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OCTOBER 27, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 42 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Munshi Ahmed for Asiaweek.


Inside the Wired Home
This techno-midget didn't burn the house down, but it was touch-and-go in a Net-linked Singapore apartment
By PETER CORDINGLEY

The route march in from the outer reaches of Changi airport provides ample opportunity for contemplation. What seemed like the final five kilometers were taken up by something that had been troubling me ever since I received the first e-mail about the assignment from Hong Kong a week before. Why would Asiaweek send me all the way from Manila to Singapore to do a consumer test on an experimental, fully automated Internet Home?

By the time I reached the Immigration desk, I had worked it out. The Asiaweek.com techies had chosen me because I was likely to make enough mistakes to keep them chuckling for weeks. The Singapore house is linked to the Internet by 24-hour, high-speed broadband access. You've got video-conferencing, a barcode scanner and Internet link in the kitchen, webcams on the walls, a plasma-display flat screen, wireless devices and touchscreen panels all over the place. In other words, it's a trap for a techno-midget like me. The people in Hong Kong were obviously hoping I would at least lock myself out on the balcony all afternoon. Well, they got that wrong for a start. There's no balcony.

The concept of the networked house has been around for a while. The idea is that sometime in the future, everything in the home will be smarter than the occupant. Walk into a room and the light bulbs will remember you and blink to the setting you prefer. The fridge will be able to talk electronically with the local grocery store ("Three packets of chicken legs — and none of that skin and gristle you sent last time") and at the sound of your footsteps the stereo will instantly eject your daughter's Britney Spears in favor of Frank Sinatra. It's all a bit of a dream, of course, though plunging PC prices and the inability of some people to go 10 paces without checking their e-mail are bringing wired homes nearer all the time.

Singapore's Internet House isn't yet like that. In fact, it isn't a house at all. It is an ordinary-looking flat (about nine years old, third floor, 100 square meters, four rooms) in a standard housing development (Bishan, if you must know) — meaning it is far superior to anything like it anywhere in the world. Out of one window is a school surrounded by manicured playing fields, and beyond that the local hawker food center, a busy little spot where the merchant stalls all sport government ratings of their hygiene standards. (The one with the worst marks seems to get all the trade.) By Lion City standards, there isn't a more normal setting than this for a journey to the future.

Of course, this being Singapore, the government is involved in the project right up to its eyeballs — mainly through the coordinating efforts of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, the driving force behind the city state's ambitious plan to be the information-technology capital of Asia, and through Singtel Aeradio, provider of the broadband Internet connection, its integration with the apartment's automation systems and some other technical stuff that went whistling clean over my head.

The editorial brief: To carry out a Robinson Crusoe-style test to see if I can survive alone in an Internet Home for a day — or at least make the place respond to some of my wishes or . . . well, you know my theory about the balcony. Unfortunately, it didn't quite work out that way. For a start, the people living in the flat when sundry media types are not sitting on their sofa, using their toilet or peering in their fridge, didn't want me around when they were there (perfectly understandable, said my wife). And, anyhow, the place wasn't quite finished. That was nobody's fault, but it did rather reduce the chasm between the technology and me. On hand to ensure that nothing truly embarrassing happened was Hwan Ee Seng, a wizard of a project manager from ASPnetcentre, which specializes in e-business solutions, and William Oei, public-relations manager of Cisco Systems, the networking people and providers of the firewall/router and network.

So there we were, the three of us standing outside the flat, an electronic key in my hand, a look of amused concern on my two minders' faces and the mysteries of the future awaiting me on the other side of the door. (In the interests of total accuracy, I should perhaps explain that this is not quite the way it was. Hwan had earlier spent more than an hour explaining the features to me, but I could tell from the frown on his brow that he didn't think a great deal was being absorbed. Clever man.)

Electronic key to sensor. Door opens, and I step inside. I now have 15 seconds to disarm the security alarm. If I don't, a bell from hell will ring and a text message will automatically be sent to the owner's cellphone, warning him there is an intruder in his home. There's a touchscreen panel just inside the door and all I have to do is remember where to tap it and . . . drrrring, darn it, there goes the alarm. The telephone now rings and the owner is on the line to Hwan, wondering if everything is okay. So the system works. A good start for the technology, if not for me.

The touchscreen panel (about the size of a fist) is wired to control the lighting and aircon in all the rooms, plus elements of the home-entertainment system. I quickly get the aircon working, but the rest of the operation seems fiddly and makes me feel uncomfortably like someone pecking away at his PalmPilot. I don't ever want to be that person, but have to admit the touchscreen is fun and, by my 78-rpm standards, very cool. Still, after two minutes of tapping, checking and tapping again, I decide to go low-tech and flick on the light switch right alongside the box.

The occupants — Raymond Tang, 29, and wife Ashley Aw, 27 — can do all this and plenty more from the office or from anywhere they have access to a computer and the Internet. Or from a WAP cellphone, I suppose. I'm not sure about that, as I didn't ask that question, but why not? Anyway, the bottom line is that Raymond and Ashley can get their home nice and cool ready for their return, with a couple of lights on to say welcome. Or they can simply tap the "I'm Home" box on the touchscreen panel as they walk in and everything will spring to pre-programmed life. When they leave, they hit "I'm Away," leaving the alarm system and cameras running. From outside, they can monitor what's going on at home through the webcams, though there is apparently a gray area of the law here involving the right to know you are being observed.

The kitchen beckons. There is a barcode scanner for keeping a running inventory of the groceries in stock. The idea is that you pass items under the scanner before putting them away. Two bottles of milk, four six-packs of beer (oops, sorry, that's mine), one wholegrain loaf. When the goods are finished, you delete them and thus create an electronic shopping list. This you send to the store directly from the web panel next to the scanner or from the wireless terminal in the living room or from the PC in the study or from the wireless notebook computer in the master bedroom. The shop then calls (we're talking telephone here) to confirm a delivery time, and, quicker than you can say motherboard, the fridge is full again.

One day, this is the way everyone will shop. But not today. For a start, only one grocery chain is as yet online to the Internet Home. If you buy your goods anywhere else, the scanner doesn't recognize them. And for this kind of hassle-free shopping to work at its very best, the scanner should not fall off the wall. That problem apparently had to do with a requirement that the installers use Velcro. Way in the future, when our legs have fallen off because we have no need for them, they will use screws. The Straits Times newspaper quoted Au as saying the smart shopping system was her favorite feature in the flat. I guess the scanner didn't fall for her.

I had much better luck in the study, where I used the HP PC to check the line-up at the local clinic (one person in with the doc, six waiting), to look for a cheap second-hand Ferrari (nothing doing in the neighborhood), pretend to book a badminton court and pay local charges, and find a garage to service the Ferrari I didn't yet have. Not exactly survival stuff, but a fine community service of the kind Singaporeans are so good at. Top marks.

I discover I am not a natural-born videoconferencer — which I guess means I can forget a late-blossoming career in television. The beard doesn't work, and Jessica Ng, the person on the other end of the link at the International Video Conferencing Center, suggests ever so nicely that I have to watch my body language. No such problem for homeowner Tang, apparently. He is very excited by having videoconferencing at home, and is looking forward to using it when he's traveling. How? Where? That's what I want to know. At the moment, he can't even use it from the office as his employer has not given permission for a camera to be installed there. Still, we're talking about the future here, so there's no reason to be sour, I think to myself. Maybe it was the body-language business.

What lies ahead for the Internet Home? Well, the experiment now passes full-time to the government people at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore. They will monitor the pilot project for six months to see if it can be expanded and to explore what needs to be built into future homes. Somehow, you can't help feeling Singapore is on to something — and is way ahead of anyone else in the region. As for the occupants of the home of the future, they have a property that has been vastly enhanced in value, get to keep what has been installed (estimated value: $40,000) and won't have me setting off their alarm any more.

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