Tuesday, February 24, 2004

New technology at home

An article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday was about the home of the future ("Inside the Home of the Future"; unfortunately, you do need a subscription to access the article online, though you can get an abstract through Lexis or look at the print version in the Journalism Reading Room). The vision of an "electronic cottage" is definitely alive and well, though the reasons behind it seem to be more practical -- this article focused on how technology and telecommunications can assist the growing elderly population to continue living independently.

I was reading Ch 5 from Graham and Marvin at the time that I found this article, so I started wondering about how this article fits with their discussion of the possible positive and negative results that new forms of telecommunications in the home might have (especially p. 209-213). Graham and Marvin seem to present two sides -- either new technology will be great, providing information at all times even in the home, or it will be a negative force, causing isolation as people work and shop more from their homes, and leading to polarization between people who can afford the technology and those who can't.

The WSJ article, however, gives what I think is a more plausible view, in which technology is used to assist what we already do, not to change our lifestyles completely. For example, a monitor in an elderly person's home could report their levels of activity, which could be accessed by a family member who does not live with them. If the activity levels drop significantly, someone could call the elderly person to find out what was going on. Concerned family members might check on an elderly person who is living by themselves often, but this monitor may provide an additional peace of mind without intruding too much on anyone.

The technology behind most of the examples listed in the article was based on "machine learning," and there were several examples creative uses of wireless communication. These kinds of projects seem to be a different vision than that which is presented in Graham and Marvin -- the book considers the home as a terminal, receiving information, but these projects allow people to interact with their homes, other people, or even give off information to preselected service providers (such as medical information, grocery orders, etc.). This is in contrast to the examples given in the book of people choosing and accessing services directly from home (for example, viewing ads online, shopping on the web), or working from home. The projects described in the article are of how people can send out information to specific, regular recipients, rather than primarily receive information as in the "Home as a domestic 'network terminal'" section of the book (p.209-212).

More info on the projects described in the article can be found at:

MavHome Smart Home

Home Guardian

Another point to consider: Even Graham and Marvin are "sceptical of the claims that this is some sort of complete revolution in the nature of home life (p. 209), and they note that smart homes seem to be "technologies in search of applications." I agree with them that these technologies (especially as presented in the WSJ article) won't change the nature of home life, but I wonder -- is assisting independent elderly living the application that will push these technologies into more general use?


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