Hoping for Unintended Consequences

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The rationales for the space program that led men to land on the moon included the thirst for knowledge, the fact that sending folks into space is really, really cool and the certainty that the scientific advances made would lead to breakthroughs in other areas.

The same rationales can be said for the telecommunications revolution in general and the smart house movement in particular (except, of course, that cutting home energy use by 20 percent or so isn't nearly as cool as landing at Tranquility Base). One such advance was reported by Smarter Technology, which offers a story on how Zigbee Technology is leading to far more efficient and in many cases safer ways of identifying people within structures. The example in the story is being able to find out if there are people in a burning building and where they are without sending firefighters into peril. The research was led by two people from the University of Utah: doctoral candidate Joey Wilson and Professor Neal Patwari.

The piece tells the story quite well. Currently, such operations are possible, but aren't practical on a day-to-day basis because they involve expensive high-frequency radar equipment. Using inexpensive Zigbee, the premise is surrounded by a series of quickly deployed radios, each of which has send and receive capabilities. Each transmits in turn and, as the figure moves, his or her movement is tracked. Wilson said that there are commercial uses of the approach, and has founded a company called Xandem Technology to explore them.

Zigbee -- a low-power, short-range network that uses the 802.15.4 specification -- may be heading toward good times. Reuters has posted a press release from Research and Markets on a study entitled "Home Area Networks and Wireless Smart Sensors: Technologies and Markets." The release begins by describing the great benefits of more efficient energy distribution and management. It's made clear in the release that a new generation of technologies will benefit. Zigbee is one of those technologies. The release says that 802.15.4 is "an excellent candidate for HAN applications" and says that features have been added to the technology's profile to make it more useful in HAN applications.


I wrote a feature on the very promising world of HAN and home energy management, including Microsoft's Hohm project, in July.

It helps to have powerful friends, and in today's communications world, there is no more powerful an entity than Google. Google is developing the PowerMeter, which this Greentech Media story defines as a "free home energy dashboard" that will enable people to monitor, and presumably better manage, the energy their home uses. The story says that the company has chosen a version of The Energy Detective from Energy Inc.-the TED 5000 -- as the first device partner for the PowerMeter. The device, which is installed by an electrician, collects power use in the home and uses Zigbee to beam it to outside equipment and displays.

Like the Apollo space programs and its antecedents led to home computers, hand-held calculators and other gadgets that have become part of our culture, the desire to better manage energy will have unintended-and in this case positive-consequences. Techniques to more easily find people in burning buildings sounds like a wonderful place to start.