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The January 22, 2004 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Connected by Design -- Our Broadband Odyssey

In early October we received an email from someone who had found us through the Web, looking for help on a project called "Home by Design" which was to open at CES in Las Vegas in January. We were intrigued: it sounded like an opportunity to demonstrate many of the ideas we write about in this newsletter, and we agreed to be the "Broadband Architects" for the showhouse.

Home by Design, 3 days before CES --> Click for larger pictureFast forward to January 6th, just three months later. Imagine a mostly-completed house in the parking lot of the Stardust Hotel, in a whirlwind of last-minute construction, trimming and painting, with CES opening in less than 48 hours. We and various colleagues were trying to duck around the stonemasons, painters, carpenters and decorators to get the broadband infrastructure in place -- so we could set up the broadband applications that the house promised to demonstrate. Equipment from our sponsors was piled into storage containers in the parking lot, but the house wasn't quite ready to bring it in and set it up. There was one other small detail: the electricity in the house hadn't been turned on yet.

None of us got a lot of sleep between then and Thursday morning, but thanks to the wonderful project team, the house was open and welcoming visitors on Thursday morning. Broadband was running like a charm as we welcomed visitors from Cox headquarters in Atlanta and demonstrated their HDTV with digital video recording, high speed data services on Media Center PCs and IP telephony. Although the kitchen counters hadn't yet made it in, the rest of the house was gorgeous and somehow we had all managed to avoid killing one another in the process!

Home by Design sign across from the Las Vegas Convention Center --> Click for larger pictureAs we write, the showhouse is still open for visitors. It will close after January 28th and will be moved to a suburban subdivision and sold. If any of you visit Las Vegas before then, we invite you to visit the house.

Connected by Design Tour

We wanted to demonstrate a few simple premises:

  • Broadband is the new residential utility; it should be part of the plan in building any new house or community
  • The purpose of all this technology is to make people's lives more enjoyable, convenient and productive
  • Broadband and connected technologies are not just about high speed data services but increasingly about entertainment, when and where you want it
  • Real people can afford this technology without breaking the bank.

To demonstrate these premises, we created a "Connected by Design Tour" of the house covering three basic building blocks:

  • Broadband infrastructure to the home
  • Home networking (the broadband infrastructure in the home)
  • The applications and services provided and the devices (appliances) upon which they were run.

Visitors to the home are guided through the tour by an Acoustiguide--a device like those used in museums so you can learn more details about items of interest. (Although we list a number of vendors who sponsored this project, our inclusion of them here should not be construed as our endorsement of either the companies or their products.)

Broadband to the Home

Much of the "broadband plumbing" was located in the mudroom --> Click for larger pictureVisitors could make free phone calls or check their email at the Internet café --> Click for larger pictureSince this is largely outside the home, there isn't much to see, except the terminations, which are placed in the "Mud Room". Cox Communications provides a full range of video, Internet and telephone services. Cox’s network is connected to the showhouse by a fiber-optic line provided by Corning; Wave7 Optics technology provides the connections between the fiber and the in-home network. Although all Cox services could have been provided over a standard "hybrid fiber coax" connection to the home, we installed fiber and associated electronics because of the increasing demand of developers to install fiber for "future proofing". Cox uses a cable modem for its high-speed data services and uses MTAs (multimedia terminal adapters) to connect its voice over IP services to Panasonic phones. Cox invites visitors to use these phones and its VoIP service to call anywhere in the world.

Home Networking

The house demonstrates that one size does not fit all applications -- different types are most suitable for different applications. For new construction, structured wiring provides future-proofing and is a long-term investment; despite the progress being made by other forms of networking, structured wiring is still superior. We show other types of home networking including Wi-Fi wireless and HomePlug powerline.

Leviton Structured Media Center, the central distribution panel --> Click for larger pictureStructured Wiring: The "nerve center" of the house is the Leviton Structured Media Center which brings all of the broadband connections to and throughout the home to a central distribution panel. On one side it connects to Cox’s network and on the other to each room of the house using differently colored cables. Black and white coaxial cables carry video services throughout the house; blue and white Category 5e cables carry data and telephony services.

Wireless: Wireless is clearly the right solution for mobile devices in the home, such as laptops or SmartDisplays like the ones we had from Viewsonic. Three SMC 2870Ws create a Wi-Fi network covering the entire house: two in the house and the third on the outside terrace. This is undoubtedly "overkill" for the size of the house, but we designed it to accommodate numerous visitors and our own group working at the house. Everybody working on the project used their laptops on the network as soon as we got it set up, and it is now running as a hotspot for visitors to the house.

Visitors try out Asoka's PlugLink IP Camera --> Click for larger pictureHomePlug: We have written in the past about using HomePlug to extend our Ethernet network to our Audiotron in our dining room. In the showhouse, Asoka's Security Camera connected through an Ethernet/HomePlug adapter attracts lots of attention.

Applications and Appliances

The broadband connection and home networking provide the "plumbing" for the applications we demonstrate and the products they run on.

Football on a 50" screen feels like you are there --> Click for larger pictureGateway Media Center PC in the away room --> Click for larger pictureThis part of the tour starts in what architect Sarah Susanka calls the "Away Room". It's a multi-purpose room which can be used for adults to chat alone, a media room, an in-home office or an extra guest room. A plasma TV screen shows video entertainment from Cox, including HDTV, HD digital video recording and video on demand. For other entertainment and work-at-home aspects, we have a 610 Media Center PC from Gateway -- an "all in one" design that fits well in this space. We use it not only for the usual Web surfing, but also for playing newly-created sponsor videos and for enjoying pictures and music stored on the machine and moved across the network. This room is a favorite for the night watchman, who probably has the best equipped house and the most enjoyable job one could imagine!

Looking from my PC in NJ at the 4 cameras showing visitors touring during IBS --> Click for larger pictureThe central control panel for Leviton’s Decora Home Control system is mounted on the wall outside the kitchen. It controls all the lighting and energy management applications in the home. A touch screen simplifies system setup, and provides a browser-based interface for user control of lighting, thermostat, shade and drapery controls. Using the display, a parent can deactivate electrical outlets in a child’s room for improved child safety. Parents can also monitor cameras and manage power usage on the screen. The screen also displays views from four Panasonic cameras mounted inside and outside the house; the cameras can be remotely accessed, moved and zoomed.

Last year, Mark Francisco of Comcast wrote a guest article on applying broadband to energy management, and the showhouse demonstrates an interesting implementation of this concept. A key design goal was to create a home that not only fits the way we live, but does so with as little impact and waste of energy and resources as possible. Builder Paul Trudeau partnered with Nevada Power to help make this home as energy-efficient as possible. Nevada Power can monitor the patterns of energy usage in this home and determine the home's specific energy-load requirements. At peak times, the utility can make small adjustments to energy use in individual homes; by doing this in many homes at the same time, Nevada Power can shift large energy loads from peak to off-peak times. Nevada Power communicates with the home through Cox’s cable network. In exchange for participating in this program -- which ultimately allows the utility to save money by making better use of its power generating capacity and not building more generating stations – homeowners receive a discount on their electric bill. So this system not only saves energy, but it puts real money into the pocket's of the homeowners.

In another demonstration of energy management, Square D is showing a technology that allows local and remote control of a home’s power, lighting and HVAC systems. A new motorized circuit breaker plugs into a standard QO Load Center. Square D worked with Leviton to create a complete system for both new construction and for retrofit in existing homes. The Square D breakers use power line networking with Leviton’s Control Bus Interface to communicate with other devices in the home network and – over Cox’s high-speed connection – with the outside world. This system can automate the switchover between normal electrical service and a backup generator, and makes it possible to conserve energy from appliances like hot water heaters during peak loads or when the homeowner is away. Homeowners can remotely de-energize appliances during severe weather, reducing the risk of damage.

A press visitor in the bedroom, with Dell Media Center PC interface --> Click for larger pictureThe Master Bedroom is designed as a personal space, with technology for entertainment as well as possibly sneaking a peak at your email. Furniture designer Doug Green (whose pieces we've admired for years) placed a media armoire housing a Dell Media Center PC and a Cox-provided S-A 8000HD set top box for high definition TV and digital video recording. Above the armoire, an NEC plasma TV shows all the cable video services plus movies downloaded to the PC from the Movielink service. This is also a great place for using PC-based subscription audio services like Rhapsody, MusicNet and MusicMatch.

In the Living Room, Roku's HD1000 Digital Media Player shows great art or nature scenes in high definition on a Dell 23" LCD display when it isn't being used for other applications.

On the Sunporch, a Gateway 42" plasma display and a Gateway Connected DVD Player show product videos stored on a PC hard drive.

What Did We Learn?

Here are a few of our lessons from the project.

  • People have a hard time accepting that so much of this technology is available today. Many of the PR companies for sponsors kept trying to write releases about the showhouse as the "home of the future". We had to keep repeating that was the wrong positioning: all the products and services in the house are available today and most are very affordable.
  • Companies have some challenges to overcome in making their products easy enough for consumers to install and use. You've all experienced what we mean.
  • Standards like those under way at DHWG (see the previous article) are critical for making interoperability work. We had some sponsor videos encoded in MPEG2 and planned to send them wirelessly from one of the PCs via a media adapter to a screen in another room. But we discovered the video had been encoded at too fast a bit rate and there was no time to re-encode it.
  • Not surprisingly, we learned that getting multiple broadband services, systems and applications installed and running in a house in a very short time requires planning, planning and more planning -- followed by lots of flexibility and having a "plan B" ready.
  • It wasn't necessarily the most expensive products that had the biggest "wow factor" for people working on and visiting the house. One example was the PlugLink IP Camera from Asoka: you just plug it in and it transmits pictures to a PC on the network; you can also manage it remotely through a browser interface.

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