WHEN BILL GATES unveiled his $100m networked mansion in the mid-90s, it barely seemed believable that mere plebs in little old England might too one day use computers to adjust the ambient temperature of their living rooms and queue Chris Rea on the Jacuzzi stereo when they were driving home from the golf course. We still can't. But we are getting very close.
Intamac, a software firm based in Northampton, has spent the last decade getting all the components in place and will demonstrate just how far we have come when it appears at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Intamac's launch of a home automation Iphone application in the next fortnight will put one piece of the final jigsaw in place.
When the jigsaw is complete someone might, for example, receive an alert because their front door opened unusually at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon. They might then remotely instruct the CCTV camera watching over the door to replay in their Iphone the last 30 seconds of footage before the door was opened. Floor sensors will tell if anyone is in the house. If they are, the user can have a look and activate an alarm. They can even have Group 4 security send a goon round - with only the brush of a finger, like Bill Gates might, or Blofeld.
Getting this far technologically has been like herding cats. Security systems were not designed for this degree of integration. Broadband hubs (the most obvious option if you are looking for something that could be hooked to the internet constantly without consuming much power) were not designed as remote control gateways either. Hub security won't let a user control a camera from the outside unless they set up a dedicated internet port. You can't ask users to do that if you want to sell any units.
So Intamac got a Taiwanese manufacturer to produce a camera that polled Intamac's platform through the hub every 10 seconds, opening a two-way comms channel from the inside, for a moment each time. This has allowed Intamac users to remotely view a camera feed, but it is still not quite ideal. Since the polling camera can only keep its connection open for a moment at a time, the video feed has to be streamed, the long way round through an Intamac server and out to the user. And users sending remote commands to cameras may have to wait for the next poll to come round.
Intamac has solved this problem for the next generation of software configurable broadband routers, like the Thompson 797. With access to the TR69 commands in a DSL hub's control protocol, Intamac can open a port whichever way it likes. And it can send an uninterrupted video feed direct from camera to remote user using software it has loaded on the hub. This is what it will be showing at CES with an as yet unnamed hub maker.
Another problem was that remote communications with devices like motion sensors and cameras is typically done using DTMF commands over PSTN (dial tones over the telephone), and managed using security industry protocols. But this setup was hardly going to deliver Intamac chief executive Kevin Meagher's vision of a home eco-system controlled with the granular finesse that a computer controls a fighter plane or Formula One car.
Fortunately, the security industry is being consumed along with everything else by IP. Intamac has taken to XML as well, and is encouraging hub manufacturers to do the same.
Intamac can now track every possible tick from every sensor and connected gadget in the home, theoretically. This way it can build up patterns of behaviour that allow more intimate control. Say your dear old elderly gran usually struggles out of bed three times a day to find the toilet. Motion sensors, pressure pads and cameras will note as much. The system would report deviations from this usual pattern. Ditto the kids getting home from school at 4pm every afternoon.
Intamac has also had to design a way for hubs and home gadgets to communicate. The gadgets use two-way radio frequency. Hubs don't. So Intamac created a dongle to go in the USB port that you will find on the next generation of hub. With that and the Java application Intamac designed to go with it, a broadband hub is turned into a security control panel. Intamac is trying to do the same with home appliances so they can be controlled for energy consumption, though as appliances are not yet compliant, it is limited to monitoring energy use until its eco-home partner develops an RF-power plug. Only then, your intelligent home will be telling you, you oughtn't to be running a Jacuzzi. µ