Essex University boffins’ house of the future

Essex University boffins’ house of the future

Gazette reporter Louise Mackenzie with scientists Joy Van-Helvert, Christian Wagner and James Dooley

Joy Van-Helvert programmes the light to come on when Christian Wagner walks into the room

First published in Education

PICTURE the scene: You are weary from a long day at the office and, on opening the front door, your favourite tune is playing, the lighting is just so and the heating is nice and toasty, just how you like it.

Either you are living in domestic bliss, or you are experiencing life in the futuristic iSpace dorm at the University of Essex.

Researchers at the university have joined forces with academics and companies in Germany, France and Greece to find a way of making technology work more efficiently with our everyday lives.

This translates into lights automatically switching on when you sit down at a computer, blinds closing when lying down on the bed and music following you as you move from room to room.

To illustrate how far technology has come, when the university was founded back in 1964, its first mainframe computer, complete with plug-in boards and cooling system, filled a space equivalent to the entire iSpace.

I went along to the two-bedroom flat at the Wivenhoe Park campus, in Colchester, to test out the dorm for myself.

Walking into the iSpace, it looked much smarter than my student digs at university, but other than that it appeared to be a standard flat.

However, as Christian Wagner and James Dooley, from the computer science department, and Joy Van-Helvert, who works in computer and social sciences, showed me round iSpace, it become clear that it is anything but normal.

“This is the nerve centre,” said James, as he guided me through to a room at the back of the flat where there is a spaghetti web of wires and circuit boards.

“This type of room is something we want to avoid in the future. As technology progresses, there won’t be so much of it to hide away.”

The flat officially opened in June and is in the process of being equipped with hundreds of tiny interacting computers and sensors.

The tiny embedded computers will be “intelligent”, responding to and learning from the behaviour of the user. I ask Christian if interacting technology could be intimidating for some people.

He said: “It is the idea that the user is king. They use the home and the systems learn what helps them and makes life easier.

“The key thing is that it supports people rather than overrides them – they still have control.”

Joy added there were some features within the flat which people did not respond well to. She said: “In one of the scenarios we set up during a trial, we had a guest arriving at the door and the person in the flat could see who it was on the screen and open the door without getting up.

“Not everyone liked this one because it took away the cultural desire to get up and answer the door yourself.” “A big part of what I do is to see how these changes fit into people’s everyday life.

It is not about dreaming up technology of the future, it is about making stepping stones and bridging the gap between technology and our lives now.”

The researchers have already started bridging the gap. Christian said. “It is possible to use everyday appliances and integrate them into the system that controls the sensors. For example, you could go out and buy a lamp from a shop and it will integrate and work alongside the other appliances.”

esearch is continuing and it is hoped the work done so far could have far-reaching benefits.

Christian said: “This technology could provide huge improvements to the quality of life of elderly or disabled people, as well as making energy efficiency savings for everyone.”

or the next phase of the project, researchers are looking for volunteers to spend up to four, two-hour sessions in the iSpace from now until December.

Anyone interested in taking part can contact Joy van Helvert at jvanhe@essex.ac.uk

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