2011 sees Automated Home reach the ripe old age of 15. To celebrate our quindecennium (yes, really) we’ve asked some friends of the site to look back and give us their home automation highlights from the past decade-and-a-half. For an even greater challenge we then asked them to look ahead to what advances the next 15 years will bring to digital domesticity. In the third of our special series, Automated Home ‘Old Boy’ Mark Harrison shares his opinions on how we got here – and his view of what the future hold for us all may surprise you…
Mark Harrison – Home Automation 1996-2026 – Some 14 years ago, I stumbled upon a discussion group and a website run by a young (at the time) man called Mark McCall. His passion, which he’d been delivering on the web for a year before I discovered it, was Home Automation. In 1996, the market, such as it was, was dominated by the “Custom Installation” world, and (on both sides of the Atlantic) by CEDIA. CEDIA installers, at the time, had annual awards ceremonies with categories like “Best Home Theatre Installation over $100,000.” This was a high end group, selling to a high end demographic.
At the other end of the market, there were precisely two companies in the UK selling “HA Stuff” to the hobbyist. Both LetsAutomate and Laser Business Systems are still going today. Despite, or perhaps because of, having worked for a few years, first as a consultant to, then as a non-executive Director of, one of their competitors, I have nothing but respect for the way that they have grown the market through a reputation for integrity and customer service. However, the market has changed over the 15 years since 1996. I’d like to mention a few trends, then a few products.
Internet Everywhere – We’ve seen “ubiquitous Internet” become mainstream. Back in 2000, I was working for a large company, in the “Web” division. I had a home network. I used Instant Messaging to talk to my wife. My colleagues, in the Web division remember, thought I was a strange alien and couldn’t see why anyone would want to use IM, or network their house. Roll on, in this case, only 11 years, and, from my suburban house in Sussex, I can detect 8 neighbours’ wireless networks, and my long-since-retired parents, who spend much of their lives in Spain, have a weekly Skype call with their grandchildren. And quite separately from that, I see discussions about which smartphone to buy, not about whether to buy a smartphone or not. (More about smartphones in a moment.)
Music is bits, not platters – Music has moved to an entirely digital ecosystem. In 1996, I used CDs, though some of my audiophile friends were still buying vinyl. At the high-end, digital music distribution has surpassed analogue in quality terms. In the mass market, the world has jumped twice. Firstly, it’s finished its hop over from analogue on physical media to digital on physical media; secondly, it’s moving from digital on physical media to digital delivered over the Internet. The transition hasn’t been without hiccups – format wars, legal challenges, arrests, and all the things you expect an industry with a lucrative legacy business model facing destruction by new technology to come up with. However, in 2011, digital downloads of music have clearly embedded, and while I, a rusty 40-year-old, may still buy the odd CD, my 30-year-old friends wouldn’t consider anything other than the Internet as their source.
From another angle, the angle of soundtracks to videos, the same timeframe has seen the move from the analogue delivery of sound (NICAM, Dolby ProLogic) to Digital MultiChannel. (Dolby Digital and DTS, in all their flavours.) While digital delivery of movies still trails shipment of DVDs/BluRay disks, the moves are in that direction.
What’s a single-function device, grandad? – Single function devices just aren’t there any more. If you, kind reader, are 50 or above, there is a high chance that you are wearing a wrist-watch. If you are 30 or below, there is about a 5% chance that you are doing so. This isn’t just about the fact that it’s easy to tell the time by looking to a corner of your screen, it’s about the idea that there is no way that a device whose only purpose was to tell the time could be used for utility. (The watches that are sold are typically sold as fashion items, like trainers or makeup.) The impact on HA has begun to happen, in that the smartphone (and to a less, but growing extent, the tablet) is now the “control surface”.
Let there be lighting controllers – Lighting control has become a massively more competitive market. From the options of Lutron or X-10 we had 15 years ago, we’ve now seen a huge number of lighting systems aimed at the mid-range come in – C-Bus, Lutron, Polaron, Flexidim are four names that jump to mind, and there are many more. The average electrical wholesaler, and the DIY sheds, sell “remote control lights” as standard.
So, from trends to products. Over the last 15 years, there are three that I’d like to pick out:
1: The iThing – By this, I mean, of course, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and i-whatever next. Firstly, Apple gave the “big brand” push that MP3 downloads needed, both in terms of giving credibility to the concept among non-technical users, and then in creating the iTunes store, that gave a legal, well-designed, end to end solution that made the experience easy. The subsequent introduction of the iPhone did something similar to the smartphone market – although Android is growing, and a viable alternative, credit must go to the team from Cupertino for kicking the category into the mass market. And the iPad – it was good, the iPad2 is better – it’s the opposite of a single function device, and created the Tablet category in the mass market in a way that Microsoft had failed to do in the early 2000s.
2: Google – Now, in some ways this has no obvious connection to Home Automation, except… Google is what made the Internet useful for a generation of users, and a subsequent generation of content providers. Google, if you include its YouTube subsidiary, is what has made home networking happen, and home networking was, back in 1996, a subsidiary of Home Automation. [Ed: Mark submitted this article before Google announced its entry into Home Automation].
3: TiVo – Again, a category creator, who made PVRs happen. Admittedly, TiVo isn’t a huge brand name in the UK, where Sky+ dominates, but TiVo led the way, technologically and globally, and we are seeing “Powered by TiVo” televisions coming in, which integrate with BBC iPlayer and the like, to give customers not only a “record future TV”, but “record past TV you missed” integrated solution that appeals to the mainstream user, not just the techy.
The Future? – So, from the last 15 years, to the next. I am not going to try to predict future products for the future, since, for instance, who would have guessed that the stodgy old manufacturers of the BBC Micro (remember those), would become the market leader in mobile device chips, and power your iPad and iPhone? However, I do want to kick out some developments. Please remember that these are over a 15-year time horizon, and that innovation in technology happens at a geometric rate, not a linear one. I expect to see as many development from 2011-2016 as I have for the whole period 1996-2011, and then see the same again in the three years 2017-2020. So, here we go:
Immersive Experiences (in many senses, if you’ll pardon the pun) are the future. I want to split “Immersive experiences” into two subsections – firstly, the mechanism of delivery, secondly, the nature of interaction
How is it delivered? Surround sound is with us. 3D TV is, frankly, rubbish. It’s not like being there, it’s too expensive, and it requires stupid glasses… erm, hang on, that was 2010… it’s still not like being there, but it’s now on a sub-£200 games console, and doesn’t require glasses. I expect that 3D TV will get better, and that over the next 15 years, we’ll see the technology improve so that it IS like being there. Sound is already there – 5- and 7- channel surround sound really is very, very good.
We’ll see a divergence of sizes, though. At the “big end”, tellies will continue getting bigger, until the limiting factor becomes the size of rooms. HD will outsell “standard definition”, oh, and over the same 15 year period, we’ll probably see a standard beyond 1080p-3D being agreed, even if it still remains niche in 2026.
At the small end, screen resolutions will get higher, even if the screens get smaller. If you live in an urban area, you’re already used to seeing people watch video content on smartphones. Expect them to watch them more and more on smartshades (sunglasses with built-in-screens) as a stopgap. The stopgap, of course, is a stepping stone onto bypassing the eyes, and injecting experience directly into the right bit of the neocortex, probably via the optic nerve at first. There’s enough research already happened on how we might do that that it’s hard to believe that there won’t be a reasonable number of consumer-budget products on the market by 2026, albeit probably not with mass market appeal.
Now let’s turn to the nature of interaction – Firstly, interaction is outstripping passive consumption of digital technology. Games are growing faster than Movies and Music. World of Warcraft grew from 250,000 users in January 2004 to 11.5 million in January 2010, Blizzard now takes in a fee of about $5m in subscription revenue every day. While the number of users is still small, the growth rate is huge. More importantly, however, is the length of interaction. Most people watch a given film once or twice. The total time spent playing WoW across its user base is now 6 million man-years. (50 billion man-hours.) Expect the content of home automation to be heavily influenced by games, both in terms of control interfaces, but also what the HA is optimised to deliver.
Secondly, the control interfaces are going to move on more than anyone really imagines. Thought-control was, in 1982, just 4 years before Mark McCall got into HA, a “crazy sci-fi notion” in the book, and then the film, Firefox. Sure enough, thought control did, indeed, start in military applications. You can now buy a thought controlled headset – the Emotiv EPOC is the market leader – for about $300, which can be trained to give 12 modes of movement in computer games (left, right, up, down, forward, “zoom”, sway back, sway forward, turn left, turn right, rotate clockwise, rotate anti-clockwise)… or, put another way, the capability of the hardware for thought control now exceeds the capability of game designers to actually use the different movement modes in a first-person game! This class of devices works like an EEG machine, and sits on a headset, so it’s a step towards…
Thirdly, direct neural interfaces. In 2002, the US Federal Drug Adminstration approved Deep Brain Stimulation as a form of treatment for Parkinson’s disease. In DBS, a computer, about the size of a pea, is implanted into the brain of the patient, and replaces the part of the brain that has typically failed as Parkinson’s progresses. This isn’t theoretical, this isn’t experimental – this is actually sitting in the brains of over 80,000 people. Oh, and these aren’t pre-programmed circuits – the current generation can receive new programming from a (hopefully secure!) external computer. The point isn’t that DBS machines lend themselves to gaming or home control – the point is that we understand how to interface directly to the brain. A product called BrainGate has been demonstrated, implanted into a monkey, not a human, directly controlling a robot arm.
It may be that, by 2026, the brain-interface market is at start of acceptance. Maybe thought control in 2026 will be where HA was in 1996.
This changes the game for HA, completely. It’s not about turning the lights out with a thought – it’s about lying down, in a 7 foot square room in an inner-city flat, on a memory foam mattress, while your brain implant tells you that you’re walking on the golden sands of the Caribbean, arm in arm with the avatar of the movie star du jour, on a moonlit evening, listening to the waves lap gently, and smelling the sea breeze, feeling the sand under your feet… Oh, and it’ll be as real to your brain as the input your eyes give you now. That’s the “Home Control” system you’ll care about (well, that and the security system that keeps the shell of your body safe while your brain is otherwise engaged.)
Mark Harrison, BA, MA, MBCS has degrees in Mathematics and Computation, and been involved in the UK Home Automation community since 1997. He has co-founded, and sold, two installation companies, and been a Director of Simply Automate (sold to LetsAutomate). He now runs a technology consultancy, but the best place to catch up with him is on his blog – markharrison.wordpress.com