Automated Home 15th Anniversary Special #7 – Ant Skelton

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. This time Ant Skelton takes a sideways glance at the past (in his usual entertaining style) whilst yearning for a replacement for a 30 year old friend.

Ant Skelton, Wireless Embedded Software Engineer & ‘Startup Enthusiast’ – Good Lord, is it 15 years already? I can think of at least two projects from back then that I still haven’t finished.  In those days, home automation was a bit of a wild frontier. Burly fellows met in pub function rooms to compare outlandish contraptions. ePods were bought in bulk, for no readily appreciable reason. You were either an XPLer or a XAPer, a HomeVisioner or a MisterHouser; but everybody believed in the Coming of the KAT5 Switcher. Everybody had a TiVo,everybody had a Pronto, and everybody wanted a Comfort alarm system, but only the posh kids could afford them.

At the centre of it all we had the Usenet newsgroup comp.home.automation (younger readers may need to wikipedia some of these archaic terms), where Americans complained about our UK-centric threads, yet vetoed the creation of an “unnecessary” .uk group: and thus was born UKHA, or “Mark’s List on” as it was then. Here flashmobs were organised for a spot of cat5 flood-wiring, and we pondered articles like this one.

Inevitably this became a website, and back then websites looked very different as banner ads and affiliate links hadn’t been invented yet. We had two competing IRC channels (mine lost) where precious little home automation went on, but a great deal of old toot was talked, and still is.

Ant Skelton

My first choice for outstanding technology of the era was going to be X-10, the cheap as chips, easily retrofitted home automation modules. Admittedly they were based on 70s technology, and were appalingly made from the cheapest possible components. The industrial design came from the Soviet Brutalist school, the response time was dreadful, and you couldn’t get through 2 amp fuses faster if you belt-fed them into a 30mm cannon. But what they did give you was the ability to control lights and appliances at a low cost, and without needing to rewire all your electrics. X-10 enabled you to perform the “Look,I can switch all the lights on and off by sending texts from my Nokia 6210!” demo to your friends and family. Most of them would look at you as if you were deranged of course, and those that didn’t probably already knew you from the mailing list.  X-10 was open, by dint of extensive reverse engineering, and all kind of home-brewed craziness ensued. And who can forget the sheer lunatic brilliance of the X-10 Barking Dog alarm.

I changed my mind however following a recent conversation with my mother. She was reminiscing about the time I bought my house, and ripped out a perfectly serviceable airing cupboard to replace it with what, to her, was an unspeakable abomination.

UKHAers know it as “node 0“, but my mum sees it as an unholy temple of evil. Bad enough that there are racks of mysterious devices with flashing lights, but what really leaves her aghast with horror is the presence, in considerable numbers, of her most hated foe: wires. She has hated them of old. Horrible, unsightly wires, getting in the way and generally loitering about looking for trouble. They “create dust”, you know, and interfere with womanly pursuits such as the hoovering.

On the other hand, any UKHAer worth their salt will have a deep and fundamental love of wires. Cat-5 wires, ct100 wires, RG9 wires. Those expensive flat copper braids that are snaking under the living room carpet. Perhaps even a bit of optical fibre, for some variety. We all know that the most important job to be undertaken before moving into a new house is nothing to do with curtains or decorating. It is the extensive installation of 10s of kilometres of structured wiring, the siting of panels, and the desecration of airing cupboards. All those floorboards are going to have to come up. Do we really need ethernet in the garage and the garden shed? Of course we do.

Wires are the very fabric of the sorts of things UKHAers have been up to in the last 15 years, without them our TiVos and HomeVisions and even our X-10 doodads would be rendered useless. Even the mighty KAT5 Switcher will require an offering of wires when it reveals itself to the Faithful.

KAT5 Switcher
The Lesser Spotted KAT5 Switcher – Forged from Unicorn Horn & Hens Teeth


Confucius said “study the past if you would know the future”. Accordingly I can segue lazily into my prediction for the next 15 years, to wit, the demise of wires.

Astonishingly, all manor of wireless networks are already ubiquitous, and they’re not the sole preserve of the nerds and geeks, either. I know this, because my mother is happily writing a letter of complaint to BT following the installation of her broadband and WiFi router. To her considerable annoyance, my dad (“I don’t need the internet! That’s what libraries are for!”) is able to lament the passing of every Joule she consumes using his ZigBee power-line monitor.

Pervasive wireless internet access is now so common-place that my earlier example of turning lights on and off from a mobile phone seems mundane. The only barrier to its realisation is the fact that currently no viable alternatives exist to the 30 year old X-10 technology that does the actual switching. There are various expensive solutions that involve completely rewiring,of course, but in terms of cost and simplicity there is no clear successor. Even the supposed “advanced X10” replacements offer precious little in the way of improved functionality, yet are mysteriously 4-5 times as expensive.

Fortunately, this has not gone unnoticed by power companies and the makers of smartphones, if recent announcements are anything to go by. Their motives may be to switch your fridge and telly off on a whim, or to beam you laxative adverts if they notice that you’ve been in the toilet an unusually long time, but they will act as a commercial driver to the sorts of technologies that will make a wireless X-10 replacement feasible. I’ll stick my neck out and predict that closed, proprietary solutions like Z-Wave and the bureaucratic nightmare that is ZigBee will fall by the wayside, and that simple, open protocols like DASH7 or 6LowPAN will prevail. Wireless IPv6 lightbulbs? What’s not to love?

In the last 12 months alone there’s been a glut of cheap wireless modules comprising microcontrollers and radio transceivers with various MAC types and operating frequencies, from serious players like NXP, Analog Devices, and Texas Instruments. In the short term, these will provide a lot of homebrew home automation fun, but within the next couple of years or so I hope that all my ceiling roses will be off-the-shelf router nodes in a self-organising, low-power mesh network, and ugly X-10 lightswitches will be but a distant memory.

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2 Comments on "Automated Home 15th Anniversary Special #7 – Ant Skelton"

  1. Great article!! Your scaring me a little though as I have just embarked on my x10 replacement project, thinking have I jumped the gun too early… should I wait!!

  2. Whatever became of Keith D and the kat5 switcher?

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