The next big things

The next big things


home entertainment

There have been any number of glitzy gadget shows around the world recently — CES in the States, CeBIT in Germany and CEATEC in Tokyo, for instance — but nothing has really had the kind of impact we’ve come to expect from them. Rather than big breakthroughs, the brainiacs in the smartest companies appear to be happily tweaking the devices we already have — smart phones you squeeze, remotes that talk back, and screens you wink or wave at. But after a couple of decades of almost constant digital reinvention, many people have welcomed this latest breather as a chance to assess what might become long-lasting trends and what may go the way of the vertical grill. Here at Luxury Home Design we think that’s not a bad idea either, and we’ve picked out some of the most promising digital home and lifestyle “themes” to put your money on.

TV or not TV
It might seem like back to the future, but television is one of our biggest picks. In fact, we’re in good company given the starring role it’s been getting at most technology shows for some time now. It may have revolutionised home entertainment almost 60 years ago, but despite countless predictions of its impending demise, the TV has still managed to keep pace with our fast-paced, tech-focused world. And that doesn’t look like ending any time soon. For a start, it still occupies one of the most central places in our lives when we want to relax, despite all the other screens craving our attention. According to the Deloitte 2010 TMT Predictions study, 90 per cent of all television watched will still be via traditional broadcasts this year. It certainly helps that broadcasters have made TV hip again via cutting-edge dramas or comedy — think The Wire, True Blood or 30 Rock — but the sets themselves have also kept upping their technological and design edges. Since before the new millennium, the world’s consumers have been busily buying digital, flatscreen LCD or Plasma televisions in their millions, and until recently their priority was to find the thinnest, widest and coolest one in the shop. But while most companies are still shaving the weight off where they can — LG’s latest is the 25mm-thick “Skinny Frame” Plasma, for example — the digital race has switched to the screen and what’s possible on it. High Definition got that going and now there’s even talk of Ultra HD just down the track. But what’s really catching on is webconnected televisions. For a while there it almost looked like the computer was going to somehow take over in the home video/home movie stakes, but no longer. Now the TV looks like morphing between the two. New figures from the US show that spending on web-enabled sets is already booming. Research company iSuppli recently found that more than a quarter of consumers there are now watching Internet-connected TVs, either directly from the set via IPTV or widgets, for example, or through a second device such as Apple TV, Tivo or Roku. Expect this to become ubiquitous very soon. Already the number of devices that can help TVs access online content are multiplying, with game boxes, digital video recorders and Blu-Ray DVD players rapidly adding in the extra features to help us surf. Of course, downloading content, particularly new and old-release movies owned by the big studios, may still not be as smooth as the companies selling the sets would have you believe, but it won’t take long. Here in Australia, Telstra and Clipsal, the home networking people, have just announced that houses in Velocity estates with optic fibre to the door will be able to stream online material to high-definition TVs — a major advance on the options available at home even a year ago. But the poor old television can’t rest on its laurels just yet, it seems. Now the latest “must have” is 3D, and companies such as Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are already rolling out models in the international marketplace, with most expected here very soon. Recent figures suggest there’ll be nearly 16 million 3D TVs sold by 2013, but that figure could go as high as 64 million by 2018. Not everyone, though, is convinced that 3D will be any more than a passing fad, but if it can be added with ease — and little overall cost in the long run — then rest assured it will be on offer and we’ll watch it.

Connected to convenience
That’s when we can relax, of course. Which is why the “always on” and “always at hand” web trend is the other major one changing the way we live, relax and work at home. The names and packaging may change at a dizzying pace — smart phone, supersmart phone, MP3 player, Blackberry, tablet, iPad, e-reader, netbook, notebook or even the now slightly aging laptop — but they’re all doing a lot of similar things. And that’s keeping us connected, informed and entertained via the Internet. There’s no doubt how successful these devices have become; there will be more than one billion Internet-enabled mobile devices worldwide in three years’ time and the number of people using them will more than double from today’s 450 million. In fact, the war is now on to see which format will emerge as the most convenient and most stylish high-tech accessory — or accessories — to have close by in our everyday lives. No sooner has one company developed a cool and connected device than the “me toos” rush in to compete, and more often than not that’s with Apple these days. While the iPhone has spawned many copies from the likes of Google, Palm or Sony, there’s no guarantee the phone will always be as dominant in the future. For a start, people are beginning to want laptop-like features, but in a more convenient package. This started to become obvious as the less-bulky, less-finicky netbooks, notebooks and tablets starting selling faster, and that may become even more urgent as video networking picks up pace. Now the iPad has entered the picture, though it was not the first to try the format and is quickly being challenged by other models. Also clouding the uncertainty is the direction that e-readers will now take, especially as companies such as Apple stitch up deals with media conglomerates such as Conde Nast or News Limited to deliver slick, electronic versions of magazines and newspapers. What’s certain is that online mobility, portability and convenience will be the catch cry for the next decade and it will be the standard we bring to all of our daily gadgets buys. Just one cultural trend — social networking — will help keep that on track. While many people may dismiss this too as one more superficial trend (and some sites will undoubtedly come and go), it’s clear that Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, to name only the biggest, are providing a real service. That’s why Facebook grew by 200 per cent last year and Twitter by a whopping 1000 per cent, jumps that have been fuelled by the support of all age groups, from young to old. And strangely enough, social networking is also giving television a boost as people switch between web screens to TV ones, with online comment helping big events such as sports or cult shows draw in the digital crowd.

The great green indoors
It might almost seem like a cliché to say we’ll all be a lot more energy and carbon conscious in the future, but for many of us there’ll really be no other choice. That’s because technology is rapidly filling in the blanks, taking over to help us not only be highly conscious of the energy or water we’re using around the house or apartment, but actually how to actively manage it. Already the Internet is swarming with home energy tutorials and software, most of it free. Google got in early with PowerMeter, and now even smart phones are coming with applications that can do much the same thing. But we’ll be able to rely on a lot more than that in future. For a start, most of us will soon be very comfortable checking in on a daily basis with the so-called “smart metres”, millions of which are being installed in homes around the world right now. In fact, it’s now being estimated that by 2015 more than 28 million people will be using home-energy displays to keep track of their usage according to a new report from Pike Research. Once in, and our governments begin to digitise our power networks on smart grids, we’ll be having two-way conversations with the electricity, gas or water company about when to cut back and how to get a bargain rate. The white box makers such as Whirlpool or Electrolux have seen this coming for a while and have begun to roll out what they’re calling “smart appliances” — those that can be connected into a data jack for online communication, repair and software updates. Whirlpool has begun demonstrating its first smart appliance — a clothes dryer — that automatically reacts to signals sent out by the power company. Whirlpool says all its appliances will be the same by 2016 and you can expect most other companies to quickly join up. Of course, we’re already seeing appliance makers and regulators getting much tougher about how the devices in our lives should operate. The recent tough energy restrictions on TVs passed in California are already being copied in other American states and being carefully watched by governments around the world. It’s a market that will only get bigger and bigger. In fact, one new study suggests that the energy-efficient home improvement market will grow from $38 billion now to more than $50 billion globally in just four years.

Total control over you
Much of this effort will unfortunately be lost unless we make some effort to get our homes up to speed, technologically speaking, that is. And that will mean creating a home that is networked — either using wires or wireless and preferably both — so that you have data outlets in every room and there is high-speed connection right around the house. And that means control, management and flexibility. Many people are put off by the notion of “home automation”, and certainly full-on home networking has been a slow sell in most markets around the world. But that’s now changing, especially as we get much faster broadband available at the front door, the technological options get so much more easy to install and use, and our taste for push-button convenience and lots of data becomes second nature. Already most modern homes are dealing with more computer power than was ever dreamed of just a decade ago as everyone in the family logs on to both communal and individual plans for music, emails, movies, video, games, phone calls, texts and just plain web browsing. The average American already consumes about 34 gigabytes of data and information each day — an increase of about 350 percent over nearly three decades — and Australians are clearly on the same page (or screen). Interestingly, the numbers are being fuelled by everyone doing things online at home simultaneously, but with gaming using half our daily data quota. More and more we’re accessing all this computer power using remotes and touchscreens to manage our entertainment or communications at home. Companies such as Control4 or Crestron are certainly helping to make that link as seamless as possible so that control over nearly every appliance or machine in the house can be done from the armchair or bedroom. You can expect this to get a lot more “second nature” at home as we increasingly take moving data around the house at the touch of a button for granted. Not only are remotes getting smarter — and the move is on to develop a universal one for all our digital needs — but intelligent screens will soon be everywhere. And expect touch to soon be gesture as well.

I robot, you robot
You have every right to express some misgivings when you hear we will ultimately live with some other form of higher intelligence at home — well, at least robotic, anyway. After all, we’ve been promised domestic “cyborgs” for decades now, with Rosie, the dysfunctional robotic maid from the futuristic cartoon series The Jetsons, the most carved into our collective cultural memory. Though that was 2062 after all. At its simplest, a robot is any artificial creation with in-built intelligence that lets it sense the environment, and yes, we are already living with a number of them. Not only are navigation systems in cars a form of robot, but US company iRobot has been selling the Roomba series of floor vacuum cleaners and polishers for a number of years with great success. The Roomba is certainly smart; it not only senses obstacles, but knows when rooms are clean, navigates by itself, can change its behaviour 67 times in a minute and, in a nod to the technophobes among us, play an audio tutorial on request. But this really looks like being just the start. Billions of dollars are now being spent on developing robots that can have some simple or far more complex role at home. While a lot of artificial intelligence is being looked at in terms of how it can help older people remain at home longer (one of the latest Japanese ones helps carry frail people around), the other big trend is with food. In recent years, a whole host of robots have been created that cook and serve food in a bid to make people feel more comfortable with them at home. At Carnegie Mellon University, the Human Robot Interaction Group has just created “Snackbot”, a prototype that is big on approachability, humanoid characteristics and the ability to deliver your favourite betweendinner snack food. But it is not alone as new robots roll out that can chop, dice, grill, retrieve digital recipes and deliver meals. What still isn’t clear is what form our domestic robots will ultimately take. A fierce battle is being waged in AI land over whether we want humanoid-looking bots or simply fancy machines that know their place, such as the Roomba. I’m just hoping mine can make a decent coffee in the morning and doesn’t turn out to be like the psychotic robot, Hal, in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey.