SMART HOUSE
Bernat Armangue  /  AP
A model opens the cover of a swimming pool with a remote control handset at Europe's most sophisticated smart house.
updated 12/28/2004 10:31:33 AM ET 2004-12-28T15:31:33

From the outside, it looks like just another house on an upscale residential street outside Barcelona.  But inside this "smart house," its creators say, is the most advanced domestic technology in Europe.  The home can clean itself, adjust to changes in the weather and cut energy consumption.

A family of four lives in the Eneo Labs showcase home, a sprawling two-story abode with an impeccable garden and green, spongy grass.

A weather monitor on the roof knows the temperature and climate conditions, and can shut off the sprinkler and cover the pool when it begins to rain, or unfurl the awnings when the sun is too bright.

Inside, lights turn off automatically when there is enough natural lighting, reducing energy consumption.  Small black vents along the baseboards are automatic vacuum cleaners, and with the touch of a button will suck up everything in reach.

Most of these technologies have been used for a decade or more in the United States or Japan.  But Europe's smart house industry has caught up rapidly in recent years, and experts say European companies have an edge on helping homes conserve energy.

"Though smart houses are more widespread in the U.S., Europe is far ahead in terms of researching and commercializing energy-efficient practices," said Volker Hartkopf, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert in smart house technologies.

The house created by Spain's Eneo Labs is full of luxuries, but its focus is on the occupants' basic needs.  At the front door, electronic keys help keep the family that lives here safe.  Security cameras are scattered throughout the house, and owners can monitor any room from the Internet or mobile phone.  A trash chute for organic waste leads to a compost pile outside, making the home more environmentally friendly.

Entertainment is not overlooked.  Large television screens are scattered throughout the house and can tap into a central hard drive where movies, recorded TV shows, Mp3 files and family photos are stored.

And with a flick of a switch, it's possible to create a scene perfect for a given activity or time of day.  For instance, the "good morning scene" turns on the radio, opens the blinds, runs a hot bath and starts the coffee pot.  The "watch a movie scene" will dim the lights, lower the blinds, forward calls to voice mail, and prepare the TV screen.

"Our vision is that technology become a part of daily life, and that it be something that truly helps people," said Javier Zamora, the general manager of Eneo Labs.

But many researchers question how smart a smart home can be.  "There are still so many external factors that a smart house can't take into account.  To cool itself, a smart house may choose to open a window.  But it won't take into account the fact that construction is going on next door. ... Basically, a smart house will never be as smart as a human brain," said Mark Younger, a researcher at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering.

Wiring your home to make it a smart house will amount to about 1 percent of the total cost of your house, Zamora said, but the necessary hardware such as alarm systems, TV and computer screens and cameras can drive up the price.

Despite the costs, Eneo Lab's commercial director predicted that smart homes won't always be restricted to the wealthy.  "I'm completely sure than in just five years smart houses will be much more common," he said.

"By the year 2007 we foresee having 10,000 homes connected in Spain alone, and within a decade we could see this being much more mainstream. It's definitely going places."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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