Comfort comes first in digital dream home

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 12:00am

As Fanny Cheuk Ka-ming pressed her thumb against a sensor at the entrance to her Tai Po house, a computer-generated voice greeted her by name: 'The security system is disarmed. The room temperature is set to 21 degrees. You have two messages in the mail box. You had one visitor while you were away. The sprinkler system operated according to your preset time.'

Putting on her slippers was one of the few manual operations Ms Cheuk had to do once in the house. As she entered the living room, an electronic curtain rolled down to a preset length, a floor light was activated, and her choice of New Age music began playing from a centralised jukebox.

This is a dream home guaranteed to delight science fiction fans. But the idea behind Ms Cheuk's sophisticated 3,000 square foot digital home was simple - to make life as smooth as possible.

'I was tired of going upstairs to check if all the windows were shut when I was in a rush, which often triggered a false alarm on my old home security system. Not to mention the dozens of remote controls lying on my coffee table,' said the house owner, Ms Cheuk, a former management consultant.

The best way to picture her digital abode is to think of the central computer as one large master remote control that can be used for all amenities in the house.

At your fingertips, you have a vast audio-visual library equipped to play preloaded music, movies, web-radio and even digital family photos; a sophisticated security system that can detect an open window and display its location on a plasma TV; and the ability to listen to all voice messages recorded digitally from an ordinary phone.

The automation extends to all rooms in the house. And there are fingerprint recognition devices in each room to control lighting, temperature and phone connection.

But best of all, the above applications meld into one user-friendly interface - with easily recognisable icons - that runs on internet browsers. This means Ms Cheuk can command her broadband networked house from any computer or PDA connected to the Net.

In comparison to earlier smart homes controlled by closed integrated systems, appliances in this home are hooked up through the internet. And an open platform allows users to mix different brands of TVs, air-conditioning systems and audio systems as desired.

Such openness is significant when the home owner is away from home, as she can monitor her house through a web camera on the internet, chat with visitors at her front door and control the door remotely with a mobile phone.

Contrary to the cold greeting of a computer, Ms Cheuk viewed the needs in her digital home from a human perspective.

'Appliance manufacturers are forcing consumers to adapt to their industrial standards, but end users should have the power to override amenities according to their specific needs,' she said.

The digital home was the end product of Ms Cheuk's dream of living in an automated home.

And response to her dream from visitors has been so positive, she has decided to turn her tailor-made digital home into a business, and has already converted more than three houses into fully digital ones.

What is the most exotic request she has had from a client? 'A digital wine cellar which reports the temperature and inventory of wine to the central computer.

'I am still working on it; I guess I need to develop a comprehensive bar-code system for the digitalised cellar,' said Ms Cheuk.

Setting up a home such as Ms Cheuk's will cost around $1 million. But the thrifty home owner says in the near future she will be able to bring the costs down to $100,000.

'We are developing a more economic system for smaller apartments which don't require extensive security systems,' she said.