New developments in home networks affect more than just home offices and entertainment systems. Some of the most exciting advances are in healthcare and housing.
In healthcare, Wireless Sensor Networks (WSNs) let doctors monitor patients wirelessly. Patients wear wireless sensors that transmit data through specialized channels. These signals contain information about vital signs, body functions, patient behavior and their environments. In the case of an unusual data transmission -- like a sudden spike in blood pressure or a report that an active patient has become suddenly still -- an emergency channel picks up the signal and sends medical services to the patient's home.
The housing industry is another important field for home network technology development. Bill Gates owns one of the few smart houses in existence, but someday, we might all live in one. A smart house is a fully networked structure with functions that can be controlled from a central computer, making it an ideal technology for homeowners who travel frequently or for homeowners who simply want it all.
Builders are beginning to offer home network options for their customers that range from the primitive -- installing Ethernet cables in the walls -- to the cutting-edge -- managing the ambient temperature from a laptop hundreds of miles from home. In one trial experiment called Laundry Time, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Panasonic, Proctor & Gamble and Whirlpool demonstrated the power of interfacing home appliances. The experiment networked a washing machine and clothes dryer with a TV, PC and cell phone. This unheard-of combination of networked devices let homeowners know when their laundry loads were finished washing or drying by sending alerts to their TV screens, instant messaging systems or cell phones. Research and development also continues for systems that perform a wide variety of functions -- data and voice recognition might change the way we enter, exit and secure our homes, while service appliances could prepare our food, control indoor temperatures and keep our homes clean.
This technology is promising, but it's not quite ready for the consumer market yet. The average consumer can't afford a WSN or a smart house, and if he could, there's a good chance he or she wouldn't be able to operate these sophisticated systems. Another issue is security -- until developers find a way to secure these networks, consumers risk sharing medical information and leaving their homes open to attack.
For lots more information about home networks, installation and technology, see the links on the next page.