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Connected Home for the People

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Back in early 2001, when I was working on PC Direct, (a now extinct paper based PC publication), I was invited by Orange to view a house with a difference. It was a futuristic concept billed as the connected, digital home – the Jetsons come to life. There was a robot lawnmower mowing the grass in the front, while indoors the interior had been kitted out with the latest in networking technology. Everything from the heating, the lighting, the TV and even the bath and fridge could be controlled via a PDA acting as a remote control or through voice commands. This was in the days when broadband was still a fledgling technology in the UK and Wi-Fi was also in its infancy. The house was said to cost around £2million and to be honest I’m not sure what benefit it brought to Orange as a company then or now, but it was certainly interesting.

The point is that it cost an awful lot of money for a large company to aggregate various technologies to make the connected home a reality. The hope surely was that some five years later this sort of thing would be easier and much more affordable. This is true to a certain extent but in so many ways we’re still a long way from this dream.

Last Friday, I spend the day milling round the booth of various companies at the annual Stuff show in London. Predominant at the show was the array of large displays that are now available. A few years ago a 36in CRT was considered large - now everywhere you look there’s a 42in screen being dwarfed by a 50in or 65in panel. You start to wonder why people even bother with the likes of 32in screens.

Along with the displays there’s media centres, Sky boxes, speakers, amps and various other assorted technology. However, while you can easily fill your home with this stuff, there’s little of the connected home that has been talked about for so long. The average person still tend just to buy the kit, bring it home, and set it up, with no thought as to how different bits of kit might talk to each other.

In fact, they usually don’t even set up the individual bits of kit correctly. Just recently I went over to friends who were quite pleased with their new 42in Plasma TV. It was a good TV and made quite a statement in the room, but after a couple of minutes I noticed that the picture wasn’t quite right. A quick check in the settings of the Sky box revealed that it was set to output composite rather than RGB. When I showed them the difference between blurry composite and the much sharper RGB, they were quite surprised. “I thought we were just sitting too close”, was his wife’s classic comment.

This is why I was delighted recently to discover that there’s a company out there that’s recently launched a new service called ‘The Connected Home’. This company will install and set up a complete home entertainment system in people homes, starting from relatively affordable prices. About a month ago, I went down to one of its stores to learn about this service – a vision of what it called the Connected Home – a phrase so familiar it’s almost hackneyed. What I wasn’t expecting was to be ushered into a medium sized room and be shown a demo of some pretty impressive home entertainment in action.

It started off with some music and images being played on a large display from a media centre system. It then moved on to a clip of X-Men 2 shown on DVD, on large plasma screen with sound emanating from a relatively modest 5.1 system. While this was playing a motorised projector screen came down, and the image swapped to a ceiling mounted projector and the sound switched to a full on 7.1 sound system. The first system would cost around £4,000, while the second would be more in the range of £25,000.

Of course this sort of home installation is already available from specialist home cinema companies such as Sevenoaks or Pounds of Enfield. What’s remarkable is that this Connected Home service is being offered by none other than PC World. Yes, it of the nauseating ads that are forever stamping down on prices and populated by staff who can’t tell there hard drive from their hard cheese.

Now normally, I’d run a mile rather than recommend anyone go into a PC World store so it must seem odd then that I’m would tell anybody to go in there and potentially spend many thousands of pounds on a home cinema.

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