There was a time when our audio, visual, computing and communications needs at home could be met simply by purchasing a stereo, television, computer and telephone and plugging them in. But those days are gone. Home technology today, and into the foreseeable future, is more about creating an all-encompassing, integrated system than acquiring discrete items of hardware that operate in isolation from each other. Cutting-edge systems ensure that all your technology is compatible and available at multiple locations throughout the house.
Automation Associates is a company based in Auckland that specialises in guiding people through what can be a high-tech minefield. “The term ‘smart wiring’ is often thrown around quite loosely,” says sales manager Dwayne Cocker. “But, basically, it refers to the cabling installed in your new home to allow the distribution of television, telephone and data when and where it’s required.” In short, it means that television, telephones and the internet can be accessed from any room. It can also deliver high-definition video content wherever it’s required in the home.
Smart wiring future-proofs your home in two ways. First, it ensures you’re able to take advantage of emerging technology. Second, it means you can easily convert a bedroom into an office. Ultimately, it offers flexibility and the opportunity for your home to evolve in tune with your needs.
Dwayne estimates that installing this sort of cabling into a new, four-bedroom, 300 to 350sqm house with two living areas and a double garage could cost between $4000 and $10,000. Just as security systems are now routinely installed in new houses, smart wiring is increasingly being factored into the budget for newly built homes. Retro-fitting this feature into existing homes is difficult and costly and best done only if the interior is going to be gutted and rebuilt.
The hub of a home’s entertainment system may be a media centre PC on which the family’s favourite material is stored. A product called Kitchen OneTouch, offered by Integrated Lifestyle Innovations, is essentially a media centre control screen built in to your wall or benchtop, which allows access to music, photos, television, video and internet. It can be upgraded to control a CCTV camera, multi-room sound and home automation.
A touch screen embedded within a wireless remote control is another way to operate a smart home’s functions. This device will easily set up the entertainment system for, say, DVD watching. At the touch of a single button, the television, amplifier and DVD player switch on and configure themselves accordingly. All the human in the equation must do is insert the disc and push play.
Perhaps the ultimate in high-tech user-friendliness is a system offered by Control4 that allows your home systems to be controlled by existing handheld mobile devices such as iPhones. This company also offers cost-effective retro-fitting of the latest automation features to existing homes, using a combination of wired and wireless technology.
Bang & Olufsen has released a state-of-the-art 103-inch plasma BeoVision television that’s designed to function as the “cornerstone of an intelligent home”. It comes with a motorised floor stand and the screen elevates at the push of a button then turns and tilts for optimal viewing; the central loud speaker also emerges. Significantly, this television, with its programmable remote control, can be used as a hub for linking audio and video applications with other automated home systems.
Customised audiovisual (AV) systems can be designed, wired and fitted by home-automation specialist Strawberry Sound, which has four outlets in the South Island. Enhance Technology, an Upper Hutt company, also creates bespoke home theatres, multi-room audio and mood lighting systems.
Functions such as lighting, heating, ventilation, security, alarms, pool covers, curtains and blinds can all be programmed to activate at set times – or in response to changing conditions. As examples, Automation Associates’ Dwayne Cocker cites the tread lights in a flight of stairs being motion-activated after sunset and heating that comes on once the external temperature drops below a certain point. He adds that, though “high-net-worth individuals” may have almost every gadget in their house centrally automated, many people simply automate lights and AV equipment. Hardware recommendations are typically tailored to budget; projectors, for example, range in price from $3000 to $30,000.
Finally, there’s even an automated function designed for the technology enthusiast who is also environmentally aware. An “away button” near the front door will shut off every application in the house – including AV gear, fans, mirror pads, heating, lighting and music – thus preventing power wastage. Now, that’s smart!
Dedicated home theatres have become something of a staple in today’s upmarket houses. Often located in a basement area and equipped with rows of movie-style seating, many of them can accommodate more than a dozen viewers.
However, as this trend matures, we are expecting the media rooms of the future to downsize and become more modestly proportioned. They are also likely to be more inviting, with comfortable sofas, cushions, ottomans and beanbags replacing more industrial-style furniture as we strive to make these rooms look and feel as homely as the rest of the house.
Meanwhile, the eternal quest for better and more lifelike images continues in the world of on-screen pictures. High definition is the industry catch cry and Sony offers a suite of products in response to this demand. The latest Bravia high-definition LCD televisions have a built-in HD tuner for effortless access to high-definition services such as Freeview and MySky. High-definition cameras, camcorders and a VAIO notebook computer with Blu-ray disc drive extend the range.
Blu-ray is a new generation of disc that has superseded the trusty DVD. Although a Blu-ray disc looks the same as its predecessor, it offers superior picture quality. Widely considered to be the ultimate format high-definition disc, its on-screen picture is expressed in 1080 horizontal lines compared to about 570 on a DVD. A Blu-ray player (which is also capable of playing DVDs) is required to play Blu-ray discs. >
The future of home entertainment arrived with the June 2009 launch of the Xbox 360. Unveiled at the same time was a revolutionary new way to play games – Project Natal. Interaction is initiated purely through the movements of the people playing – not by any intermediary device. As the publicity blurb says: “See a ball? Kick it, hit it, trap it or catch it. If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips or speak, you and your friends can jump into the fun. The only experience needed is life experience.” A ground-breaking sensor combines a camera, depth sensor, microphone and layers of special software to enable body movements to be tracked and registered. Playing your favourite Xbox game will never be the same again.
As in the gaming world, home computing innovations continue to reflect the trend for interacting in ways other than via keyboard and mouse. The Hewlett Packard TouchSmart PC enables a more intuitive way of working: the touch screen is operated by tapping or sweeping your finger directly on the screen.
With the Hewlett Packard TouchSmart tx2 Notebook PC, you can draw and take notes on screen with a pressure-sensitive digital pen that even recognises your handwriting. The monitor can be twisted to become a flat slate, enabling a more natural writing experience. And, to top it all off, your notes will be automatically converted to typed text.
But it’s a product called Microsoft Surface that’s got the computing world talking. It has the ability to turn an ordinary surface, such as a tabletop, into an interactive surface that responds to instinctive gestures and touch. It was first seen in the 2002 futuristic movie Minority Report and is currently available in some US hotels. We’re betting this technology will eventually end up in Kiwi homes too. You read it here first.
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Story: Shelley Bridgeman
Photographs: Jackie Meiring