Smart home technology becoming more mainstream in Australia, with luxury homes pushing technological innovation boundaries; savvy developers using smart home technology to gain sales edge, finds report

SURRY HILLS, New South Wales , November 8, 2013 () – Tomorrow's hi-tech housing of the future is already here

IN the past five years, technology has revolutionised our lives with the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets.

Now the home is catching up.

Smart home technology, which co-ordinates and controls lights, televisions, security and air conditioning, is becoming mainstream, while at the top end, luxury homes are pushing the boundaries of technological innovation, particularly in the realms of entertainment.

``If you can think of it, it's happening,'' says James Billington, owner and director of Smart Home Solutions, a home automation provider.

A number of savvy developers use home technology to gain a sales edge. Longton, which is developing apartments in Sydney's Roseville and Mascot, offers not just iPad-controlled home automation, but also iCommunity, a dedicated social media platform for each apartment, and iButler, which allows residents to have groceries delivered and book baby sitting and car washes. Once delivery is made, a SMS notification with a unique pick up pin code is messaged to the resident.

Longton's Steven Yu says his company simply tries to synchronise property development with technology advancement, which gives it an edge, particularly over larger developers.

``Big developers are very conservative, and in no way near our level of innovativeness,'' he says.

In a typical house, there are individual controls for systems such as lights, security, air conditioners, motorised blinds and awnings. Smart homes get all those systems working together at a single source: a wall-mounted switch panel, a touch screen, or, increasingly, from smartphones and tablets.

You might press a particular button and the blinds go up, the music comes on and the air conditioning starts. Systems can even be programmed for a particular time of day or season.

Billington says when it comes to home technology, ease of use is paramount.

``The idea is simplicity,'' he says. ``That's what a smart home means. Instead of having a wall that looks like a Boeing 747 control, they want one panel on the wall to control all of those operating systems.''

Many newer houses have basic, low-level controls in the most-used areas, such as the living room and kitchen. You might turn on the television and the blinds might close and the lights dim.

Dominic Piccolo, director of Melbourne's Piccolo Architecture, says in luxury homes the amount of co-ordination increases, and every system is integrated, including fire places, awnings, curtains and blinds.

Piccolo recently designed The Carlton Penthouse in Carlton, with a goal to seamlessly integrate several technologies into one interface. The technology is complex, but the operation is simple.

``Clients often feel that technology in the home is overwhelming,'' he says. ``Our role as designers is to sort through the complexities and integration and deliver a product which is simple and familiar to the end user.''

The Carlton Penthouse's technology is centralised in a kitchen touch screen. It has a similar interface to a smartphone or tablet. If you want to control the lights, you press an icon that looks like a light globe. There is also a centrally controlled music database: you can play the same song throughout the home.

But the touch screen also lets different systems operate at the same time through pre-programmed one-touch ``scenes''. To watch a film, you select it on the remote control. The main lights then seamlessly dim, the curtains close, the TV turns on and screens your movie, as the firebox lights up and the mood lighting kicks in.

It can all be controlled from a smartphone or desktop; anything with an internet connection. If you're on your way home, you can turn the heating on from your car.

Piccolo says that smart home technology needs to be considered in the design brief of new housing. When he establishes a brief, he talks with clients about smart technology and outlines the options. The technology doesn't necessarily affect the exterior and design, but it becomes a critical factor for interiors.

Billington says he is often one of the first people new home builders speak to; even before the architect.

``It's got to be part of the build,'' he says. ``They need to talk to a systems integrator as a first point of reference to reduce duplication. That includes ensuring the structured cabling system is part of the electrical tender. This avoids the additional expense of changing design later.''

But creating smart homes can create challenges. Yu notes that integrating smart-home technology into developments can be resource intensive.

``A lot of R&D (research and development) and ongoing tech support are required to handle the technological challenge,'' he says.

Head of Mirvac Design Peter Cotton says it is very hard to design their product to meet the exact requirements of every person, and many people were finding the technology all too hard.

``They would sometimes find they couldn't work out how to turn the lights on,'' he says. A solution has been Wi-Fi, which allows people to control their homes through an app and tailor the degree of automation to a level that suits their personal needs. Home entertainment is often the starting point for smart homes, and what clients most easily understand. Over the past decade, home entertainment increasingly became focused around a home theatre in a separate room, but there is a growing trend to have entertainment integrated into the living room.

At the very top end, a lot of smart-home trends are about ``keeping up with the Joneses'', particularly when it comes to audio visuals and home entertainment.

Billington says there is a drive towards bigger and better screens ``so life-like they're jumping out at you''. That includes wraparound screens. Home theatre seats are even being linked to movies; the seats rock and move based on scenes. D-BOX Technologies produces home theatre seats that synchronise movement with onscreen action and sound.

In the future, even sensory perfumes will be released. ``It will be an all-encompassing experience,'' Billington says.

Design is increasingly important. ``Smart technology is better looking and architecturally designed,'' says Lior Rauchberger, director of smart-home specialists, Urban Intelligence.

A range of sleek products seeks to integrate technology into luxury interiors. Pioneering German manufacturer ad notam produces ``mirror TVs'' that look like wall-hung mirrors when turned off; Ultralift Australia technology conceals TV screens behind canvas art work.

But there are a number of other drivers of smart-home technology, including security and cost savings. ``People are worried,'' Rauchberger says.

He recently equipped the 84th floor penthouse of Melbourne's Eureka Tower with smart technology systems. It included home-automation touch screens, 10 plasma screens and wireless zoned music in every area of the apartment.

Rauchberger says the brief was to have high-end automation that blended in, and enhanced the lifestyle.

A touch-screen control panel in the kitchen controls the heating, cooling, security, blinds, music and other systems. Security is a key feature of the technology. The alarm can be deactivated from a smart phone or the keypad at the entrance. When the alarm is deactivated, four entrance doors automatically open and all blinds rise up.

Clients want multiple cameras and they want to be able to monitor them 24 hours a day from their smartphones or tablets.

When an alarm goes off they can look at their phone and see what's happening; whether it's an intruder or not. But Rauchberger says clients increasingly want to save costs.

``People are coming to me saying, `We've done a renovation and we're getting obscene electricity bills'. They want to know what we can do to reduce electricity bills,'' he says.

That's increasing demand for LED lighting, dimmer controls, but also smart meters, which monitor high-energy appliances. Technology allows air conditioning and heating to be turned off remotely.

Rauchberger says that as well as the convenience aspect, smart technology is a lot about future-proofing your home and does add value to property.

``On the luxury end, there is a minimum level of expectations especially around security, safety and entertainment systems,'' he says.

Rauchberger says in the future there will be a lot more smart-home integration with smartphones and tablets. ``For instance, as you approach your front door, your smartphone will release a wireless ID that will automatically open the door and turn off the alarm,'' he says.

Voice and gesture recognition, already featured in Samsung smart TVs, will become more commonly used.

``I also think there will be more touch interactive surfaces in the home including the fridge, kitchen island bench, mirror in the bathroom, etc,'' he says. ``These will be connected to the web and be highly interactive touch LCD screens.''

Piccolo says home technology is getting smarter and smarter. It is learning user's preferences and tailoring experiences. So when dad arrives home, smart-home technology will turn on his favourite music play list, boil the kettle, dim the lights to his preferred level, turn the television on and switch to the news. It will then interact and ask dad what he wants next -- and hopefully even turn down the children's music.

``There's nothing you could dream up that they're not doing,'' Billington says.
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