The Smart Apartment

The Digital Home of Today

by Tom Worthington

For presentation to the Canberra City Rotary Club, Tuesday 6 May 2003 at 6 for 6:30 PM

Note: This presentation was written as a reply to "The digital home of tomorrow", by RACHEL ROSS, Toronto Star Newspaper, Feb. 3, 2003. 12:06 PM. It mimics the style of that article, but rather than discuss Microsoft's house of future at their Redmond offices, it details my apartment in Canberra. TomW.


The house of the future still has keys and light switches. It's not that this apartment's owner couldn't afford computer controlled lights and biometric door locks, its just that they are not worth the trouble.

City Edge

City Edge Apartments North side looking eastCommon property looking eastPatch Panel

The Smart Apartment is not a mock-up in the PR area of an IT corporation, this is a real dwelling in an inner Canberra suburb. The city recently was under a state of emergency and subject to fire storms, with 400 homes destroyed and four people killed. While well away from the fire ravaged areas the Smart Apartment's computer equipment still had to cope with power loss and degraded of the telecommunications system.

The IT marketers ideal for the digital home can look impressive to the casual visitor, but is rarely subject to practical tests of what is affordable and can be lived with.

The Smart Apartment was established in 2001 in the City Edge development in O'Connor Canberra. Tom Worthington, a Canberra based computer consultant, decided to set up the brand new apartment as a usable but hi-tech living and working area: "I live in Canberra but work in Cyberspace" Tom says. "I got the idea for the Smart Apartment when the real estate agent said the complex would have a broadband connection, but he clearly had no idea of what that was".


City and Environs (Item 38) Transact Optical Cable in Basement Back of Set-Top-Box

The apartment complex is serviced by Transact, a Canberra based broadband service provider, as well a Tesltra and satellite TV. Transact provide a direct fibre optic connections direct to the basement of the building. "The broadband service to the building provided 90% of what was needed for a hi tech home and I just had to add some extras. The hard part was to decide what wasn't worth having." Tom said.

As an example, the front door. The home has a computerised security system, with wireless encoded remote controls. It would be possible to link the security system to unlock the front door. But Tom decided this was not worth the added cost and the worry of what would happen if the system failed.

"Designers of hi-tech systems rarely think of what happens when the system fails", Tom said. "Opening the door with a key is a slight inconvenience, but being locked out of your home or having the door left open all night by a confused computer is not worth the worry".

One cheap (less than $200) and useful extra was a wireless smoke alarm. This looks like a regular home smoke alarm, but is connected to the security system and alerts the fire services in an emergency. "I know this works as I programmed the bread maker wrongly one night and had a home filled with smoke at 2am", Tom said. "The alarm woke me and then the phone rang. It was the alarm monitoring company asking if I needed help."

Automation doesn't require central or expensive computer control. There are several movement activated lights in the apartment. Enter the hallway or open the pantry and the light comes on automatically. This is done using low cost (less than $50) movement sensors.

Many of the home's functions are available using a low cost (less than $200) hand held infrared remote control. The one unit controls the air conditioning, TV, VCR, digital set top box, DVD, CD player and radio. As it uses infrared light, the unit only works in the living area, in range of the equipment. "I tried out a lot of remote controls and found the more expensive, more computerised ones were harder to use" Tom said. No modifications were required for the equipment controlled, as they all come standard with IR remote controls. Even so the system is not perfect "I occasionally raise room temperature when I trying to turn the TV up", Tom says.

The home has a Transact digital set top box (STB) providing digital and Pay TV as well as broadband Internet access. While the TV could be used for Internet, Tom uses a normal laptop computer plugged into the STB. "Reading more than a few lines of an e-mail on a TV screen is not practical" he says.

There is a conventional VCR plugged into the wide screen TV. "I really should get a digital recorder, but why let TV dominate your life?" Tom asks.

Apartments designed for the disabled

Adjustable height kitchen sinkElectric door opener

There is a case for more automation in the home to assist the disabled. Several apartments in the same complex as the Smart Apartment are specially adapted for the disabled. These use some simple technology, such as an adjustable height kitchen bench with the mechanism from an ergonomic office desk and a powered front door operated by a garage door remote control.

The kitchen is one area where low technology rules. "My charred bread shows that automation is not necessarily a good idea in the kitchen" Tom says. No Internet fridge, or bar scanning oven in this kitchen. There is an intelligent microwave oven which detects steam coming from the food and adjusts cooking time. "Recipes have supposed to have been one of the killer applications for home computers ever since the PC was invented decades ago. But do you really need thousands of dollars of bar code scanners and Internet fridges to tell you how to put a few ingredients together?", Tom asks.

The Smart Apartment coped well with the power problems of Canberra's fires. A small uninterruptable power supply (UPS, less than $300) kept the electronics running during brief power failures. The security system has its own battery backup, as does Transact's fiber optic node in the building's basement.

University of Canberra Interior Design Project


The home office is another area where the smart apartment is minimalist. When starting on the smart apartment project, Tom had architecture students at the University of Canberra design him a home office. "They turned out amazing designs which would look good in a fashion magazine, but it would have been like living in a hairdressing salon", Tom said.

In practice Tom just drops his briefcase, laptop and the cordless phone on the dining table and plugs in to the Internet. Space is an premium in the modern home, as is leisure time and there is no room to clutter it with the work place. The laptop and papers can be packed away in a cupboard when not needed and the broadband cable drops out of sight behind the sofa.

Tom doesn't spend a lot of time in his home office, preferring to be out meeting clients in their work places, or at one of Canberra's many cafes. Between consulting jobs he is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University Computer Science Department, a 15 minute walk through parkland from the Smart Apartment.

The Future

The ANU is researching technologies which may find their way into future homes and offices, including the next generation of high speed Internet, wireless access and high definition video. But for the moment much more modest technologies will be adequate for the Smart Apartment.

A significant proportion of business is conducted by individuals and small professional practices with modest means. Information technologies designed for large corporations do not necessarily suit these businesses.

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Copyright © Tom Worthington 2003.