The future of the networked home in Europe
Ask a technician and a philosopher, if there is a difference between a networked home and a home network, and you will get fundamentally different answers. The technician would say: “Yes, there is a difference: in a networked home all communicating equipment is fully connected internally and to the outside world, a home network connects this equipment physically”. The philosopher might reply: “I don’t know what a home network is, but in a networked home the people living in the home have close social links between each other and with many other people outside the home”.
These two answers show that the “networked home” has various aspects. There is a technological and a human aspect of networking in a home. The technological aspects reach from physical cabling to applications and terminals. All those aspects are complementary, and the human aspects are crucial. After all, the main goal of communication networks is to bring people closer together, even if they are physically separated. This is one of the main research goals of the ongoing research project TA2 – Together Anywhere, Anytime (www.ta2-project.eu).
The evolution of home networking
Traditionally, homes have been wired for power, telephones and a doorbell; later cable TV outlets were added. As far as personal communication is concerned, home networking started with in-house telephone systems many decades ago. From the mid 1980s, cordless phones, later standardised by ETSI as DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications), allowed to make in-house telephone systems wireless. The breakthrough for in-house data communication was achieved with the Wireless LAN technology; the first mass market W-LAN routers affordable for private households became available around the end of the 90s. Only few early adopter homes had wired Local Area Networks before wireless routers made it to the mass market.
After many years of dedicated home network technologies, the issue is now very high on the agenda in connection with the Future Internet activities. The ultimate vision is that everything in a house gets networking capabilities and can be connected in an intelligent way to form a fully interoperable networked home. A possible scenario for illustration: the fridge will check the expiry date of the milk, warn the housewife and propose a recipe of a cake where the expiring milk can be used up. All information related to this scenario can be shown on any of the screens distributed in a house, given out verbally at any of the loudspeakers in the house, or sent to the mobile phone of any of the family members. If the recipient of the message agrees with the recipe she can switch on the oven remotely so it is already hot when she arrives at the home. Whilst watching how the dough maker is preparing the dough, she can listen to music played from the music store in the central computer or listen to her latest e-mail messages received from the Internet.
The road to the vision is rocky
Until there is a fully interoperable intelligent networked home, we will have a long way to go. So far, only a few computer enthusiasts have installed in their homes multimedia PC based networks which allow them to control, distribute and store music, photos and videos on any appropriate networked device in their homes. This is likely to change in the near future, due to projects like ALPHA (www.ict-alpha.eu) and OMEGA (www.ict-omega.eu), which will solve important technological issues for the performance, integration, and management of heterogeneous access networks in the home.
Interconnected home entertainment is currently one of the main emerging trends. The first non-proprietary home entertainment systems with full networking capabilities are just approaching the mass market. No matter whether flat TVs from Philips, HiFi equipment from Denon, mobile phones from Nokia, any of this equipment will be able to interconnect and talk to each other nearly automatically. The physical network enabling this is typically Ethernet, either via cable or wireless. Sony expects that by 2010 more than 90% of their consumer electronic equipment will have networking capabilities.
The problem for the users is that they have to replace nearly all their existing equipment if they want to participate in this new world – at least, this is how it appears now; maybe we will see clever solutions for the easy integration of legacy entertainment devices in future home networks. Although this might not immediately please manufacturers like Thomson, Philips, Sony, and other major players, it might pave the way to broad take-up of online entertainment services for the connected home.
Usability, security and privacy, affordability
In addition to technological solutions and a choice of interesting services, more will be needed to make home networking a success on the mass market. As the example of the iPod has shown in the area of digital music, it is not sufficient to just have a technologically mature solution, you also need devices and services that offer an extremely high usability in order to attract non-geeks, who are still the majority of potential customers.
In addition, home networking solutions need to provide simple but effective and transparent mechanisms for ensuring a high level of security and privacy. Even users who are not very computer-literate should be able to manage a secure home network on plug-and-play basis. On top of it, all of this has to be affordable, particularly in times, when household budgets are tight anyway.
Does this sound challenging? Yes, it is. But it is a challenge that we are sure, European research and industry can master – this time hopefully in a way that the major exploitation of leading-edge research results is done by European players. The European Networked and Electronic Media Technology Technology already provides the conceptual via its Strategic Research Agenda for enabling this. It remains to be soon how the concepts and R&D results will be translated into market innovation.
Please send us your comments on this article.