The Intelligent, Connected Appliance

get ready for it...

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

With steady reductions in the price of processing power and memory, embedded processors will continue to penetrate and populate virtually every product. Advances in wireless technology will allow low-cost, high-speed connections for hand-held devices. So in the next few years almost everything will become an intelligent, connected "appliance".

The original version of this article was published
in START magazine, May 2000.
And expanded and updated version was published in
Controls Intelligence & Plant Systems Report - July 2000.

Intelligent appliances

Previously, products were made simple (so that anyone could use them) or too complex with multiple uses (like a computer, or a VCR). The complicated product requires a "learning curve" which inhibits many people and satisfies only those who are either already familiar with its use, or are willing to invest the time and energy to learn how to use it.

The "intelligent appliance" adapts to the characteristics of the user - becoming very simple and relatively foolproof for the casual user - and providing more features and capabilities for those that need or wish to utilize more. Adaptation includes functional changes as the user progresses from the basic functions to requiring more advanced features at a later stage. The "appliance" recognizes which buttons are being pushed and the habit patterns of the user, and adapts to suit.

Voice-response has limited uses today because of background noise and dependence on speaker characteristics. As the technology advances, appliance buttons will disappear and voice commands will be more common. This technology is already being utilized in automobile radios and cell phones and will soon become useable in other environments.

Manuals, warranties and diagnostics

Consider the information we need about the products we use: how to use (buttons, features, capabilities), history, location, part number, where purchased, when installed, by who, key characteristics, specifications, diagnostics, availability of spares, replacement alternatives, repair instructions, etc. In the past, this information would reside in printed documentation or with trained experts. In the future, the appliance itself will contain all of the required "knowledge", embedded within it and always accessible. And, you won't have to register for the warranty - the product will know when you first turned it on.

A significant and useful intelligence characteristic is diagnostics - not only after failure has occurred, but also predictive (before failure) and advisory (providing maintenance instructions). It is not sufficient to know that a product has failed; if the failure occurs at an inconvenient time that may result in significant inconvenience and hardship. Indeed, it is more important to signal that failure will probably occur "soon", allowing the user time to arrange alternatives.

Just as PCs have diagnostics for memory (RAM, disk-space and processing load) and provide warnings when these resources are short, most products will have predictive and preventive diagnostics. For example, if a button appears to be "sticky", then the appliance can perhaps continue to operate with some precautions. On the other hand, a different kind of "stickiness" might demand immediate remedial action. This is like sensing the "rattling" in an automobile engine, to correct the problem before a catastrophic problem occurs. That kind of "intelligence" will reside in the product, with "advice" coming from the hierarchy of the network to which it is connected.

Land-line anchors

Today, Internet connections are through hard-wired telephone lines - typically low-speed modems (32-56 kbps), high-speed DSL (256 kbps), perhaps even a direct T1 or better link. Those of us who prefer to remain permanently connected at home (without the need to dial-up) have either DSL or a cable modem, providing connection baud-rates of 256 kbps or higher. All of these are through hard-wired connections, anchored to a specific location.

Currently, mobile communication functions are done by a variety of devices - cellular telephones, pagers, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and laptop computers. These things are simply backups for desktop computers and hard-wired telephones. We are temporarily linked with limited-size email messages and thumbnail webpages till we can get back to our primary access.

On the way to the airport, I can check to see how Dow and Nasdaq are doing on my wireless connected Palm V PDA. Also, I can quickly review my email list and perhaps dash off a brief reply to something urgent. Of course, the ubiquitous cellular telephone is still a separate box; but that won't be for long, because voice and data arrive on the same communications link and it's simply a matter of providing the needed functionality in a single PDA.

Bluetooth is coming

Bluetooth is a high-speed, low-power microwave wireless link technology, designed to connect phones, laptops, PDAs and other portable equipment together with little or no work by the user. This radio-based technology enables devices to communicate wirelessly at close range, without the need for direct line of site or additional communications protocols. The technology is most notable for its small size and low cost and will be included within equipment rather than being an optional extra.

Incidentally, the standard's name points to its Nordic origin (the standard was originally proposed by Ericsson and Nokia). Bluetooth was a medieval king credited with uniting all of Scandinavia.

Connections Everywhere

Cell phones are still using second-generation (G2) technology that allows only relatively slow (about 19.2 kbps) data connections. Third-generation (G3) chips are in the pipeline, which will allow communications at much higher speeds, at least equal to high-speed DSL or cable-modems.

Dataquest projects that there will be 600 million PCs connected to the internet by 2003. The forecasts are that there will be more web-connected handsets by that time, with a much higher projected growth rate. Within the next decade, wireless handset connections will outnumber landline web-links by 2:1.

This will bring some interesting changes in communication lifestyles. For example, in Finland, you can buy a soft drink from a vending machine not by inserting a coin, but simply by punching a code into your cell-phone. You're already connected to the network, so it's the most effective way. Hey, since your cell-phone connection is already accredited and encrypted, why have a plastic credit-card purchase validated separately? Soon, all your purchases will be billed to your telephone account.

In the factory, the impact on intelligent appliances of all types will be significant. Connecting products and systems with conventional wire is still a major hindrance. The old "islands of automation" will disappear. Soon, plant engineers and maintenance people will carry wireless PDAs, just as they carried radios yesterday and cell-phones today. They will be connected via the web to everything they need.

So, as you walk through the plant, you'll be able to check the diagnostics on that PLC system on your PDA. And, as you drive home from work, you can check the status of your home and all its appliances from wherever you are. And, through the GPS (global positioning system) in your PDA, your home will know where you are.

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Copyright 2000 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA