THE WIRED HOME: New technology in the house of the future will mean a dramatic change to the way we shop. John Naughton gives a guided tour

History is littered with predictions about technologies that would

take over the world. Remember the paperless office? Or the robotic

vacuum cleaner that would seek out dirt and exterminate it?



But how will computing and information technology shape our domestic

lives, our purchasing decisions and the environments in which we live

over the next few years? Will the family home of 2010 or 2020 be an

"intelligent house", full of sensors and actuators that turn things on

and off and even make household purchases in response not to their

owners' commands, but according to the dictates of their own "artificial

intelligence"?



The bad news is that we don't know because we cannot predict what

technologies consumers will adopt. Just because something can be made

doesn't mean there will be a market for it.



The good news is that we can make some intelligent guesses about the

future. This is because the technologies we use today have generally

been about for a long time - even if they haven't been visible to the

public.



It looks as though there's a 20- to 25-year lead time between the first

appearance of a technology and its widespread adoption. The personal

computer, for example, first appeared in 1975, but did not become a

common household item until the end of the 90s; the network that

metamorphosed into the internet was up and running in October 1969. The

world wide web was invented in 1990.



Today, computers are still a big deal for most of us. PCs always seem to

cost £1,000, take up a lot of room on a desk or in a briefcase and

require formidable amounts of expertise to operate. But this madness

will pass. Computers will become cheaper, smaller and smarter - to the

point where they become effectively invisible and we stop treating them

as a big deal. In fact, it's already happening. The average executive

saloon car probably has 30 on-board computers installed - but nobody

notices, or even thinks of them as computers.



The implication is that everything - from T-shirts to walls to electric

toasters - can have "computers" inexpensively embedded in them. And if

they have, they can process information. Then the only thing they need

is something to communicate with. And that's where ubiquitous networking

comes in.



If you think the internet is pervasive, then you ain't seen nothing

yet.



The obstacles that have slowed the spread of the net to date - low-speed

connections, the need to use a PC for access and the shortage of

internet addresses - are all in the process of being overcome. The next

generation of mobile phones will offer wireless access to the net at

reasonable connection speeds and we're seeing the arrival of new

generations of personal digital assistants, which will harness the new

mobile networks.



Within the home, wireless networking technologies with names such as

Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (a fancy name for wireless Ethernet) and very-low-power

radio already make it possible for devices to communicate with one

another in a domestic environment. And we will soon be able to assign a

unique internet address to just about every object in the known

universe. Put invisible computing and ubiquitous networking together and

what do you have? Answer: a world in which it is easy and inexpensive

for manufacturers to embed intelligent and communicative devices in

products.



So domestic objects will take on a new "intelligence". For example,

researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found a

way of cheaply printing electronic ID tags on product packaging. The tag

can broadcast its unique ID number to any device in close proximity.



So imagine buying a packet of fresh pasta complete with its ID tag and

putting it into an intelligent microwave oven with an embedded computer

and a wireless net connection. The oven "reads" the product ID and then

consults a huge online database that tells it (a) what the packet

contains and (b) how much cooking time is required.



Then there's the concept of the networked fridge, which has already

become a media cliche; indeed one Japanese manufacturer has made a

fridge with a screen in the door and a permanent internet connection.

This is not as daft as it seems. For one thing, fridges - unlike TVs,

PCs and hi-fi sets - are always switched on. For another, they tend to

occupy pivotal locations in many households.



And most families already use the fridge door as a bulletin board,

sticking reminders, shopping lists and notes on it. So adding a

flat-panel display might make sense.



But a truly intelligent, networked fridge would not just be a

communications device for people. It would also use its ability to

process information and communicate to do helpful things. It could read

the ID tags of products, for example, and determine use-by dates and

appropriate temperature settings.



It could do stock control - warning its owner when stocks of milk were

running low, or even ordering new stocks from Tesco Direct.



Retailers are gearing up to take advantage of such developments and many

are working on web connections in the home that allow customers to scan

bar-codes to order goods direct. Iceland has held trials of a Woosh

Shopping Pad, which combines modem access and a touch-sensitive screen

as well as an e-mail service.



And you don't even need to be at home when the products you've ordered

electronically are delivered. Consider the networked entrycam. Someone

rings the doorbell to your apartment. A tiny videocamera embedded in the

door frame relays an image of the caller to you. But you're not at home

- you're in an office miles away. The image is appearing on your PDA or

the screen of your mobile phone. It's the plumber you've been trying to

contact for weeks or the Tesco Direct delivery man, so you instruct the

door to let him in.



All these scenarios are achievable now. I've seen the intelligent,

communicating microwave in action, and Nokia has been playing with

networked entrycams for years in Finland. There are innumerable other

variations on the same theme - adaptive central heating and climate

control systems, self-closing blinds, intelligent burglar alarms, video

recorders that scan the airwaves for programmes likely to interest you

and minimise the interruptions from the commercial breaks, phones that

track your movements round the house so that the handset nearest to you

is the only one that rings.



And what does this mean for advertisers? For a start, the way we buy

houses and their contents will probably change. The pre-configured house

or apartment will become a new mine of super-commodity - more expensive

than a car, of course, but subject to the same manufacturing disciplines

and consumer pressure.



Once upon a time, for example, you bought a car and then made a separate

decision about buying and installing an in-car hi-fi system. Now all

cars come with built-in hi-fi. At present, you buy a house and install

your own hi-fi system, burglar alarm and computer networking. In the

future, houses will come with all that stuff built in .



House buyers will become more fickle and amenable to marketing. They

will respond to companies that can offer them dwellings customised to

their lifestyles, and will be capable of being easily reconfigured or

extended as circumstances change.



As for those every-day household purchases, TV technology that can

screen out many commercial messages will mean we're less easy to reach

for advertisers.



At the same time, if our fridges can order food direct for us, or if

we're ordering electronically via the web, impulse purchasing is less

likely and we'll be more immune from special offers, in-store promotions

or new countlines and packaging.



All of which will make agencies' jobs more difficult and the emphasis is

likely to switch more heavily to individually targeted commercial

communication, tailored to the individual's lifestyle and demographic.

So while technology will make our everyday lives easier, it will make

the job of advertising to us rather more difficult.



- John Naughton is the chairman of RAB-eye, an independent think-tank

established by the Radio Advertising Bureau to rethink radio for a

digital age. A Brief History of the Future is published by Phoenix.



THE ORANGE HOUSE



Life in Orange's home of the future could easily prove a rather

sedentary experience. Inhabitants won't have to exert themselves to turn

on their TV, do their own shopping or even fill their own bath. But the

prototype home of the future (left), designed by the mobile phone

company to test how mobile phones and central computers can be used to

remotely run our domestic lives, also highlights some interesting

conundrums for marketers and communications companies.



Orange has spent £2 million on the super-home and has been

inviting real families to stay for a fortnight at a time to sample the

set-up. In the Orange home (a converted Victorian farmhouse on what's

now an industrial estate in Hatfield), everything is controlled remotely

- including temperature, lighting and hi-fi. If you're feeling lazy you

can run a bath via the telephone and even specify the water's

temperature and depth.



A central computer in the home will note all the groceries you have

bought (which you have ordered remotely, of course, via the web and

which were delivered direct to your door) and, when told by your fridge

and cupboards that they have been used, it will add them to your next

shopping list.



The fridge that places the grocery orders could become the gateway for

new types of commercial message based on our individual, habitual

purchasing decisions.



So, potentially, there'll be no more wandering down the supermarket

aisles being seduced by shelf wobblers or price promotions. And even if

you really like the new ad campaign for that brand of baked beans, will

you bother to ask your computer to change your order from your usual

bean brand?



Then again, interactivity via the TV will mean access to a whole new

world of commercial information and TV shopping. The only conclusion is

that the task for advertisers is to work out how best to use the TV

medium of the future. - Claire Beale.



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