Automated Home 15th Anniversary Special #6 – Don McAllister, ScreenCastsOnline

Automated Home 15th Anniversary Special

2011 sees Automated Home reach the ripe old age of 15.  To celebrate our quindecennium (yes, really) we’ve asked some friends of the site to look back and give us their home automation highlights from the past decade-and-a-half.  For an even greater challenge we then asked them to look ahead to what advances the next 15 years will bring to digital domesticity.  In the sixth of our special series, world famous podcaster Don McAllister takes on the challenge of surveying the smart home landscape…

Don McAllisterDon McAllister, ScreenCastsOnline – I’ve followed the Automated Home website for probably most of the 15 years of its existence and was an active member of the UKHA community. Heck, I even attended some of the UKHA events, back in the day.  So with my impeccable pedigree established, Mark asked me to pen a few thoughts on what has changed in the past 15 years in the HA space.  Actually, a lot has changed but then again, not a lot has changed. Let me clarify…

Home Automation has yet to break into the mainstream, and as a consequence, is still in it’s infancy. It’s still very much a niche market area for tech heads and gadget freaks (of which I include myself). This is a shame really, as HA has so much to offer, not just enriching our day to day experiences, but potentially saving us money whilst also helping us to significantly reduce our energy consumption. With companies like Google and Apple now starting to take an interest in the home and consumer electronics in general, I’m confident that we’ll see some big changes in the next five years and HA will start to break into the mass market.

In the meantime, one of the areas that has seen huge advances in the past few years is the automation of home entertainment. Looking back at when I first became interested in HA, I remember when the first XBoxes where released. These were relatively inexpensive games consoles. However, following their release, a “mod chip” became available, allowing you to turn the XBoxes into a very capable networked video player. This was the future.

Despite having to open up the case and get your hands dirty soldering a few fly leads and a chip to the motherboard, the mod chip turned the XBox from a simple games console to a video powerhouse. Store all your media on a home server and access it from your XBox. Heaven! But again, only for techies and those brave enough to do the deed. I eventually ended up with three XBoxes, dotted throughout the house, allowing me cheap and cheerful network access to all my media from throughout the house.

Skip several years into the future and what have we now…

First a disclaimer, I swapped my allegiance from Microsoft to Apple several years ago, so this is coming to you from a self confessed Apple fan.

The XBoxes have long gone, replaced by three second generation Apple TVs. Small, hockey size black boxes with network connectivity (wireless and wired), a HDMI port and a micro USB port. Silent, tiny and furnished with 8GB of local flash storage. Currently, the Apple TV has few applications, especially for those of us in the UK, but it does connect to Internet Services, Apples own movie and TV rental service and importantly, your local iTunes library (or libraries) running on computers on your local network. Instant access to all your movies, music and photos from any Apple TV.

Not only do they give you media access, but all can be controlled from a svelte but functional remote, or wirelessly from your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. But that’s just the start…

With AirPlay, I can seamlessly start watching a movie or other media on my iPhone or iPad, then with a few taps, send the video across to any of the Apple TVs to immediately start playing on the connected large screen TV.


Want to play music from Spotify? Download the Spotify app to your iPhone or iPad and pick a track, then send the audio to the Apple TV via AirPlay

Want to send music to all your Apple TVs (and any other computers in the house with speakers)?  Download and install Airfoil from Rogue Amoeba onto any PC or Mac. Select any audio source on your computer, and send it to any Apple TV or computer installed with the free Airfoil speakers app. All in sync and all controllable from your computer. Whole house audio for a fraction of the price of a traditional system.

Your can even install the free Airfoil speaker application on your iPhone or iPad and transmit audio to that device whilst you’re walking round the house, as well as controlling playback remotely.

But it’s not just media playback Apple have their sights on. With the latest iPad 2, it’s even possible to connect your device to your large screen TV via a HDMI cable, allowing you to mirror your iPad screen to the big TV screen for gaming. Developers are now creating applications that can operate in a dual screen mode.

One such example is Real Racing HD.  Simply connect the TV and watch the game play on your TV whilst controlling the game from the iPad. You can even view game related information such as speed and racetracks on the iPad itself. Whilst this is currently restricted to using a HDMI cable, Apple have just announced wireless streaming at up to 1080p, directly from the iPad to the Apple TV (available in the autumn). This opens up a huge range of entertainment and game possibilities.

This is just the beginning. Once Apple open up the Apple TV as a platform and allow third party developers to create “apps” for the Apple TV, who knows what functionality these little devices will deliver.

Another recent announcement is the new iCloud service, tightly integrated into Apples mobile devices and the Apple TV.  iCloud includes “PhotoStream”, the ability to take a photo on your mobile device, and have it automatically uploaded the iCloud service. Once stored in iCloud, the photo is automatically available via your other mobile devices, your home computer or your Apple TV.

Just a taste of the some of the technologies that may influence or enable Home Automation in the near future.

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