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Showcase Barcelona Home Shows Europe may be Catching up with U.S., Japan in Smart House Technology

Spain’s new smart home technology laboratory may help Europe stay on the cutting edge of research and development.

Associated Press Writer

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – From the outside, it looks like just another house on an upscale residential street outside Barcelona. But inside, the Eneo Labs showcase home is a state-of-the-art “smart house” that knows how to clean itself, adjust to fickle weather and reduce its energy consumption.

A real family of four calls this house home. Touted by its creators as the most advanced smart house in Europe, it is a sprawling two-story abode with an impeccable garden and impossibly green, spongy grass.

A weather monitor on the roof knows the temperature and climate conditions, so that it can shut off the sprinkler and cover the pool when it begins to rain, or unfurl the awnings when the sun is too bright.

Inside, lights turn off automatically when there is enough natural lighting, reducing energy consumption. Small black vents along the baseboards are actually automatic vacuum cleaners, and with the touch of a button they’ll suck up everything in reach.

It all seems like something out of a sci-fi movie, but most of these technologies have been used for a decade or more in the United States or Japan. Europe’s smart house industry has caught up rapidly in recent years, and experts say European companies now even have an edge on ways to help homes conserve energy.

“Though smart houses are more widespread in the U.S., Europe is far ahead in terms of researching and commercializing energy-efficient practices,” said Volker Hartkopf, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert in smart house technologies.

The house created by Spain’s Eneo Labs is full of luxuries, but its primary focus is on the occupants’ basic needs. At the front door, electronic keys help keep the family that lives here safe. Security cameras are scattered throughout the house, and owners can monitor any room from the Internet or mobile phone.

A trash chute for organic waste leads to a compost pile outside, making the home more environmentally friendly.

Entertainment is not overlooked. Large television screens are scattered throughout the house and serve not only for watching the evening news but also to tap into a central hard drive where movies, recorded TV shows, Mp3 files and family photos are stored.
The house also has ambiance intelligence, which means that with the flick of a switch it’s possible to create a scene perfect for a given activity or time of day.

The “good morning scene” turns on the radio, opens the blinds, runs a hot bath and starts the coffee pot. The “watch a movie scene” will dim the lights, lower the blinds, forward calls to voice mail, and prepare the TV screen.

“Our vision is that technology become a part of daily life, and that it be something that truly helps people,” said Javier Zamora, the general manager of Eneo Labs.

Even advocates of smart house technology say security remains a concern.

“If done right, the technology is very secure. But you do have to make sure the security of the data is assured and that you can trust the people providing services,” said Dan Bandera, an IBM program director and a board member of Osgi Alliance, an industry alliance whose networking technology forms the backbone of Eneo Lab’s showcase house.

And many researchers question how smart a smart home can be.

“There are still so many external factors that a smart house can’t take into account. To cool itself, a smart house may choose to open a window. But it won’t take into account the fact that construction is going on next doorBasically, a smart house will never be as smart as a human brain,” said Mark Younger, a researcher at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Wiring your home to make it a smart house will tally up to about 1 percent of the total cost of your house, Zamora said, but the hardware added to that (alarm systems, TV and computer screens, cameras, etc.) can drive the price sky-high.

Despite the costs, Eneo Lab’s commercial director predicted that smart homes won’t always be restricted to the wealthy.

“I’m completely sure than in just five years smart houses will be much more common,” he said. “By the year 2007 we foresee having 10,000 homes connected in Spain alone, and within a decade we could see this being much more mainstream. It’s definitely going places.”

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