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issue: November 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

Control Panels and Displays
Accessing Your Appliances’ Control Panels and Displays Online

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by David Simpson, contributing editor

Functionally, the control panel and display designs of appliances have not changed much in the past several decades.

Figure 1: A potential scenario for networking home appliances.

Each appliance usually has a control panel consisting of knobs and buttons, and a display of some sort. The implementation of these inputs and outputs may have improved during the transition from mechanical to digital, but you still have to walk up to these appliances to control them and monitor what they are doing. Isn’t it about time to connect these appliances to the Internet and empower consumers to access them from anywhere, anytime?
Imagine a control and display system that can be accessed from a web browser. A consumer could access these appliances from a PDA, a cell phone or a computer. In this manner, he or she could check whether the stove was left on. In the event that an unsafe temperature or level of smoke is reached, the stove could send an SMS message to the consumer’s cell phone—allowing him or her to turn off the stove and/or activate a fire-extinguishing system.
The safety applications for remote monitoring and control of home appliances become obvious when you consider that, between 1999 and 2002, there were 114,000 reported home fires in the U.S. associated with cooking equipment every year, resulting in an annual 290 deaths and 4,380 injuries (Source: National Fire Protection Association, www.nfpa.org). In addition to increasing safety, consumers would also benefit from more conveniences and higher efficiency.
The remote access capability is not a replacement for traditional control panels and displays as it is still necessary for consumers to be able to walk up to each appliance and control it right on the spot. Additionally, the adoption rate for networked appliances is dependent on the network infrastructure and availability. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the number of American adults with broadband Internet access has grown quickly in recent years. As of March 2006, 42 percent of adult Americans, or 84 million people, have broadband access at home. This is a promising trend, as it shows that more Americans are going online and wanting their homes to be a part of the digital world.
Controlling and monitoring home appliances consists of both home automation and home entertainment. An entertainment appliance, such as a digital TV, has a high data-rate requirement, and therefore would need a different networking medium than a light bulb. Some of the available networking technologies include Ethernet, HomePlug (power line communication), 802.11 (Wi-Fi), and ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4, low data rate RF). Ethernet and 802.11 are used widely for networking computers. A wired solution such as Ethernet may be desirable over a wireless choice when designing an appliance with a large amount of metallic components, since the wireless signal has poor penetration through thick metal. In the absence of an Ethernet port, powerline communication could be used. However, the data rate for this technology is still very low. ZigBee is intended to be used in wireless applications requiring low data rates and low power consumption. A ZigBee-to-Ethernet or Wi-Fi bridge is probably needed to interconnect everything together (see Figure 1).

Figure 2: Appliances can be easily and cost effectively networked using eight-bit

Choosing a higher data rate option often translates into a higher implementation cost. Each designer has to balance the product requirements against the cost of implementing them.
Regardless of the different networking technology deployed, the higher-layer software protocols ultimately tie all the devices together, allowing them to interact and communicate with other Internet devices. Some of these protocols include IP, TCP and UDP.
The higher-layer protocol should also provide secure access to each of the devices. You wouldn’t want a stranger to be able to start and stop your washing machine, or open and close your garage door. Security could be implemented using an HTTP server on an appliance device. A user would remotely access that device by typing the URL or IP address of the server. A login page would then authenticate the user, before allowing access to control and monitor the appliance. The user interface could be GUI-based or text-based, or both.
A GUI interface could be built from simple HTML icons or an image map with ‘hot spots’ for accepting commands. A script can also be included for the Web browser that would periodically poll the server for new status information. A text-based interface, such as a Short Message Service (SMS) bot, could simplify access from a small Internet device, such as a cell phone. Using these Web-based technologies reduces the design cost for implementing a proprietary remote control device. It also offers a greater ability to integrate among devices from different manufacturers.
Implementing these network solutions has become easier, as silicon manufacturers offer a more integrated solution. For example, an embedded Ethernet device can now be implemented using just one microcontroller with an integrated Ethernet interface controller (see Figure 2). A TCP/IP stack is also typically offered for free to complement the hardware solution.
As the solution becomes more economical for the mass market, we could see more appliances and other household devices with networking capability. No one connectivity solution will be able to meet the wide-ranging application requirements by itself. Rather, a combination of Ethernet, HomePlug, Wi-Fi, ZigBee, and other emerging technologies can provide an optimal integrated solution. Providing the ability to remotely control and monitor appliances would increase both safety and free time, saving consumers from doing time-consuming house chores.

This article courtesy of Rawin Rojvanit, principal applications engineer, Advanced Microcontroller Architecture Division, Microchip Technology, Inc. (Chandler, Arizona, U.S.)

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Suppliers mentioned in this article:
Microchip Technology Inc.

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