Of smart bar glasses and sensual homes

“Thanks for getting back up on that horse. And thanks to the consumer,” was how Trisha Parks, president of research firm Parks Associates, launched the recent seventh-annual Connections 2002 conference in Dallas – a conference co-sponsored by Parks and Continental Automated Buildings Association. Connections brings together hardware and software developers and service providers in the home network, automation and control and cabling/installation industries.

Indeed, it’s been a tough year for most of these companies; many have failed or been bought, funding’s dried up and the service providers – the only folks around left with any money – have been slow to partner up.

While service providers such as AT&T Broadband and Earthlink Inc. have made some inroads selling home network hardware and service packages to their consumer customers, executives from both were eager to educate vendors on the types of products their customers will be willing to pay for.

In her keynote address, Susan Marshall, AT&T Broadband’s senior vice president of advanced broadband services, cited two examples of irrelevant, even silly network technologies: Electrolux Kelvinator’s Washy Talky talking washing machine, and iGlassware, a technology that senses the liquid level in a bar glass and sends a wireless message to wait staff letting them know the customer’s glass needs a refill. (iGlassware is being developed by Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories. The Washy Talky is being launched in India.)

“But how do you get consumers to actually adopt these technologies?” she challenged the audience. “Do I really need my washing machine to tell me to ‘Drop in detergent, close lid and relax?’ “

Of course not. Instead, Marshall emphasized: “Success will come from extending existing services.”

Another point Marshall made clear: TV and PC services won’t converge, but instead will take two paths. Some consumers will always be more comfortable with PC services, others the TV. “We don’t expect you to watch movies on your PC or Web surf on your TV.” (Read: Don’t try to sell us this stuff.)

In his address, Tom Andrus, Earthlink’s vice president of products and services, said, “The connection doesn’t mean anything, soon it’ll just fade away. The connection through the home is becoming much more important than the connection to the home.”

Andrus said beyond connectivity services – whether they be wireless, HomePNA, Ethernet, power line or a mix – his customers are showing the most interest in firewall, antivirus and VPN services: “It’s not really a Trojan Horse, that’s a negative. But in a way it is…”

No matter what you call it, in time Andrus predicts his customers will eventually want additional services “flowered through the house” – voice, instant messaging, e-mail, video, Web hosting and e-commerce.

While the service providers insist their consumer customers will only pay for no-nonsense, relevant services, home automation firms continue to daydream.

“Soon, our homes won’t just be smart, they’ll be sensual,” says Richard Buzun, the president and chief executive officer of Siemens Energy & Automation. “We’ll have dumb little chips all over the place sensing and sorting information. Our sprinklers will know the ground is dry and turn on. Our dishwashers won’t turn on until all in the home have showered, saving energy.”