Housework takes on new meaning

American musician/spoken word artist Jello Biafra once quipped, “Give me convenience or give me death.” While the latter is undoubtedly coming someday, the former is almost here.

Convenience at home takes on a whole new meaning for future home owners, provided their new digs are equipped with artificial intelligence similar to the “smart house” constructed at Sir Sandford Fleming College.

“It’s imminent, in fact a lot of people now have this (technology) in their home in the higher-end houses,” said Ron Walker, academic team leader of applied computing and engineering sciences at the school’s Sutherland Campus in Peterborough, Ont. “The technology is getting quite affordable and we’re going to see a lot more of it. New homes are going to be built pre-wired so you can come in and do this easily, but there will be a whole retrofit market as well. It’s really not as tough going as one might think.”

The college constructed its test space to promote its new home building automation program – reputed to be the only community college program of its kind in North America – which starts in September. The recent announcement that Fleming College will be awarded $27.4 million in capital grants under the province’s SuperBuild Growth program bodes well for the growing demand for technicians trained with smart-home building technology. The grants will translate into new high technology facilities in Peterborough, Lindsay, Ont., and a brand new campus in Haliburton, Ont. About $14 million will fund an entire new technology wing at the Peterborough campus.

“We needed to find a way to promote the new program and describe to people what the technology is so they will be perhaps interested in taking the program,” Walker explained. “[The smart house] incorporates much of the technology that would be of interest to a high school student…that’s the market we want to attract to take the program.”

The four-semester program focuses on understanding computer-based building automation technologies including access control, security, lighting control, heat, ventilation and air conditioning, appliance control, home theatre and audio-video control, infrared remote, X10 and other protocols.

“In the short run we’ll see brand new houses pre-wired for the technology using a structured wiring system,” predicted Walker. “You can then add the toys as you need…most new homes are going to have a security system anyway, so why not have a smart security system that’s integrated? It’s only about $800 for the computer that controls this [house].”

The Fleming smart house is a combined living room and study equipped with a small computer that integrates and orchestrates all of the room’s systems – television, movies, music, heating, lighting, Internet and security.

“All of the features in the house are integrated and controlled by a central computer system, and once you have everything connected like that…your house or building becomes a programmable device,” he said. “If you had a cell phone, you can phone this room (before you arrive home) and, for example, turn on the fireplace.”

What could be worse than worrying over when your expected company will arrive while you’re trying to watch a movie? Such a taxing distraction rates a big 10 on modern society’s peril scale. Perish the thought if your home is wired, for as soon as the doorbell rings, the movie is paused and disappears from the television screen, the sound is muted, the lights come up, and the outside video camera broadcasts on your TV the owner of the hand that rang the bell. This all happens in mere seconds and all it requires from the home owner is consciousness.

“The computer that does all of this has the ability to store the program…has infrared receive and transmit…and has X10 (power control for the lighting system),” Walker said. “It can control up to 256 electrical devices (in one house).”

Walker spoke of smart appliances that are coming down the pipe which will further enable the evolution of a hands-free existence to daily life. For example, a fully wired house will boast inventory control in the kitchen that will know if you’ve run low on milk by taking stock through the refrigerator’s built-in microchip. If pre-programmed, the house can show a little initiative and place a grocery list order via the Web on your behalf. While that might take the satisfaction out of griping over who in the house forgot to buy a new bag of milk, the post-millennial family will likely bicker over who forgot to pre-program the kitchen’s functionality.

“You can come home from work, press a button (to select a meal), and your refrigerator will tell you if you have the [ingredients] to make that, it’ll give you the recipe, and it will know if your appliances are capable of [cooking] it for you. Once everything is tied together, your imagination is your only limit.”