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TOUCH TO CONTROL: The new technologies allow residents to control every aspect of a home, including window blinds, from a tablet or phone

Left home and forgot to turn off the AC? Press a few buttons on your iPad. Smart homes where lights can be controlled with a phone or appliances switched off from a Facebook page are becoming a reality.

Like all Cisco employees, chief globalization officer Wim Elfrink uses a smartcard. But his is loaded with a little extra — technology that lets him personalise almost any of the company’s office spaces. Elfrink has saved his settings — air-conditioning temperature and his preferred amount of lighting — in a Cisco database. This means whenever he enters his temporary office in the company’s Bangalore building, all he has to do is wave his card and the room is set the way he likes it.

Cisco manages this by using smart appliances that are interconnected through a computer network. And now, the networking giant is bringing this technology to homes. In India, it has partnered with Mantri Developers in Bangalore to build smart apartments.

Raghav Thalabhakthula, a systems architect at Cisco and who has been working with the real-estate developer, says that each fitting in the sample flat — from its lighting to window blinds — can be automated and controlled from an iPad or an Android phone.

“Imagine this: You drive back home from the office and as you climb the stairs, you can use your handset to unlock the door of your house,” he says. “Once in, you can tap a few more buttons and the lighting in various rooms will dim or brighten as per your settings.”

In this connected world — faster broadband, advanced mobile devices, and internet technologies such as cloud computing — the concept of automated homes has moved away from being a mere geek fantasy to reality. But Cisco is not the only company working to create smart homes. Microsoft and HCL are also working to make similar technologies affordable, practical and easy to use.

“For baby boomers who grew up watching The Jetsons, the idea of the fully-automated home was the futuristic stuff of cartoons,” Arjmand Samuel, Microsoft’s senior research program manager, recently wrote on the company’s official blog. “Today, the technology is available to make a Jetsonesque home a reality by using inexpensive network devices that remotely control locks, lights, thermostats , cameras, and motion sensors. In practice, however, the high overhead of managing and extending home automation technology has restricted such smart home scenarios to expert hobbyists and the wealthy.”

The Redmond company, which powers nearly 80 per cent of computers in the world with Windows, is working on Home OS. The operating system, still a research project in Microsoft’s labs, aims to make controlling a home as easy as using a personal computer. It also envisages an app store where third-parties will be able to compete and offer better software solutions for home appliances.

In its vision for Home OS, Microsoft gives one example: HomeMaestro — an app developed by MIT Media Labs — allows a user to define rules for appliances in the home. And these rules can be very simple like “if my bedroom window is open, then switch off the heater” as well as complex ones such as “switch off heater at 10 am, switch it on at 5 pm, keep it at low if temperature is 20 degrees” .

The company says that the OS is running in 12 real homes for the last four to eight months and 42 students have built third-party applications for its HomeMaestro.

HCL, however, is taking more integrated, but smaller, steps towards future homes. Inside its office in Noida, there is a small lab equipped with light bulbs and a few computers — all connected to the internet. This is the place where company engineers devise new ways to control the flow of electricity inside a home. Arshpreet Singh, keen to show off the technology that his team has been working on, opens a page in a browser window and clicks a button. Nothing happens on the webpage. But in a corner of the room, a few metres away from the computer, an electric bulb goes dark. Singh clicks the button on webpage again. The bulb comes back to life. “The bulb,” he discloses , “is connected to the internet and is being controlled from the webpage on a laptop.”

“But the laptop is just incidental ,” he says. “The webpage can be opened on a smartphone . Or it can take the form of an app on a Facebook page.” The technology is part of Aegis — a home automation system.
Aegis doesn’t support an extensive set of controls that can allow a user to remotely open or close a window through a smartphone. But it offers options that help a user control security, lighting and electrical appliances in his house.

“A study by global technology trend forecasters ABI Research predicts that 90 million residences around the world will have some form of home automation system in place by 2017. The availability of smart phones and tablets in abundance and the reduction in prices of sensors and gateways is causing a huge movement in this area,” says G H Rao, senior corporate VP at HCL Technologies . “Currently we have deployed Aegis in upcoming flats in Hyderabad, and we are working with a system integrator in the UAE for a home automation project.”

The push towards connected homes has been made easier by smart appliances. At Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, Samsung showcased washing machines that can be controlled with a smartphone. But the smartest of these futuristic devices is Nest, a tiny thermostat that has become a huge hit in the US.

Invented by Tony Fadell — an ex-Apple engineer more widely known as the designer of the iPod’s hardware — Nest is remarkable in the way it automates the function of a thermostat and the way it learns the habits of its users.

According to the company that makes Nest, after a week of use, the device has enough information to start taking temperature decision on its own. This means even if a user forgets to set the temperature up or down some day before going to sleep, Nest does it on its own.

As it happens with most smart appliances, Nest can also be accessed remotely through any device that can open an app or a website. “After an unseasonably cold day, log in to your Nest web app from the office to adjust the temperature at home,” the product website tells Nest users.

Indeed, the more artificial intelligence sensors are added to everyday objects, the more they make for a smarter home.

Rao says HCL is already working on the next version of Aegis. “Among other things, we hope to add voice commands… Instead of clicking a button, users can speak commands to turn the lights on, close the door or decrease thermostat temperature.”

And you’ll never have to worry about any electrical appliances after you leave your home, says Cisco’s Thalabhakthula . “Imagine you’re on your way to the airport to catch a flight and then realise you forgot to switch off the AC, in the near future you can simply take out your handset, fire up an app and tap twice to switch it off. That’s remote-controlled , smart homes for you.”

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