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For at least half a century, home automation exhibits at trade shows have piqued our curiosity by suggesting what the future may bring ten or twenty years hence. When the General Electric Appliances Company demonstrated a suite of web-connected appliances at the National Kitchen and Bath Show at Chicago's McCormick Place on April 7-9, they broke with that tradition. Demonstrating new technologies developed by Sun Microsystems Laboratories, their home automation exhibit showcased an existing kitchen website that looked more familiar than futuristic.
In front of the exhibit, onlookers huddled around cell phones and
Palm VII devices located throughout the audience. What they glimpsed were
web-clipped pages with URLs such as http://www.myfridge/temperature.html
and with content like "The temperature in your fresh vegetable compartment
Data, sent from the refrigerator via a home gateway, integrated with the
manufacturer's web site, also appeared on a larger "Web Pad" touchscreen on
the kitchen counter. There, the pages were populated with links and photos
and formatted like any HTML page on a web browser. In fact, these were real
HTML pages and web browsers. The underlying technology here makes
web-connected appliances cost-effective and attractive for manufacturers to
build. The appliance portal technology was developed at Sun Microsystems
Laboratories in Mountain View, California. "We decided to look at what the
Web would be like three years from now," says Stephen Uhler. Uhler, who is
the principal investigator for web application technologies, worked closely
with colleagues Rinaldo
Manufacturers are more than dabbling in smart appliance research - they are building prototypes to prove designs. Some are launching products. The web is the medium in many approaches because HTML makes it easy for all of us to use. But the research has just begun to take on new and exciting directions. Appliance makers are looking to make smart appliances work for them.
A Compelling Proposition
The appliance portal technology evolved from concept to implementation with a relentlessly practical focus. That's because at each phase, Uhler and his colleagues knew they had to make the design attractive to an appliance industry eager to keep production costs low.
"We had to make them a compelling value proposition," Uhler recalls.
The emphasis was on designing the technology from the manufacturer's point of view. And that meant thinking about smart appliances as a means of helping manufacturers service their products remotely and develop "one-to-one" relationships with customers. Of course, it was all academic until the cost barrier could be broken. "The industry simply would not consider an embedded appliance capability if it cost more than a few dollars per unit."
"We did a research experiment," says Uhler, "and we came up with a strategy to deploy."
The nature of the experiment was simple: What can we embed in an appliance to create its telemetry - the temperature, pressure, parts-and-process status, and everything else that service and maintenance people want to know - and still meet the appliance industry's tight cost requirements? Those requirements forced Uhler to reject as too expensive any embedded device. In so doing, Uhler and his colleagues parted ways with an unspoken principle of current web appliance design.
That unspoken principle, placing a large multitasking operating system (such as the Microsoft Windows CE operating system) into the appliance to achieve an Internet capability, though a popular approach for web-connectivity architectures, adds overhead. A "fat" embedded device is expensive. It can also encumber the appliance with additional power supply, wiring, and environmental requirements.
The fat-device problem is one of the reasons why smart appliances, so far, have been confined mainly to concept exhibits and homes of the rich and curious.
Uhler's insight led Sun Labs to explore a curious choice: embedding a low-cost, low-speed, power-line modem inside the appliance. The device is the size and weight of a light switch panel and adds less than $5 to the manufacturer's cost margin. And it uses a signaling protocol that is easily coupled with telemetric sensors inside the appliance.
As it is, the power-line modem has an ultra-slim profile, making virtually no operational demands on the appliance. The device sends and receives data over the same power line used by the appliance, so consumers do not need network connections for each appliance; the power cord becomes the network connection.
The power-line modem makes use of the proven, if decades old, X10 protocol technology. That posed the next challenge. The X10 signals are emitted from the appliance power cord at 1970 speeds (about 60 Baud). Converting and boosting the signals to make them available and responsive to a web client required a bit of magic from a new JavaTM technology-coded mini web server.
The mini web server is at the heart of the prototype, and it resides in the home gateway. The gateway could be a PC or a remote ISP server. Or it might be the mouse-sized interface board that Sun Labs created to demonstrate the appliance portal technology at McCormick Place.
The home gateway connects the appliances to the network by communicating with the embedded power-line modem. It makes up for the slow speed of the embedded device by running a background task that continuously polls the appliance for telemetric data. It then formats the data into HTML, and scales it to be device-aware and responsive. When a manufacturer places an appliance request from an Internet node, the data is available immediately and then constantly updated. This work is accomplished by the TINI (Tiny InterNet Interface) board inside the gateway.
"We built a small, embeddable modem to interface appliances and PCs or home gateways to the power-line," says
The TINI board "acts as a smart, fast, proxy for the unintelligent, slow appliances," says
The mini web server makes use of the URL Programming Interface or "UPI." Developed at Sun Labs, the UPI implements a URL for each appliance, in effect creating an appliance network of linked HTML pages.
The real trick, according to Uhler, is how the server "proxies" those pages to connected browsers anywhere - to homeowners at work, to appliance maintenance manufacturers for troubleshooting. For PDAs and cell phones with smaller viewers, the gateway performs web-clipping. For the embedded device, the gateway accepts HTTP requests on behalf of the appliances and then reissues the requests, simplified, over the appliance network.
"The mini-server integrates an HTML-based presentation and service layer for any appliance," says
Looking to Leverage
What this achieves for appliance manufacturers is a familiar, HTML interface and easy access to home appliances via a host of devices from phones to PDAs to networked computers. The benefits are compounded for appliance manufacturers. First, they can talk directly to a malfunctioning appliance, running diagnostics remotely for more efficient service and parts delivery. Second, according to Uhler, manufacturers get a "one-on-one, ongoing customer relationship" with consumers. At the very least, manufacturers will likely know when an appliance reaches its operational end of life and when consumers are in the market for a new one.
The same technology that makes appliances available as HTML pages on the web may be ripe for application in dozens of process-control and other manufacturing settings.
Manufacturing and inventory control environments are already busy building company intranets and B2B extranets to integrate software tasks. The economy-wide browser boom,
Of course, the appliance portal technology will likely catch on first in the home automation market. It has enormous potential as a low-cost, easy-to-use alternative to "wiring the house" with embedded devices that require high bandwidth, and expensive computational resources and sophisticated maintenance as well.
"There's a difference between the vision people have and how to begin to get there," Uhler says. "You've got to find something you can deploy today."
handlers work in Web-accessible home automation: Using Sun Labs' Brazil
server as your starting point.