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issue: April 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Digital Ambience

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by Tim Somheil, Editor

Every appliance—from the wringer washer to the microwave oven to HDTV—started out as a gadget before proving itself to be a useful addition to the home. What will it take for digital home control to prove itself in the same way?

On Location: APPLIANCE magazine traveled to Toronto, Ontario, Canada as a media sponsor of the Inaugural Canadian Summit on the Digital Home, Feb. 21-22, 2006.

APPLIANCE participated as a media sponsor of the Inaugural Canadian Summit on the Digital Home, where the attendee mix included digital service providers, consumer electronics and appliance OEMs, computer makers, digital systems integrators, and custom home builders.

Canada is an appropriate setting to take the pulse of the development of the digital home. More big screen TVs are purchased per capita in Canada than in any other country in the world, according to Summit sponsor Strategy Institute. A much higher percentage of Canadian households have broadband connections than in the U.S. In fact, Canada ranks first in the Americas and fifth in the world for broadband penetration.

This makes Canada a ripening market for the digital home industry. The Strategy Institute points to estimates from investment research firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. of a digital living room market generating more than $250 billion in new revenue in North American by 2008.

What OEM wouldn’t want to be a part of a market that will grow that big that fast? But growth will be limited in breadth. As discussed in this space in the February issue (APPLIANCE Line: Cautiously Connecting), there are huge challenges to be overcome before a truly digital home, encompassing all the equipment in the home, comes into being.

Step one is simply clarifying what will make up the digital home. Various terms are used—home automation, the connected home, the digital domain—and each reflects a different vision. Summit speakers and attendees provided glimpses of the different points of view that exist among those who will help build this home of the future. To some, the potential of home networking begins and ends with media.

Gary Sasaki is president of consulting firm Digdia and comes to the table with 30 years experience at Hewlett Packard. He sees Digital Living offering up Real Market opportunities and Gadget markets. A Real Market opportunity exists when a product’s purpose is obvious and important. The product must be convenient and easy to use, he believes, and must even be socially acceptable or “cool.” A Gadget is a product that solves a problem when there are already easier, traditional solutions. A gadget has a “cute” or mixed purpose.

“A Gadget is a product you buy to show off,” Sasaki said during his Summit presentation, “rather than a product you buy to solve a deep emotional need.”

Explosive home networking growth is being driven by digital entertainment, which clearly does satisfy an emotional need. Most forms of home automation do not satisfy this need. In fact, consumer perception of the smart home falls squarely into the Gadget category.

One of the most interesting comments at the Canadian Summit came from an attendee, a custom homebuilder who sees some home buyer interest in hard-wired home networks. “But,” he said, “our home buyers are more interested in hardwood floors and granite countertops.”

I can see their point. My wife and I had a new home built last year. We saw every one of our high-priced upgrade choices as a long-term commitment. In that state of mind, most buyers choose options that provide lasting value. Nobody wants a 30-year mortgage on a Gadget.

Changing the perception of home automation as Gadget may be the key to its ever developing into a product homeowners truly desire.

Tim Somheil is Editor of APPLIANCE magazine.

Invisible Intelligence

There are efforts underway to change this perception. One notable participant is Spain-based appliance producer Fagor Electrodomésticos, working as a part of the AMEC (Ambient Ecologies) project. AMEC’s goal is to foster Ambient Intelligence systems, described as interactive but almost invisible systems that are foreseen as being a part of everyday existence and the environment in future homes. Other AMEC participants include Philips Design (the Netherlands), Mobilera (Turkey), and several Spanish firms: the European Software Institute, Telefónica I+D, Institut Cerdá, Ikerlan, and Ibermática.

AMEC enables interaction with home systems using voice, movement, gestures, or images. Fagor’s Household Electrical Goods Division, working with Spanish technology research center Ikerlan-IK4, recently presented two AMEC technology prototypes at an event in the Netherlands. The 2006 goal for the companies is to integrate that technology into real systems applications.

AMEC is approaching home automation from the user perspective, and its development process is based on first understanding the user’s daily activities, thus creating a people-centered experience. It has all the same technical and standards obstacles to face, but AMEC represents a move in the right direction. It offers the intriguing concept of automation as a part of the environment of the home.

Home automation can shake off the Gadget label if it establishes itself as having an obvious and important purpose—as have all successful appliance categories. It can be successful if it dumps the gee whiz persona—inherently unfriendly in a family home—and becomes effortless to use and virtually invisible by hiding in the ambience of the home. It must convince customers it really is the easiest way to control any number of devices in the home.

That’s a lot to ask of an industry that hasn’t even figured itself out yet. There will, sooner or later, be a solution that satisfies those demands at a reasonable price point. Then new home buyers, and remodelers, will consider installing digital home elements just as seriously as they consider hardwood floors or granite countertops.


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