Housebuilders are waking up to the potential of home automation, but have they really understood the market? Josephine Smit gets the gadgets out
We all wanted the Sony Walkman, the mobile phone, and the video player. We didn't know it before they were invented, but once they came into the shops they became must-haves for the mass market. The same cannot be said of automatic blinds, centrally locking homes and self-filling baths.

Although we all like buying the latest gadget to play with and show off to our friends, we don't expect to buy a home kitted out with anything more high-tech than an automatic washing machine. It is hardly surprising that home technology is proceeding at a snail's pace, as there are a whole series of obstacles to be negotiated in getting the latest grey-box innovation to the consumer. Housebuilder understanding, added value, effectiveness, installation, maintenance, demand and ease of use are all key factors. Failure to negotiate any one of them can see a great idea go the way of the Sinclair C5.

Allied to that, the consumer market is complex. Automatic blinds, for example, might be a fun extra for a wealthy apartment buyer but a necessity to a disabled person. Home automation is both a luxury and a prime route to helping elderly and disabled people live independently. "From a government perspective you can see the market for technology for the elderly," says Tim Venables, researcher with Sussex University's SPRU research unit. "But the ones who can afford it at the moment are private homebuyers." SPRU is working with consultant Arup, systems integrator Central Data Control and electrical controls supplier Legrand on a research project to gauge the potential market for home automation. "Companies are still trying to decide what markets are best and how to approach them," says Venables.

Companies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Orange and housebuilder Laing Homes have undertaken a string of demonstration projects in one-off homes to explore technology's potential for homebuyers and tenants. More than two years ago Laing had a member of its staff live in an Innovation House in Horley, Surrey, containing such technology as a self-filling bath and air conditioning, alongside new products such as underfloor heating and body jet showers. Underfloor heating and the body jet shower have since made it into Laing's homes, but air conditioning and the self-filling bath failed to pass the real-life consumer test (see box). "The Innovation House ruled out as many products as it ruled in," says Emma Ritchings, commercial manager responsible for procurement and product development with Laing. "If we had put all the products straight into homes, we could have ended up with a lot of customer service issues.

"Since Laing created its Innovation House, technology has moved on and a lot more products are available for the domestic market," says Ritchings. "The air conditioning system we trialled came from a commercial building background. Now more companies are looking at domestic systems. With some of the technology it's a matter of taking big ideas and turning them into smaller, more workable solutions. We're looking at more cost-effective home automation to add to our Homestyle options range. We're also looking at upgrading from Category 5 cabling to the improved Category 8."

Category 5 cabling is the most popular piece of smart technology fitted by housebuilders into new homes. Yet it is purely the enabler, allowing high speed data transfer; homebuyers still have to add computers and other equipment if they want to smarten up their home, which is sometimes available through the housebuilders as an optional extra. "Housebuilders start out from the premise that people want what they have always wanted. They are still being convinced by the value proposition," says Alan Kell, director of i&i, the intelligent systems consultant behind the Integer intelligent and green homes initiative. Home automation also complicates what had become a very standardised electrical installation. "Traditional electrical contractors have not been hungry to put in data networks," says Kell, "so others have come in to do the job, and that has introduced another contractor into the process."

expensive home networking systems are nice to have, but only a small percentage of people need them

Tim Wright, managinG director, Sky Homes

With network suppliers and specialist audio, lighting and security companies all operating in this area, deciding on where to source technology can be something of a chore. "Housebuilders are confused about who to go to in order to get technology," says Tim Wright, managing director with satellite TV company Sky Homes. "There are so many companies trying to sell them expensive home networking systems. Although they are nice to have, only a small percentage of people will actually need them."

Housebuilder Linden Homes, which trialled a range of innovations in a demonstration apartment and is about to test more in Concepthome at its Sovereign Place scheme in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, is also finding its way with new technology. "Toys like home cinemas and hi-fis are spin-offs from the Category 5 cabling," says Philip Davies, chief executive with Linden. "The demand is there, but the public has not yet worked out if the developer should be providing it."

Housebuilders are also unsure of how to deal with after-service and maintenance for any extra pieces of E E equipment that they do provide. "If the hob that we fit doesn't work, the buyer calls us and under the new home warranty we call the supplier," says Davies. "With a home cinema we are not bound by the new home warranty. We have just produced a leaflet that says what we provide and that if there's a problem with an Ariston hob it is down to Linden, but that if there is a problem with a plasma screen then it is down to the supplier."

Within the social housing sector, the technology is not likely to be a plasma screen, but it could provide security, monitor the movements of elderly people, help blind people know when all their lights are switched off, or automatically stop water flow in a bath. "The social housing sector has a whole different value equation," says Peter Colebrook, director with i&i.

Social housing tenants may not be able to afford a computer, but most will have a television set, and Sky Homes is looking at ways of allying a range of community services to television. "We're trying to educate local authorities that delivery of government services doesn't have to be via the internet, that you can do these things via a Sky set-top box," says Sky's Tim Wright.

Guiding gizmos – but do they really make life easier?

Central locking
The vision: We centrally lock our cars in seconds as we walk away from them, but we still make our homes secure by fastening a series of door locks and bolts, using a whole array of keys, and perhaps setting a burglar alarm separately. The technology used in cars can quite easily be applied to homes, and has been successfully trialled. The reality: Central locking is starting to feature in new homes, but it remains rare. Although the general public is happy to trust it in cars, technology suppliers and housebuilders say people won't accept it so readily in the home and fear that a non-visible system may be less secure than physically pushing a bolt. The self-filling bath
The vision: Instead of turning on the taps and spending five or 10 minutes adjusting hot and cold to get that perfect combination, technology could allow you to preset your bath to provide the water level and temperature desired. The technology was trialled in demonstration projects such as the Laing Homes Innovation House and the Integer House at BRE, in Watford. The reality: Old-fashioned taps are still the norm in new homes. Laing Homes discovered a few obvious user flaws in the self-filling technology it trialled and decided that it was not ready for the marketplace. Laing is looking at trialling a voice-activated shower. Integer liked the bath it trialled but Integer's intelligent systems consultant, i&i, has since been working with much simpler and cheaper technology: a water flow sensor that is designed to prevent overflowing. Internet-linked appliances
The vision: Linking everyday domestic appliances like the washing machine and the fridge–freezer to the net could open up a whole world of possibilities. The washing machine would be able to call the repair man when it broke down and the fridge–freezer would tell you when the milk had gone off (and get the supermarket to deliver more). The reality: In May, LG Electronics launched a digital home network system. The set of four appliances – fridge–freezer, microwave, washing machine and air-conditioning unit – are connected to a PC and can be accessed remotely via the internet. The microwave can download recipes from the net, the washing machine can diagnose its faults and the fridge–freezer can track your food storage times. The fridge–freezer is also a multimedia centre with a built-in video camera and an MP3 player. The prime benefit of the internet link is that it allows people control when away from home. But prices are high, at around £6000 for the fridge–freezer, £1000 for the washing machine, £500 for the microwave and £2000 for an air-conditioning unit. Automatic blinds
Vision: Closing curtains or blinds with the flick of a switch is a simple technological feat, and one that has been heralded for the new homes sector for some years. The reality: Motorised blinds still tend to be limited to new apartment blocks fronted by walls of glass or homes with glass-roofed sunrooms. Home owners may be resisting the technology because it is perceived to be noisy and because it’s simply slower than doing the job manually.