Homes no longer need to be riddled with cables, nor do we need to battle with complicated technological devices anymore. This thanks to EnComPas-2, a European research project developed through the EUREKA initiative for innovation and providing a pioneering solution to manage our communications needs and anticipate the future of telecom technologies.
Our homes and cars are packed with sophisticated gadgets: from mobile phones and laptops to video games, MP3s and WiFi routers. As technology proliferates, so do our need for simpler and more integrated telecom technologies. As members of the telecommunications specialised cluster CELTIC realised, many of us find bothersome the tangle of cables in our living rooms and find installing new applications in our homes a real headache.
"Users have got more and more applications but the majority of them don't have that much technical knowledge," says Valentín Alonso Álvarez, who coordinated the EnComPas2 project (http://www.eurekanetwork.org/www.celtic-initiative.org/projects/encompas-2). The project developed a solution to make it easier for ordinary people to install and run multiple gadgets. "But what has never been done before is to use all those different technical standards to provide an integrated platform to manage it all." The platform in question is an underlying computer system based at the telecom operator's exchange which allows an operator's technician to manage the home network without having to visit the home in person. By means of this platform, the technician can detect appliances and configure new services remotely, cutting the operator's costs and improving customer satisfaction.
Mr. Alonso, who is head of projects at Spain's leading telecoms provider Telefonica, says the struggle to connect new applications to an existing network in the home can often be a problem for operators as well as their customers. "Operators often have to configure new services or solve problems for the user for free, but without really knowing what's going on in a person's house."
Telefonica realised operators could benefit from tools to detect applications on a network encountering incompatibility problems, and that future services and technologies needed to be more interoperable with one another. The company decided to team with others to build an integrated and remote management platform, one that could manage devices inside and outside the home. After signing up Ikerlan, also based in Spain, TNO ICT, from the Netherlands, and Starhome, from EUREKA's associated country Israel, the project EnComPas2 set out to develop prototype services to test on the platform.
The partners also wanted to go a step further and to trial the services in an average home on ordinary customers. Thanks to the Spanish partner Acciona Infraestructuras, a company specialising in construction, the partners started thinking from day one about how their prototypes could be installed in the home in the least intrusive way possible to tuck cables and applications out of sight. "The idea we wanted to test was for cabling to be behind the walls, completely hidden," says Mr. Jorge Escribano of Acciona's research and development department.
In their technological home, the light system was fitted with low consumption bulbs, automatic on-off switch mechanisms and lighting was designed to avoid off-putting reflection on monitors and screens. Acciona added a remote-control system for working lights, temperature and window blinds. The heating was controlled through a central cooling-heating system with thermic sensors in each room to make the temperature of the house as easy to control as possible.
Meanwhile, the other partners in EnComPas2 drew on their specialisations to develop the underlying platform and application prototypes. Project leader Telefonica took responsibility for this part of the project. The partners focused on ensuring prototypes were "context aware," meaning the platform could gather data on appliances running on the home network in order to customise the set-up of additional services. They wanted mobile phones to automatically detect when they were in the home and convert to using the WiFi home network.
Another partner, Starhome, which is a pioneering company in linking home networks to mobile networks, dreamt up an innovative way to make it safer for customers to receive text messages while driving. "The solution captures an incoming text message and converts it to a voice call, leaving drivers with their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel," says Shai Ophir, of Starhome.
The toughest challenge of the project came in its first three months. EUREKA's backing helped the five to secure funding to take the risk on exploring whether their solutions were feasible and whether they were commercially viable. Once that hurdle had been overcome, however, the five partners liaised regularly to discuss progress and meeting up three or four times a year.
The proof of the success of the partners' efforts came when all the technology was up and running in the Acciona house and volunteers were invited in to try it out. Here TNO ICT provided valuable experience since it had already used field trials to test a product in this way and Acciona led the field trial.
The team got the technical thumbs up: 86 percent of the users found the platform and its applications easy to use and 83 percent said the physical integration of the products was good or very good. The challenge will be finding the right price for the platform since 57 percent said they would only buy a home management service like they had tested if it cost less than 5 euros a month.
However, using a platform like the one developed could afterall help to eventually cut the operators' costs of attending technical customer calls and improve customer satisfaction.
Not only are some of the partners convinced they have commercial uses for some of the prototypes, but they are also confident that the homes of the future will be running along the lines of the one they conceived, meaning their companies will be well-placed for the demands of tomorrow's telecoms market. "Most of the technologies for those kinds of homes have been available for years now but the integration of it all hasn't been very sophisticated until now," explains Alonso. "I think interoperability will soon take off in a very big way."
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