Welcome to the house of the future!

DN Staff

April 5, 1999

15 Min Read
Welcome to the house of the future!

Homes get networked

You find yourself working late and you're going to miss The Simpsons. What to do? Simply call up the on-line TV Guide from your office computer. Drag and drop the show onto the VCR icon, and you've instantly programmed your home VCR.

While you're at it, you can also set your thermostat and start the oven.

"The home of the future will be as connected as any office might be today," said Howard Stringer, chairman and CEO of Sony Corp. of America in his opening keynote at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "Whether wired or wireless, your home network will be the platform for dozens of consumer devices co-existing within the home."

Home networks link the devices in your home, such as two PCs or your television set with a security system, via a local-area network (LAN).

"This network capability has been possible for the last 20 years," says Bob Dillon, vice president and co-founder of Enikia (Piscataway, NJ), a start-up company developing an Ethernet-speed power-line home-network system. "But today, there is a sense of convergence. At its core: the Internet."

While many agree future homes will be networked, not everyone agrees in what form. Telephone lines, dedicated network wiring, cable, power-line communications, and infrared and radio-frequency wireless technology are all potential vehicles for connection.

Enikia chose the power-line and Ethernet method. Ethernet technology moves data over coaxial cable plugged into a hub or switch. "We've adapted the Ethernet system to the power line," Dillon says. "We took out the Ethernet chip in the hub and replaced it with our chip." The "hub" is a piece of hardware that resembles a power strip and supplies the network connection. Consumers plug their appliances into the Enikia strip and plug the strip into the wall socket. Once a network-ready appliance is plugged in, it can communicate with other networked devices via the Internet.

Engineers at Adaptive Networks Inc. (London, England) are also developing power-line communication technology. They embed silicon chips in each appliance connected to the power line. The chips transmit and receive data, making it possible to easily establish networks to communicate with everything plugged into the line.

Cooktops go infrared

No more rotary knobs or open stove tops--the brightest, shiniest kitchens in town will come equipped with electrical cooktops and infrared controls, where your finger will do the cooking.

Infrared controls are a big change in appliances, says Mike Schwert, engineer and manager of marketing at Cherry Electrical Products (Waukegan, IL). Conventional cooktops use electromechanical or capacitive control technologies. Capacitive switches rely on contact from a user's finger to activate the range's control electronics. However, these switches can be affected by liquid, grease, or dirt on top of the glass or accumulation of moisture under the cooktop.

Cherry's new control panel features an IR emitter and detector under each burner control. A light-emitting diode (LED) constantly emits a beam through the glass top. When your finger passes through the light, it reflects the beam over a sensor pair that resides in a patented light guide.

Each time you reflect the beam, a different cooktop function occurs, such as turning a burner on or off, or raising or lowering the heat. The stove automatically re-calibrates itself to adjust for ambient conditions, whether bright summer sun or low winter light. LED displays indicate the setting and diagnostic codes concerning internal conditions or problems.

Cherry engineers developed a spring-loaded pc board to eliminate air gaps between the emitter-detector pair and the underside of the glass. This provides more accurate and consistent detection by compensating for mechanical tolerances. Self-calibration circuitry eliminates the need for manual calibration by the cooktop manufacturer.

Speed-cooking oven comes to light

One thing that has suffered in today's "fast-paced" lifestyle is the quality of food, says Julie Wood of General Electric. So GE engineers focused on how they could reduce time spent in the kitchen. The result: a speed-cooking oven that cooks food four to five times faster than today's conventional ovens. For example, a 4-lb chicken will brown and cook in 18 to 20 minutes vs. the 1-hour cooking time today. A sirloin steak will cook in 7 minutes, crescent rolls in 4 minutes.

The oven cooks using light rather than radiant heat. A combination of infrared and visible light cooks the surface and inside of the food simultaneously. "This is the reason it's faster," says Wood. Traditional radiant heat cooks foods layer by layer.

Three 1,500W halogen lamps--two on top and one on the bottom--generate power. A microwave assist helps cook the interior of thick items.

"Cooking with light isn't new...but the method we're using is. Our strength is a preprogrammed algorithmic system," says Cathy Beisner, product manager/engineer.

Algorithms make cooking easier by offering users a list of choices. Preprogrammed settings adjust the upper and lower lamps to the proper temperature and time.

An oven, configured much like today's over-the-stove microwave, will be out in October this year. A built-in wall oven will be ready by 2000.

A finger interrupts continuous infrared emission on the Cherry Electrical Products' control panel and reflects the light over a sensor pair that controls a cooktop function.

A new twist to laundry

H-axis, or horizontal-loaded, washers are the buzz around laundry rooms these days. Popular in Europe due to tight energy restrictions, these washers use one-third the water that conventional top-loaded machines require. Clothes rotate in and out of a shallow pool of water via baffles and gravity.

"We offer the lowest-energy- consumption washers on the market," says Michael Marsollek, product manager of laundry for Bosch-Siemens (Broadview, IL). "We do this by precisely controlling the water level through sensor technology."

The patented Bosch system, Senso-tronic PlusTM, automatically adjusts for the load size, water temperature, amount of detergent, and balance.

After the initial water fill of 1.3 gal, the machine adds more water depending on the size of the wash. The load, or pressure, sensor determines the amount of water not absorbed by the clothes. Electronic controls digitally compare this value to the optimum water pressure and adjust the water level accordingly. "This way, you use only the amount of water you need," says Marsollek. "This saves energy because most of the power consumed in washing is used to heat water. Less water means less gas or electricity."

The temperature sensor precisely measures the water temperature at any point in the wash cycle. This, along with the machine's built-in heating element, heats and maintains the chosen temperature.

The pressure sensor, in concert with the motor synchronization control, assesses the degree of suds and adds an extra rinse cycle if necessary.

'Sensitive' drying

Sensor technology may soon fill your new drier, especially if it comes from Bosch-Siemens. Moisture and temperature sensors together with electronic controls determine when the clothes are dry and automatically turn the drier off.

"This is more precise than conventional methods that use moisture sensors mixed with mechanical sensors," says Bosch-Siemens' Marsollek. Conventional technology senses differences in the air temperature going into the dryer and that coming out. The higher the difference, the wetter the clothes.

In the Bosch system, the moisture sensors are always in contact with the clothes and measure electrical resistance. Because electricity travels well through anything wet, if the resistance is high, the machine knows the clothes are dry and will automatically shut the drier off. The Bosch drier saves energy as its system can detect dry clothes quicker than mechanical sensors, says Marsollek.

'Streaming' home entertainment

You're watching Monday Night Football on your TV and want to check out the statistics on the new Cleveland Browns expansion team. Use Motorola's StreamasterTM set-top box to check out the team's web site right on your TV screen while still watching the game.

Or maybe your spouse and daughter want to use the DVD player to watch Titanic in the bedroom, but the player is located in the living room. With Streamaster, everyone can watch what they want when they want.

Motorola's Streamaster set-top box can deliver movies, games, video conferencing, and other multimedia applications simultaneously throughout your home using several communication protocols. It is basically a decoder and converter for all audio, video, and graphical-based broadband signals, as well as a home theater.

Streamaster has three main components on a single PowerPC MPC860 motherboard: a network interface, a decoder, and a user interface. Communicating via the phone lines, Streamaster both transmits as well as receives data. It acts as a combination network computer and a bridge or router for distributing information.

Using propriety NUONTM technology from VM Labs (Mountain View, CA), the set-top box can receive any type of signal input, whether standard- or high-definition digital, DVD, or analog, and create a high-quality output for your television or computer.

Digital TV comes to the masses

The phrase "digital TV" has been knocked around for years. But what is digital TV (DTV)? Just a prettier picture? Yes, and more. It includes standard-definition TV (SDTV), a digital format that can put multiple programs on one channel with the sharpness and clarity of today's digital satellite or DVD products. It can also deliver high-definition TV (HDTV), providing five times the resolution of today's analog TVs, says Ray Burgess, corporate VP and general manager of the imaging and entertainment solutions at Motorola (Austin, TX). In either format, a DTV channel can also deliver data to the home at 10 times the speed of a modem.

In the hopes of making the transition to digital television painless and affordable, Motorola, in collaboration with Sarnoff Corp. (Princeton, NJ), developed a semiconductor solution--the MCT4000 Transport/Video Decoder. This chip converts digital signals to a signal the televisions in your house can understand. The MCT4000 is an Advanced Television Standards Committee (ATSC) transport/video processor for DTV. It can decode all 18 ATSC digital formats, including HDTV, and resize input to a conventional 480 line by 720 pixel SDTV output.

The companies also created a design for a low-cost, high-quality set-top box around the MCT4000, which they are licensing to TV and converter box manufacturers. So instead of replacing your analog television sets with HDTVs, all you have to do is go out and buy a set-top box. "This will accelerate the con-version to DTV," says Bill Mayweather, Sarnoff's managing director of IC systems, "because every analog TV in the world will be able to show high-quality DTV." However, the clarity of the picture will still be limited by the analog set's capabilities.

Move over VCRs

More than a million DVD (digital video disk) players were sold in 1998 alone, says Chris Walker, spokesperson for home electronics at Pioneer (Long Beach, CA).

To date, DVDs have been write-once, read-only disks. You couldn't record over them like you can with your VHS tapes and trusty VCR. But Pioneer took care of that with its prototype DVD-RW recorder.

Pioneer's rewriting method, known as phase-change recording, is similar to compact disk recording. A laser heats a disk made from a particular material and structure. The heat changes individual groove structures to record data. If the phase of the laser changes, the laser light hits the disk at a slightly different angle, changing the shape of the grooves.

There are many advantages to DVD technology, says Walker. You get broadcast-quality sound that is recorded digitally and read optically. The disk experiences no wear and tear, so the picture looks the same the 1,000th time you play it as it did the first.

Another plus, if you are taping a show from 10 to 11, but get home at 10:30, you can watch what the machine has already recorded while it finishes recording the rest of the show.

Pioneer expects to be selling the DVD recorder by the end of the year.

Watch HDTV on a BIG screen

You can watch your new HDTV tuner on your new 50-inch, plasma flat-panel display. It weighs 92 lbs and is less than four inches thick. The PDP-501MC from Pioneer has a maximum resolution of 1,280 x 768 pixels. The Pioneer display operates with all three HDTV tuners on the market today. It also works as an XGA computer monitor, DVD video display, and 3D gaming screen.

Look, Mom, no-hands vacuuming!

The Robot Vac from Eureka negotiates a room using sonar.

Detest vacuuming? You won't have to in your new house, thanks to the Eureka Robot Vac. Recently, the Eureka Co. (Chicago, IL) unveiled a 15-inch-diameter robot vacuum cleaner with a microprocessor brain and no cords or remote control.

The round disk operates on the same principle as bats--sonar. A radar system guides the vacuum around a room's irregular landscape. When the robot hits a wall, the vacuum works its way around the perimeter of a room. Once it completes a 360-degree circuit, the unit crosses and re-crosses the area in a random pattern. When in a corner, the robot rotates on its own axis and moves in another direction. If the sonar detects an object in the way, such as furniture or the cat, the robot stops, turns, and slowly moves around the object. A shock-absorbing bumper softens any contact with items left on the floor or electrical cords.

The little device comes equipped with a dust bag, brush nuzzle, and power supply. "For a long time I've had this vision of a robotic vacuum cleaner for ordinary people, living in ordinary homes," says Per Ljunggren, head of the team that developed the Robot Vac. "I wanted to take vacuum cleaning a bit further and develop a first-rate product."

The Robot Vac runs for about an hour before needing to recharge. It will be ready to go again in about two hours. Eureka won't schedule a production date until the company finishes gauging public response.

Automated lawn mowers

For those of us who do not enjoy mowing the lawn, relief is in sight. We can soon relax and let the SolarMowerTM from Husqvarna (Charlotte, NC) do the work for us. The new mower randomly nibbles away at the grass, a little bit at a time, from sunrise until sundown, seven days a week. Think of it as a mechanical goat.

The 11-inch-high, 43-inch-long, and almost 26-inch-wide machine relies on solar power cells, a built-in computer, and sensors for operation. A wire loop carrying a low current supplied by a discreet solar panel forms the boundary of the area to be cut. This electrical fence, much like the invisible fence that keeps family pets in the yard, protects flowers, bushes, and your neighbor's lawn. An electrical sensor in the mower detects the wire loop, which can be either buried or laid on top of the ground.

A mechanical detector tells the mower when it hits a solid object, such as a tree, rock, or your dog. After making contact, the machine backs up, turns as much as 180 degrees, then begins again in another direction. Engineers designed the mower to cut a 3,800-sq.-ft lawn every three days, depending on weather conditions.

The mower's shell and solar panels are a carbon-fiber composite designed for toughness and strength. Two wheel motors and a gearbox power a large drive wheel, which gives the mower a high degree of accessibility to uneven surfaces and clearance of foreign objects. The quiet, emission-free cutting machine has a continuously variable cutting height of 1.17 to 3.7 inches. When the unit contacts an area of longer grass, it automatically switches to a systematic pattern. Once finished, it returns to random movement.

The mower, developed at Husqvarna's world headquarters in Sweden, is currently available on a limited basis in Europe.

Website Exclusive -- Coming out this year

Although some of the devices in this article may be a few years away, there are some innovative items available soon in a store near you.

Philips Electronics has a satellite TV receiver that incorporates technology invented by TiVo. TiVo's Personal Television Service learns what kind of shows you like to watch and automatically records them. TiVo (check out their website at http://www.tivo.com) will be offering a receiver and service this month.

Replay Networks (at www.replaytv.com) is releasing a similar device within a few weeks that allows you create your own "channels" with your favorite shows. Both of these devices allow you to use your television like a VCR and pause the show when you have to answer the phone.

Hewlett-Packard is introducing a handheld scanner, the CapShare, that lets you store information and images by just swiping a scanner over the page. Send the info via infrared to your printer, PC or personal digital assistant.

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