Super-homes: the wired and the wonderful

The home of the future is already here if you happen to be a multi-millionaire.

Priceless artworks and indoor swimming pools were once hallmarks of a millionaire's mansion, but owners of today's super-homes are now demanding digitised wardrobes, Jedi-powered curtains and batcaves for the family Bentley.

Home automation experts say the sky is the limit when it comes to wiring up a house, and if you want the vast contents of your closet managed on a computer like Cher in the movie Clueless, then it can all be arranged for a fee.

Chris Stephens, managing director of building automation Unilon, has worked on some unusual projects in his time.

One of his recent projects was a "batcave” style entrance to an underground residential carpark with a concealed ramp that appears like a normal above-ground car space . “It identifies which car is approaching and decides whether or not to open the platform,” he said.

“I have also built things like tennis-playing robots, winery fermentation controls, super yacht controllers, turntables and vehicle lifts . . . and massive bi-fold doors like a fire station's to open and close so an indoor pool becomes an outdoor pool.

“A few years ago I was even asked to install a toilet which monitored a person's waste and reported back on a few key health points. A lot are really custom jobs that are peculiar to a person's personality. I have one guy, if he sees a shower with flashing lights when travelling overseas, then he'll want flashing lights in his shower too, and all of that has to be built from scratch."

Automation and design experts are often called to create a unique design from scratch, like the New York man who bought two penthouse apartments in New York and asked Turrett Collaborative Architects to join them together with a spiral slippery dip to get from one level to the next.

“. . .two identical 1-bedroom units, one atop the other, were combined into a duplex 2-bedroom home with the option to descend in the usual way on a new Italian-made 'Rintal' stair, or more speedily, in a seated position, careening through the new double-height atrium," said TCA.

Along with his slide, TCA said the owner now also enjoyed a combined total of 2,400 square feet, with a new game room, office, and putting green on the terrace.


Jedi powers

Jonathan Oxer, an Australian technophile has taken the concept of convenience a step further and had a microchip embedded into his arm that will unlock his front door as he approaches his home. With the same basic technology, he can also unlock his car and start the engine without laying a finger on his vehicle, as well as manage his vehicle's engine and monitor its location.

He said his next ambition was to integrate with his home in a more meaningful way, and one of his pet projects is to devise a system for using hand signals to complete simple tasks like opening and closing his curtains using the same gesture recognition technology as in Microsoft's Kinect gaming console.

“I am working on a whole lot of automation stuff within the house. The whole idea is to use the technology to make it seem as if you have Jedi powers,” he said.

Bruce Thomas, an information science professor at the University of South Australia, said Kinect had huge promise as a platform for future home automation applications.

“By taking a 3D model of a person and then a colour image of a person, it allows you to understand where the person is in the room. In the past it has been very difficult to determine this.

“This means you could point at a TV screen to turn it on, something that really wasn't possible before.”

James Billington, director Smart Home Solutions, said: “Anything you want can be done. It can be as out there as you want but fulfilling a dream is only quarantined by money."

“We have built a billiard table with a retractable floor, motorised lifts for cars, whatever anyone dreams up as a challenge can be done. I am amazed at how many pairs of speakers we have put under the water in swimming pools so people can listen to music while doing their laps. If you want it, you can have it,” he said.

Enormous TVs

The experts say saving space is another reason they get called out to well-heeled homesteads.

Len Wallis from Len Wallis Audio said many of the jobs he did involved hiding enormous flatscreen televisions.

“We have had an 85-inch Panasonic television that rises up out of the floor using a special lifter that was built from scratch and is housed in the basement," he said.

Another customer included a 200kg 103-inch TV in a cabinet with hydraulic doors, which closed when the TV was not in use.

Although Jedi curtains and disappearing televisions are still a long way from making it into the average suburban block, Stephens said the work of hobbyists like Oxer will not only benefit the mega-rich with money to burn on quirky projects.

“Rich people have it first because they are paying for it first – but these technologies will eventually reach everyone,” he said.

So does this mean we may all soon enjoy the prospect of a computer like Cher's to help us choose the perfect outfit each day?

According to Lucy Dunne, director of the Wearable Technology Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, it's still a way off.

With no commercially available systems that can handle the complexity of the computing task, and some enormous hurdles yet to be overcome in garment tagging technologies, it seems we must match our own accessories for a while longer.

"You often hear about systems like this in the Clueless context, where they are framed as helping a frivolous woman to look pretty or manage her excessive wardrobe.

“There are other things a system can do that are not as complex as actually building a whole outfit that the user will like. One of the other things we're working on right now is testing the effect of reminding users of clothing they haven't worn very often."

She said research indicated that most people used only a very small portion of the entire wardrobe.

“One of our most fundamental motivations is the potential of a system like this to promote sustainability not by guilt-tripping consumers into not buying as much, but by making what's there more useful and entertaining - replacing the novelty that we seek in shopping by novelty of garments or outfits that we had forgotten or hadn't considered.”

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