[UTA Magazine]


The house of the future
It may not rival the Jetson's, but new smart home will pamper its dwellers


Almost as soon as electricity started flowing, futurists could visualize the residence of tomorrow as a "smart home" able to sense-and meet-its inhabitants' environmental wishes.

The smart home, in the vernacular an "intelligent host," records frequently watched TV programs automatically, turns on the coffee, draws a whirlpool bath at precisely 101 degrees and adjusts room temperatures. It knows what's running low in the refrigerator and orders more. It recognizes that the pet schnauzer is not an intruder.

"The smart house can adjust temperatures, lighting and other devices while you're there and while you're not, to minimize the cost while still keeping you comfortable."
—Computer Science and Engineering Professor Diane Cook

Though the technology has taken awhile to arrive, smart homes are already a $600 million-a-year business. With the further integration of computer and wireless technologies, prospects are for a multibillion-dollar industry within a very few years.

That is, if the appropriate research is undertaken and completed, which is exactly what UTA's soon-to-be-built MavHome is all about.

Display Panel

Houses like the one created by UTA research associate Michael Youngblood (above) for a 3-D smart home simulator may one day contain control panels, similar to this one in a Dallas condominium, that allow residents to automate their home life.

The National Science Foundation is so interested that it has provided a $1.16 million support grant. The home will be funded by other donations or grants and built on the UTA campus, likely at Davis Street and UTA Boulevard. The multidisciplinary research project aims to create a home as an intelligent agent that reads its environment and takes action as required.

Suppliers and manufacturers are lining up to have their products tested at the MavHome. "The house will be approximately 4,000 square feet, or possibly larger," said MavHome team member Diane Cook, a computer science and engineering professor. "There's considerable interest in participation by at least a couple of corporations, which could boost the size somewhat."

Dr. Cook said the home will be architecturally state of the art, with portions used for short-term experimental residency, classrooms, labs, offices for researchers and space for seminars, receptions and technology demonstrations.

Until the home is designed and built, the MavHome team-in addition to Dr. Cook, faculty members Lawrence Holder, Sajal Das, Sharma Chakravarthy, Manfred Huber, Farhad Kamangar and Ramesh Yerraballi-is putting together a demonstration project in a UTA lab that will eventually be enlarged and moved to the house.

"Over the summer we had students using remote controls to operate a variety of devices as they come into the lab to work, eat, that kind of thing," Dr. Cook said. "We collect data on these individuals, their uses and their typical activities in the lab."

This fall, that data is being used to predict activities and automatically develop patterns of use and optimization.

"Not only does a smart house make living easier, it has implications for enormous energy savings," Dr. Cook points out. "We look at factors like comfort of the inhabitant as well as saving operating costs. The smart house can adjust temperatures, lighting and other devices while you're there and while you're not, to minimize the cost while still keeping you comfortable.

"We have to make these decisions carefully, though, because we don't necessarily want to automate everything. If we get it wrong, it's going to be very annoying and make people not want to use this technology."

Such a computerized environment could easily adapt to the kind of differences, for example, that occur as kids grow up or occupants change. "Patterns of activity are going to change, just as they do when one family moves out and another moves in," Dr. Cook said.

In addition, voice recognition and activation will be part of any smart house project, meaning an oral ability to alter the home environment. In short, to give orders. Temperature up, down. Open pet door. Run bath now.

Despite all of this technological complexity, the smart house must be relatively easy to use. Residents might want to phone home with special orders or procedure changes.

"This is like a light clapper," Dr. Cook jokes, "but a great deal more intelligent."

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