Articles and whitepapers
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 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
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.
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
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.
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
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.