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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Automating the Home

Sometimes I start a post, and before I finish it, I find out something that completely turns it around. A week ago I wrote the following:

“One of the biggest sci-fi dreams of the fifties was the automated home. A collection of smart appliances that stepped beyond labour saving to intelligently manage the home environment.

The dream has evolved from the days of Robbie the Robot. Today ‘home automation’ generally refers to the networked control of lights, curtains and blinds, heating, home entertainment and security. Unfortunately it remains a reality only for the very rich or very geeky.

Remember the remote control that Ozzie struggled with on The Osbournes? Sadly that is all too often the reality when you try to implement some form of home automation on a budget. I tried a couple of years ago, using a system called X10 — one of the most popular (and cheap) home automation technologies. If you’re not familiar with it, it consists of a wide variety of modules that sit between the power supply and a device and control their operation by controlling the power. They talk to each other using signals sent over the power lines themselves, so there’s no complicated wiring involved.

It’s a beautifully simple idea, undone only by reality. Powerlines are not great conduits for data, because many devices connected to them generate ‘noise’. PCs, fluorescent lamps, motors and pumps all output considerable noise to the power system, sufficient in many cases to drown out the X10 signals.

My experiment didn’t last long before my wife started unplugging the X10 devices so that she could simply turn a lamp on. Home automation became labour generating rather than labour saving — not the idea.

It’s a shame, because I think the world is ready for some simple home automation. Look how quickly remote-control sockets have taken off. My in-laws have some so that they can control hard-to-reach switches. You can buy them in Tesco and B&Q.; They are pretty widespread.

I think it would only take a couple of moves for home automation to take off in a big way. Firstly, all of these little remote control socket kits should conform to a standard, so that they can be controlled not just from the supplied handset but from a PC or other device. Secondly, a big home store such as IKEA should start offering remote control as an option on all of its lamps and light-fittings. This way the cost of the control units becomes marginal. Those who just want to control a couple of sockets can do, and those (like me) who want to control their whole house, can make a start at a reasonable cost.”

One week later and guess what? Bumbling around B&Q; and I find the HomeEasy system. It’s been around for a couple of months but I hadn’t been down the right aisle. It appears to be cheap, robust, and flexible — everything I was after. Check out the full review at AutomatedHome.co.uk, but suffice to say, I’m buying.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

FlashBack: 1973 and 2001

I have been asked to appear on a new show on BBC Radio Manchester, looking at years in history. Despite my (sometimes disturbing) pop knowledge, they have asked me to comment on the gadgets and technology of the day. I’ll be posting some links for more information to go alongside each show. Here’s the links for last week’s years — 1973 and 2001.

1973

  • The Jetski was launched by Kawasaki.
  • The barcode was invented in the US. It was brought to the UK four years later. The first item scanned was a box of teabags in a supermarket in Spalding.
  • The Post-It note was invented by Art Fry for 3M and obsessive organisers everywhere rejoiced.
  • Ethernet, one of the building blocks of the internet was invented by Robert Metcalfe when he laid out the idea in a message to his employers, Xerox. Metcalfe worked at the same place (Xerox PARC) where many of the concepts of the modern PC were invented. Ethernet also forms the basis of the WiFi networks that everyone has in their home now.
  • NASA launched Skylab, the first American space station and the predecessor to the international space station.

2001

  • The iPod was launched. It was designed by a Brit, at least on the outside.
  • Windows XP was launched making it much easier to connect new devices like digital cameras and iPods to the PC. It played a major part in the coming boom in such devices but it also got Microsoft in to a lot of trouble with the European union for abusing its dominant position in the marketplace. It was fined £381 million, the largest ever fine of its type.
  • Sky Plus was launched, bringing personal video recorders to the UK on a large scale for the first time. People stop watching adverts.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The connected home reality

What I mean by the term ‘connected home’ is a loose network of interlinked appliances and gadgets that combine to make our lives easier, more secure, and more automated, and our media more accessible. The connected home has long been a dream of futurologists and science fiction writers, and over recent years it has increasingly become a reality for the super rich. In 2008 and 2009, I think it will start to become a reality for the rest of us.

The first component of the truly connected home, and the one that will drive much of the infrastructure for the others, is access to media. Be that the web, music, video, photo, or games, we are purchasing more and more media devices that conform to home network standards. Home media servers, network MP3 players, BluRay players with Ethernet ports, broadband video services, and online gaming-capable consoles. Making the most of these devices means a wired or wireless home network and a decent broadband connection. It also means having a server of some description at the centre of it all to store, provide, and control everything else.

The next component is security. Even though crime levels have fallen dramatically (42% in the UK since 1995), our paranoia levels have continued to climb. Security hardware, such as networked cameras, alarm systems, and baby monitoring devices, increasingly conform to IP-based network standards. Not only that, but prices are falling. Now there is little barrier to people integrating their home security and monitoring with their media systems. Streaming images of your kids and nanny to your office? Easy. Setting your alarm to text you when there is a break in? Cheap to do.

The final component is home automation. This has been the biggest dream of many futurologists. Not just a home that responds to you (lights that come on when you are in the room), or the environment (turning the heating on when the house temperature drops below a certain level at certain times), but a home that actively eases your life. For example, the robot vacuum cleaner. These devices are now available, in the UK, for less than £200. At John Lewis no less! Robot mowers are also available. Currently the price of a second hand car, there’s little doubt they too will fall in price. There’s no robot housemaid yet, and internet fridge isn’t yet a practical reality, but we’re getting there.

In the way that the last ten years has been dominated by smaller and smaller gadgets for the person, I think that the next ten years is going to be dominated by connected appliances for the home.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1983 and 2002

This week’s years on Becky Want’s Flashback are 1983 and 2002. I’ll be on from around 16:30. Find out more below about the technology stories from those years.

1983

  • The first camcorder was launched by Sony, the BetaMovie. Huge by today’s standards, it had to be lugged on your shoulder and had an optical-only viewfinder — no little LCD screen. There’s some confusion on the web about who launched the first one because of the competing tape formats involved, but Sony actually beat its nearest rival JVC by a few months.
  • Nintendo launched its first games console in Japan: the Family Computer or FamiCom (known over here as the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES). Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt became part of just about every kid’s life!
  • Motorola announced the DynaTAC 8000X — one of the most iconic mobile phones of all time and the first true handheld. It cost over $100m to develop and almost $4000 to buy. It appeared in the film Wall Street with Michael Douglas.
  • Compact discs went on sale, although most serious record collectors dismissed them as a passing fad like the Eight Track. The American record companies were apparently very sceptical. Interesting fact: Know why they are the size that they are? Sony specified that a CD must hold all of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, so it had 1to be expanded from 11.5cm to 12cm diameter to hold the extra 14 minutes of music (they had originally been designed to hold just one hour of music). Launch CDs included The Visitors by Abba. The first CD to sell a million was Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms in 1985. In those days a CD player would cost more than £1000, just like early DVD players since and BluRay players now.

2002

  • The first copy-protected CDs were introduced to fight the growth of Napster and other file-sharing sites. Unfortunately they had a habit of not playing in some players and breaking some computers (notably Macs).
  • The Roomba was launched, the first robot vacuum cleaner for your house at a reasonable price! Amazed we haven’t all got one of these yet. They’re actually pretty good and not very expensive (now less than £200). Advice seems to be to go for the brand name. Cheaper models apparently suffer poor hoovering power and limited battery life, though I haven’t tested them myself.
  • Cameraphones appeared in the UK after being on the market for a couple of years in Japan. Sparked all sorts of privacy issues but also provided a new source of news footage, used to a great extent around the London bombings in 2005.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Food prices: biofuels to blame?

I’ve seen a lot of references to the impact of increased biofuel production on the price of food recently. It seems to be accepted that they are one of the major causes of the incredible rises we have recently seen; rises that have almost doubled the price of bread in the supermarkets. But I question whether it really has been the growing of biofuels behind this increase.

For all the references to biofuels in articles about rising food prices, I have been able to find no data on how much farmland has already been turned over to their production. Given their lack of commercial availability, I struggle to believe they are yet being produced in any great quantity. My understanding is that they are largely still at the trial stage, except in countries like Brazil where Ethanol-based fuels have long been on the market. In most ofther countries they are at best a small-percentage additive to existing fuels.

It would be incredible if a few trials are having anything like the effect on prices that has been caused by increased demand from India and China, droughts in Ukraine and poor harvests elsewhere. Perhaps the incredible lobbying power of the oil companies is at work again…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: now on iPlayer

Flashback time again this afternoon, looking at 1975 and 1996. I’ll be on around 16:20 but you can now ‘Listen Again’ through the BBC iPlayer (go hereand click ‘Listen Again’ on the right hand side).

Here’s some more information on what was happening in those years:

1975

  • The digital camera was invented by Steve Sasson at Kodak. It took 23 seconds to record the 0.1 megapixel image on to a magnetic tape, and another 23 seconds to read it again on to a TV.
  • Sony launched the Betamax video recorder, starting a long ‘format war’ with VHS, created and launched a year later by JVC. Despite being first to market, and offering better picture quality, Sony lost. Why? VHS could record for longer, so it was perceived as better value for money (and you could fit a whole film on one tape without reducing the quality of the image). Combine this with the fact that VHS players were cheaper and easy to rent on the high street, and Betamax was lost. Except in Japan where it continued until 2002.
  • Microsoft was founded when Bill Gates left Harvard University to sell a version of the BASIC programming language to a company called Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems. It had launched the Altair 8800, one of the first successful personal computers, and Gates moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be near MITS’ offices.
  • The Laser Printer was introduced by IBM. Although it had been invented by Xerox between 1969 and 1971, Xerox didn’t get a product to market until 1977. A few years later Xerox would largely invent the personal computer but didn’t realise its value.
  • The ‘wide area’ pager/bleeper was introduced, initially seeing action in hospitals and the emergency services a couple of years later. It became increasingly synonymous with drug dealers until most mobile networks stopped supporting them a few years ago.

1996

  • The Palm Pilot (the first really successful handheld computer) launched. It became the new filofax, the ‘must-have’ accessory for young American executives. However, Palm was five years behind the Brits, as the Series 3 Psion was already pretty popular over here and retains a dedicated fanbase today.
  • The Motorola StarTAC was launched. I remember lots of my friends having these, and I think it was many people’s first mobile phone. It was certainly the first one to look like a Star Trek communicator. Kind of cool.
  • APS cameras, the last generation of film cameras, were launched. They were short-lived as digital cameras became the defacto standard not long after.
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flashback: 1986 and 1997

This afternoon I’ll be discussing 1986 and 1997 on Becky Want’s Flashback on BBC Radio Manchester. Tune in on 95.1 if you’re in the Manchester area or check it out on Listen Again. I’ll be on around 16:30.

If you’ve heard the show and looked me up to find out more information, then welcome to the blog! Hope you find it interesting and useful.

1986

  • The disposable camera was launched by Fuji. They’re one of those inventions you think has been around forever but actually are relatively recent. Until the advent of the camera phone, these were the primary source for the most embarrassing snaps.
  • The Atari ST launched in the UK to rival the Amiga It was like Spectrum vs Commodore 64 all over again and the debates about which was better continue today. In the end the decision for most people came down to the MIDI support on the ST, or the price (in 1986 the Atari was £399 whereas the Amiga was over £1200 — the later Amiga 500 reduced the price to £599 — still a significant difference).
  • Amstrad bought the computer products line from Sinclair, maker of the Spectrum. The money went to fund the continued development of the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle, a total disaster. Less than 17,000 were ever sold.
  • The Sega Master System was launched — competing with the Nintendo Entertainment System. This site is a great tribute.
  • Transformers were top of the Christmas list for children (and some adults).

1997

  • IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer beat the grandmaster Gary Kasparov at chess. Computers had won games before but never whole matches.
  • DVD movies went on sale in the UK but sales didn’t overtake VHS until 2003. That’s why every charity shop is full of old videos!
  • The Psion Series 5 PDA launched, the last model from the very competitive UK firm. It still has its devotees. Check out this review from 1999.
  • The first supersonic land-speed record was set by the ThrustSSC team (not really anything to do with gadgets but good tech story)
Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

iPlayer prescience

Have you seen all the stories about iPlayer bringing down the internet over the last few days? I wrote about this just over a week ago and since then a similar story has hit just about every national newspaper. Wish I could lay claim to it, but there have been a couple of reports laying the blame for the future collapse of the Internet at the BBC’s door. Glad to know I’m a little bit ahead of the news though.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ethernet: The most important technology you never hear about

Ethernet is one of those inventions that few people know about, and rarely gets discussed outside of businesses and the very geekiest of homes. If you are only vaguely familiar with it, you might know it as the square ports on the back of your broadband router. Yet Ethernet now underlies much of our global communications infrastructure, and its reach is only going to grow in the coming years.

Ethernet is a standard that defines the physical connections, and the electronic operations that allow groups of computers to communicate over cables made from either copper or optic fibre. Today your network in the office or at home almost certainly relies on Ethernet. But in the near future this reach will be drastically expanded.

Already much of the core infrastructure that drives the internet relies on Ethernet. Soon the mobile phone networks are going to be increasingly reliant on Ethernet too. It is fast becoming the universal language for digital communication, whatever form that communication may take. CCTV networks use it, music systems use it, games consoles use it, banks use it — almost every transaction we make in life will soon be sent over Ethernet.

The exact date on which Ethernet was invented is not clear, but many trace it back to a memo sent by Robert Metcalfe to his employers at Xerox PARC, the development powerhouse that also spawned many of the ideas now incorporated in the modern PC (the mouse, the graphical ‘windowed’ interface). Like many great ideas, his proposal was initially rejected. Well done that man for sticking with it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

HD Source -Update

Just a quick clarification on my post about all things HD. The situation is better than I thought but there are still some issues.

First and foremost, the graphics side of things is not the issue, it is the sound.

Today most digital audio is carried through either optical or coaxial SPDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interconnect Format) connections. This is fine for most of the audio systems used today, and graphics specialist NVIDIA is doing what it can by adding an S/PDIF connection to all of its graphics cards with HDMI. This means that you can feed whatever audio source you have down the HDMI pipe. Well done NVIDIA.

For most people, building a system today, this is a solution. A modern motherboard or sound card that will decode the various surround sound formats will connect to this graphics card and enable you to experience all sorts of HD content in a close to perfect manner.

Unfortunately the next generation of audio codecs such as Dolby TrueHD aren’t compatible with S/PDIF and require the high bandwidth of HDMI v1.3 to be carried in their native format. This means that one piece of hardware in the system — most likely the motherboard — has to recognise the sound format and either decode it or know to pipe it raw down the HDMI connection.

Will 99.9% of people ever know the difference? Probably not, but that’s what being a geek is all about.

(PS — still no response from Intel…)

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

HD Source

There’s a lot of confusion around High Definition at the moment. The variety of video and audio formats that constitute HD are complex enough in themselves, even before you examine the embryonic standards for how all this content is created, stored, channelled and played.

Because of this, and the fact that prices continue to tumble for HD gear, I’m a little wary about making a firm decision on what to buy. Being an early adopter can be expensive if you get it wrong, as all those people who bought a HD-DVD player have learned. But a little research and ingenuity can often offset this risk.

If standards are changing constantly, what you want is a device that can change with them. Something that can be upgraded at a marginal cost. This has been the great success of the PlayStation 3 so far: its internet connection means that Sony has been able to offer users a series of upgrades already, consistently improving the device’s features and performance.

But the PlayStation 3 is limited to software upgrades. I want something that can take advantage of new hardware too. Which brings me back to my media PC.

The cost of PC components has fallen such that even if you wanted to build one from scratch, the price would be similar to a good Blu-ray player. If you already have a media PC, then upgrading to deliver HD content should be very cost effective.

Unfortunately, it seems that PC hardware hasn’t quite kept up with the bleeding edge. For example, the latest consumer Blu-ray players and surround sound amplifiers carry both audio and video signals over the HDMI connection. They also handle a variety of new high definition audio formats. No PC hardware that I have found to date carries built-in support for these features.

So for now I am going to suppress my early adopter tendencies and hold off on my HD upgrade. If you do find yourself drawn to Blu-ray though, for now you could do a lot worse than the PlayStation 3.

(PS — thanks to Nvidia’s PR for responding to my questions quickly despite being buried with work. No response from Intel so far…)

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

BBC iPlayer: Broadband Bottlen

I spoke briefly to an executive in the telecoms industry yesterday. I mentioned that many people I spoke to had seen a fall in broadband performance (based on anecdotal evidence). He suggested the biggest problem is the change in the type of applications that people are using, and cited the BBC iPlayer as an example. I don’t know why this simple thought hadn’t occurred to me but it makes perfect sense. I feel a bit daft having not jumped to that conclusion myself.

Even the simplest websites increasingly include sound and video clips, animated introductions, and large graphics, all of which take advantage of the increasing bandwidth available to users. That’s fine when just a few people are using those rich-media sites while the majority browse email or train times. But when the rich-media applications — such as the iPlayer — go mainstream, the experience degrades for everyone as the pipes clog up.

All the points I have made previously about our creaking national broadband infrastructure remain, but I now believe the problem is going to worsen quickly. All the more reason for us to begin the painful and expensive process of rolling out fibre optic connections to the home, before all the clever business models we have built on the availability of broadband data begin to collapse.

Tom Cheesewright