergence, but in a much more interactive way. Much like convergence, the basic ingredients for home networking already exist in the home, and include electricity supplies, multiple phone points, and in many cases, video distribution via RF for multiple televisions. Wireless networking also exists via DECT telephones and the mobile phone that has taken over our lives. The question is how do we converge these technologies to make a home network, what form should this take and how does this benefit the consumer?

In terms of how we do it, a number of options are available. A few years ago, I spent many hours talking to house builders about cabling homes for networking. Installation of CAT 5 is achievable in new homes, even if there is still an issue on where to put sockets, but the majority of homes would require retro fit, and this is simply not economical. Therefore, in order to network homes, existing cabling or wireless technologies must be used. Using the ring main has been looked at, but X10 has never proved itself, probably because of the applications considered. Blue tooth has been claimed to be the wireless technology that will make home networking a reality, but there are alternatives in IEEE802.11 and DECT.

In reality, a number of networks will exist within the home. These satellite networks will interact with the other products in its group, but will not necessarily communicate with other networks. It is entirely possible to make the TV communicate with the toaster, but the benefits of being able to do this are not obvious. In the commercial environment, wireless technology in the form of IEEE802.11 has become established for wireless computer networks, but this does not easily translate to the home environment, since multiple PC ownership is not really a consumer problem. In the consumer market, there are two major areas to consider: the AV area and domestic appliances.

Networkable Domestic Appliances

The domestic appliance market is the first area where major advances have been made in terms of networking. Although LG Electronics was the first to launch such products, a number of other manufacturers have demonstrated samples and are also preparing to launch appliances. Within the LG range is a fridge/freezer, microwave, washing machine and air conditioning unit. The fridge is used as the hub and in effect, the server, since it has a large surface (the door), where the screen, used to control the network, is situated, and it is the product that is always on.

Networkable fridge/freezer

The fridge communicates with the other products in the group via power line. Rather than X10, a proprietary protocol known as LNCP has been developed. This uses 150kHz and 350kHz frequencies for communication between the appliances. It is possible to use such low data rates since only simple commands such as on/off or simple bits of programming are transferred between the units. Obviously wireless technology could have been used, but it simply was not necessary.

Benefits to the Customer

The fridge is another example of convergent technology. Many people have TV, music, calendar and recipe books in the kitchen. All these are built into the fridge, not only saving workspace, but also allowing more features. For example, since the kitchen is now accepted as the room where the family gathers, messages for other members of the family need not just be written on a scrap of paper and stuck on the fridge with a fridge magnet, but can be written or drawn on the screen, or videoed. Recipes can be downloaded from a website and can also programme the microwave with the correct cooking cycle.

The fridge also connects to the outside world via DSL. There is a growth in Internet grocery shopping, but people use this service by going around the kitchen and writing a list, and then going to a separate room where the PC is located to place the order. By having web access in the kitchen and a touchscreen, as well as a product that knows what is in the fridge and what you have run out of, the shopping becomes much easier. Remote access also allows you to access your fridge as you leave the office, see if you need to pick up milk on the way home, start the washing and set the air conditioning so that the house is at the right temperature by the time you get home.

Future Developments

The aforementioned networkable appliances are already on the market, but there is still room to expand them. The fridge PC uses an active desktop running on Windows 98, making it easier for other suppliers to add software to give other features. However, a partitioned, write-protected hard drive prevents the user from downloading their own software, and is specifically designed to be icon-driven and easy to use. A barcode scanner will be added to make it easier to record the stored food and produce the shopping list, and negotiations are underway with other service suppliers to see what other desirable features, such as security, could be added.

TV and video products will follow this trend. Digital TV already has an interactive element, and this will expand. Digital TV also exists in the MPEG domain, as do digital cameras, DVD and PC video, making convergence and networking much easier. Hard drive PVR is already available, as is recordable DVD, and broadband allows for video streaming for video-on-demand (VOD). The technology has converged, but now we need to network it. To do this, web pads are being developed, and for remote access, UMTS will play a key part.

For the future, the vision is of screens around the house that provide PC, Internet TV/ VOD, music and interactivity. These will all be fed from a central DSL server in the home and will be controlled by a web pad or 3G mobile. Work is also being carried out on intuitive systems that learn your individual heating and lighting preferences -perhaps even switching on the bedside lamp or open the curtains when you get up, or switching on a desk lamp when the phone rings. The development is underway now, and the reality is not that far away!

Andrew Mullen is Technical Product Manager for LG Electronics UK Ltd. LG Electronics is a global manufacturer of consumer and IT electronics products based in Seoul, South Korea.

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